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The 5 best Lord of the Rings games

shadow of mordor
(Image credit: Warner Brothers)

J.R.R. Tolkien's epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, has spawned a lot of video games — and that's just counting official adaptations. If you count games that take indirect inspiration from Tolkien's work, you'd probably have to include every fantasy RPG ever made.

However, games based on this venerable franchise tend to be hit-or-miss. The good ones make you feel totally immersed in the wide and wonderful world of Middle-earth; the bad ones just make you wish you were reading the books or listening to the BBC radio drama instead. (I don't personally think much of Peter Jackson's bombastic movies, but "each to his own fashion," as Sam Gamgee once said.)

We've gathered five of the best Lord of the Rings games, so you can try them out and judge the results for yourself. Now that we finally have a release date for The Lord of the Rings: Gollum, we'll be sure to keep an eye out for future entries to this list — especially with Amazon's The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power series fast approaching.

The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Ring (2003) 

war of the ring

(Image credit: Vivendi)

Possibly the most controversial entry on this list, The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Ring is, by most accounts, a rather unremarkable real-time strategy game. It's essentially Warcraft III with a Lord of the Rings skin — although, in my estimation, that's not necessarily a bad thing. You'll play as either the Free Peoples of Middle-earth or the Minions of Sauron as you work your way through two decent campaigns, inspired by the books rather than the movies. Along the way, you'll do all the standard RTS stuff — gather resources, build up armies, research new abilities, defend your base, attack your foes and so forth. The story puts some interesting side characters, such as Erkenbrand, front-and-center, though, which arguably makes the whole thing worthwhile.

The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth (2004) 

battle for middle-earth

(Image credit: EA)

The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth is one of the best Lord of the Rings video game, in that it doesn't need any qualifying statements. It's not a "good LOTR strategy game" — it's simply a good strategy game, period. Battle for Middle-earth presents an agreeable mix of grand strategy and RTS gameplay. In the Good campaign, you'll control the forces of Gondor and Rohan; in the Evil campaign, you'll control the forces of Isengard and Mordor. Either way, you can build up your armies and take them with you as you conquer each region of Middle-earth, gaining bonuses for each new area you control. Each area represents a full RTS mission, however, so you'll need to think both strategically and tactically to succeed. The sequel, Battle for Middle-earth II, is arguably even better.

The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age (2004) 

the lord of the rings the third age

(Image credit: EA)

The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age is probably the silliest game on this list, but it's also one of the easiest to like. In this turn-based RPG, you play as Berethor, a Gondorian warrior who essentially forms his own knockoff Fellowship and follows around the "real" heroes for the entirety of the trilogy. The standalone story doesn't make much sense, but Sir Ian McKellan narrates the whole thing as Gandalf. You also get to revisit all of the recognizable locations from the movies, and fight against Middle-earth pivotal foes, such as the Balrog, the Ringwraiths and even the Lord of the Nazgûl. The combat system draws a lot of inspiration from Final Fantasy X, with a strong focus on action queues and delaying opponents' turns, but it has some clever equipment and skill acquisition mechanics. 

The Lord of the Rings Online (2007) 

lord of the rings online

(Image credit: Standing Stone)

The Lord of the Rings Online is another one of those oddball "based on the books, but not the movies" titles. This may elicit a shrug for fans of the Peter Jackson trilogy, but for fans raised on Tolkien's novels, it's a breath of fresh air. Lord of the Rings Online has access to much more expansive lore than most LOTR games. After creating your own avatar from one of four races and seven classes, you can experience the trilogy from a whole new perspective, from leaving the Shire to the fall of Sauron, and even learn a little about the aftermath. Lord of the Rings Online starts off free-to-play, so you have nothing to lose by trying it out. Just be aware that some of the expansions are paid content. 

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (2014) 

shadow of mordor

(Image credit: Warner Brothers)

One of the few genuinely great games based on The Lord of the Rings, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is still one of the most innovative titles of the last console generation. You play as Talion: a Ranger who forges a pact with an Elven wraith to cheat death and defeat the forces of Sauron. The big selling point of Shadow of Mordor is the Nemesis system, wherein the game procedurally generates Orc captains with unique names, appearances and skill sets. These Orcs will even learn about you over time, whether you defeat them, run away or fall by their hand. This mechanic complements a thoroughly decent revenge narrative, and helps alleviate a little open-world bloat. Overall, though, Shadow of Mordor's tight gameplay, sharp graphics and creative mechanics more than merit a look — even if the sequel, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, falls flat.

What about the PS2 games? 

the two towers

(Image credit: EA)

In researching this story, two games cropped up frequently: The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003). These hack-and-slash action games came out for the PS2, GameCube, Xbox and PC back when the Peter Jackson films were in theaters. By all accounts, they're pretty good efforts, with satisfying gameplay, high production values and welcome multiplayer options.

The reason why they're not on the list is simple: I haven't actually played them, and therefore couldn't give them an informed recommendation. But if you come across a copy at a used game store or garage sale somewhere, they're probably worth a look for fans of the films.

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.