"The Fellowship Of The Ring" is a quite straightforward action/adventure game where you alternatively get to play as Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf. The other character of The Lord Of The Rings are not playable, but they will help in certain sections of the game fighting orcs, wolves, and other dangerous creatures of Middle Earth.
Unlike Surreal's other big PlayStation 2 game, "Drakan II: The Ancients' Gates", this game is very linear and doesn't feature any RPG element. Characters do not level up, there are no skill points, no shops, no in-game money, no optional subquests (actually, there are a pair of them at the beginning of the game, but they serve to introduce players to the basics of the controls), and the game is divided in eight levels, or "areas" if you prefer: the Shire, the Old Forest, Bree, Weathertop, Rivendell, Moria, Lothlorien, and the area around the river Anduin. Many of these areas are divided in sub-levels; for example the Old Forest is divided into the Old Forest and the Barrow-downs. The level design, inspired by the descriptions of the book, is nevertheless very simplistic; there is always only one path that you can follow, and it's impossible to get lost in the game, even in the sections that are supposed to be labyrinthine, like the Old Forest or Moria. This inevitably hampers the difficulty and the replay value of the game.
After all, the same simplistic attitude seems to characterize the rest of the game design. The three playable characters have unique abilities and strengths, but unluckily these are not developed enough to create a truly varied experience.
Frodo isn't a skilled fighter, and, in the first part of the game, his only weapons is his walking stick. Frodo can rely on stealth and usually on the support of Merry, Pippin, and the loyal Sam. The stealth action components, that might have been a good idea, have been poorly implemented into the game. When moved slightly, the left analog stick lets Frodo sneak, while the Circle button is used to throw stones to distract the enemies. In the upper left of the screen, an icon shows your success at avoiding the enemy's detection; when the icon turns red, the enemy has detected you, and you should be prepared to face him. Anyhow, the game seems designed so that the player can play through it without never using stealth; with the help of your A.I. controlled friends, you can easily kill any creature you meet; with dozens of mushrooms, used to replenish Frodo's health, scattered everywhere, you can do this without dying even once. There is only one moment where you are forced to use stealth, but this is also the most frustrating and stupidly designed part of the whole game. To make things worse, it occurs at the beginning of the adventure, when the player is still getting a grip on the unprecise controls. Before leaving the Shire, Frodo must reach his friends at farmer Maggot's farm, but the Nazguls are hunting him. You basically have to move stealthily from one house to the other, eventually using rocks to distract the Nazguls; every time a Nazgul finds you, it's immediately game over, and you are brought back to the opening menu of the game. Thanks to the stiff controls, the unrefined stealth indicator, and the bugs that cause Frodo to remain stuck in a wall or a fence in the exact, dramatic moment in which you are in desperate need of a place to hide, this section is one of the less fun pieces of videogame I have played in a long, long time. As the ring bearer, Frodo can also use the One Ring to disappear; on the upper right of the screen a "purity meter" depletes while you are wearing the ring: when the meter is empty, Frodo has passed to the "Dark Side", which means it's game over for you. Anyhow, the game offers few occasions in which the One Ring can be actually useful; I used it only once, in a boss battle, and I then discovered I could have easily beaten the monster without it. Of course, this is faithful to Tolkien's novel, in which Frodo uses the ring only twice, and at a great cost, but it's a bit suspect in a game where any good or decent idea has been poorly developed.
Aragorn is a strong fighter; he is equipped with a sword (a generic one at the beginning of the game, the mighty Anduril in the final part) and an arc with unlimited arrows. The combat controls are the same of Frodo, but Aragorn can dispatch any enemy in a few blows. Square is used to brandish the sword, R1 is used to lock on a target, and L1 is used to block. Usually, it's sufficient to press the Square button as fast as possible to get rid of most of the enemies; Aragorn can also kick nearby enemies (X button): a useful move to knock the enemy on the ground and finish him with a final blow. Bigger enemies like trolls require a bit of strategy, and eventually, a good use of the arc. The bow mechanics are pretty rough; you can lock on a target with the R1 button, but this seems to work only if the enemy is close. For more distant enemies, you have to switch to first person view and aim using the crosshair. You can strafe left and right while in first person mode, but you can't walk backwards or forwards: this makes activities like troll-hunting and boss battles less exciting than they should be. It's just tedious to continuously repeat the "switch to first person view, shoot with the arc at the approaching troll, switch back to third person view, run away from the troll, switch again to first person view, etc.etc." process; a simple, pure first person mode would have been enough to avoid any useless frustration while using the arc.
You will get to play Gandalf in two consecutive sections of the game, including the exploration of the depths of Moria. Like Aragorn and Frodo, Gandalf can use his sword, "Glamdring", to attack, even though his magic staff is far more powerful. Spirit points are needed to use the staff, and on the upper right of the screen a magic meter indicates the amount of spirit left to Gandalf; spirit can be replenished only by drinking Miruvor, but there are enough bottles scattered throughout the game to make the possibility of remaining with an empty spirit meter very unlikely. Gandalf has three offensive spells: a weak fire based attack, a chain lightning attack that blasts multiple enemies at once, and the cool staff strike, that generates an expanding ring of force from the staff, damaging all enemies. Gandalf can also heal himself or use the "attract" power on an enemy, thus turning him into the target of all surrounding enemies. Gandalf's sections, overall slightly shorter than Aragorn's or Frodo's, are enjoyable. Gimli will help Gandalf in Moria: it's fun to stun all the enemies with Lightning and then see Gimli finishing all of them with his powerful axe.
And amidst the mediocrity of the game design, the support given to the main playable characters by the other members of the Fellowship is probably the most noticeable accomplishment of the developers. Without a doubt, the most beautiful section of the game is the battle on the river Anduin, where as Aragorn you have to face hordes of orcs and trolls. But have no fear: for all the members of the Fellowship Of The Ring - Boromir, Gimli, Legolas, the Hobbits - are there with you. Seeing the brave Boromir brandishing his sword against an orc, Gimli wielding his war axe, Legolas aiming with his arc, and the little Hobbits fighting armed with short swords, one can't help but think how great this game could have been with a longer development time.
Even the great storyline is told just through a bunch of unimpressive in-game cutscenes and a few good CG movies created by Blur Studio that are unable to give the characters and the situations the depth, but first of all the coherency, they have in the book. The game clearly assumes that players already know and love the story of "The Fellowship Of The Ring", and its lack of a good direction becomes even more evident in moments that should have been pivotal points of the plot: the battle against the Balrog, the silent attack of the Nazguls in Bree, the encounter with Bilbo at Rivendell, the council of Elrond, all is often handled without the passion needed for this project; and it's a bit disappointing, considering the talent of Surreal Software's artists and developers.