Amstrad Action

Lord Of The Rings
By Melbourne House
Amstrad CPC464

Published in Amstrad Action #6

The Lord Of The Rings

It's here at last! I have been busy combing the hair between my toes these last few days and getting to grips with what must be one of the most long-awaited adventures ever, Melbourne House's Lord Of The Rings. So, was it worth the wait? Is this really the mega-blaster we've all been waiting for? It certainly looks impressive, coming in a whopping great case complete with a copy of the book Fellowship Of The Ring and two game cassettes. The manual isn't all that flashy being a rather skimpy 29 page folded leaflet affair - but it does give you all the information you need on playing the game.

Philip Mitchell, who programmed The Hobbit and Sherlock, was the driving force behind the Lord Of The Rings project. To give him his due, he always develops new techniques for each game with each program being more ambitious than the one before. However, it's tempting to suggest that this time he's bitten off more than your average home computer can chew.

He's tried to squeeze complex character interaction, a large vocabulary, independent characters, and complex parsing together with over 200 locations, into the Amstrad. There are also a number of new features, most important of which is the ability to become any one of the four hobbits (Frodo, Pippin, Merry and Sam). This means that if you get stuck or need help from another hobbit, you can swap characters and administer help.

Lord Of The Rings Game One

The vocabulary is considerably larger than The Hobbit and claims about 800 words. The blurb also claims that this is the largest choice of words ever offered in any home computer game. Those of you who have played The Worm In Paradise or Hitchhiker's will doubtless (and justifiably) disagree with this minor bit of hype. However, there's no doubt that vocabulary problems are not the main cause of frustration in this game.

No, the main cause of frustration is the incredibly *slow* speed at which the whole thing moves. There's so much for the program to do that just changing a location can take 20 seconds! Now that may not sound like a long time... but if you want to trot around, foiling Black Riders and exploring the countryside, you're going to spend half your time waiting impatiently for your turn at the keyboard while the program buzzes away trying to keep everything in order.

And there's another problem, I'm afraid. Those of you who have played The Hobbit will be aware of the dreaded Hobbit-bugs that occasionally crop up, causing you to lose time or, worse, your life. Lord Of The Rings is, without doubt, going to provide bug-hunters with an absolute field-day!

Let's just take a simple picnic beside the river. Eating regularly is an important part of the game, since your average hobbit is a bit shaky on the legs unless he stops for a slap-up meal every few minutes. Carrying some food, you decide to give some to Sam, who looks as if he could do with a sandwich. "You try to give the food to Sam," replies the program "but Sam is too heavy"! I suppose this could mean that young Sam is a trifle overweight, and is therefore not allowed any food but I doubt it!

At that point, you decide to have a drink of some of the wine in the bottle that Sam is carrying. 'Say to Sam "Give the bottle to me"', you type expectantly. Sam hands over the bottle, and you're just about to have a quick swig when you discover that the bottle has mysteriously disappeared! Sam hasn't got it, since he just gave it to you, but you haven't got it either. Very odd.

As I said, I think Melbourne House have been just a bit too ambitious with this one. Take the screen display as another example. They've used a clever system where the faces of the Hobbits are shown at the side of the screen, as if on the pages of a book. When they're present in your location, they are on the top page, otherwise they slip back through the book.

This is a nice idea, but again it fails to be really impressive in practice. First, the screen mode used doesn't allow sufficient resolution for the faces to be all that meaningful (and certainly not attractive!). Second, each time you change location you will, if you're accompanied by Hobbits have to wait for their little pictures to be redrawn in the appropriate part of the display. Quite unnecessary, and rather tiresome after a while.

In fact, the screen display is really a bit dubious from the beginning. You can see just in the opening scene (in the Hobbit-hole with the famous green door) that the graphics are rather simple, to say the least. In fact, the problem is worse than that since there's a lot of *wasted* space on the screen, and the area available for text is consequently rather limited (and in 40 column mode as well!). As a result, the text gets scrolled up out of sight rather sooner than one would like, especially in locations where there's a lot to see.

With all the programming expertise available, you'd think Melbourne House would have split the screen and had four colour graphics when necessary and 80-column text (with a 40 column option for those with colour monitors though I find I can read 80 column text on mine without too much trouble).

When you get down to playing the game, the slow speed available for text is consequently rather limited (and in 40 column remains an irritation), but there's no doubt that the original story of young Frodo travelling off to destroy the dreaded Ring of Power is tremendously gripping. Despite the delays and the bugs, I much enjoyed playing the game and found the atmosphere both gripping and surprisingly true to the original, though there are a number of very significant differences in the storyline.

In fact, I found the design of the plot in the game very good indeed. Sometimes it pays to have read the book (make sure you call yourself 'Underbill' at the appropriate moments): but I couldn't help laughing when I followed Strider from the inn. In the book, Strider leads you eventually to safety, but in the game he leads you on a right merry-go-round, has a quick chat with a talking bird, and then leads you ail the way back to the Inn (or thereabouts) and straight into the arms of the Black Riders!

In conclusion, therefore, there's no doubt that Lord Of The Rings is a program with some serious faults. However, it's a considerable challenge and since I haven't finished the game yet, I feel somewhat reluctant to pass final judgement on it. I'll be writing more about it next month, but in the meantime I have a sneaky suspicion that this game has really drawn the line beyond which cassette-based games cannot go. It tries to do an awful lot, but falls on its face rather too often in the process. I can't help feeling that it will go down in history as the last mega-cassette adventure that launched us into a world of disc-based programs.

In the meantime, if you've get the cash handy, I don't think you'll regret buying it. If you're skint, you could perhaps club together with some friends and get a copy to pass round. Whichever you do, I think you'll be witnessing the end of an era in home-computer adventures. From now on, if it's going to be big, it's got to be on disc.