Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
There are only a few companies in the world these days that seem to be able to do justice to movie licenses. The good folks at Activision have done good things with the X-Men and Spiderman licenses, and Atari did an alright job with the Matrix, but a majority of the other companies out there can’t seem to get it right. I suppose it’s actually a difficult task to take something that people enjoyed watching and turn it into something that people enjoy playing. However, one company seems to have figured out the right magic to it, and that is EA. Last years stellar Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was a perfect example of film adaptation done right. With only a few flaws (mainly, a lack of a co-op mode in a game that screamed for it), they had a lot of expectations to live up to with its sequel. A quick warning to all those who read further: there are probably going to be some small spoilers for the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and the books in this review, and if you’re concerned about that, I suggest you stop reading.
Return of the King (RotK) is the continuing saga of Middle-Earth and its inhabitants. For those of you unfamiliar with J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series, Middle-Earth is a fantasy land filled with hobbits, elves, humans, Orcs, goblins, and dozens of other creatures that are very similar to us. Thousands of years ago, the people of Middle-Earth were engaged in bitter battle against the Dark Lord Sauron, who wore the mystical Ring of Power which gave him great strength. It took the allegiance of all of the different races of Middle-Earth to chop off his finger, and take the Ring of Power from him. However, mankind was greedy, and took the Ring, instead of casting it into the fires of Mount Doom, the only place where it could be destroyed. And thus, as time passes, Sauron regains his strength (as he is only truly defeated when the Ring of Power is completely destroyed) and soon, he begins amassing an army to find the Ring, and then conquer Middle-Earth.
That’s where you come in. The world isn’t in such a strong allegiance anymore and thus, it’s up to a smaller group to fight and convince all of the creatures of Middle-Earth to do battle against the Dark Lord and his followers. The game begins right at the final scenes of The Two Towers movie, with Gandalf and an army from Rohan overcoming a hill by a human stronghold. This is the first of many movie-to-game transitions in the game. Several times during play (usually at the beginning of the mission), you’ll be treated to real movie footage, which then seamlessly turns into new footage using the game engine. You can tell the obvious difference, but the transition is so smooth that it doesn’t lose any of the quality.
The game takes place in a third person perspective, with a fixed camera that you sadly have no control over. There were several times I wished I could have rotated it so that I could get a better view of what was going on, but for the most part, it was fine. RotK is a hack-and-slash, which is actually a lot of fun. You’re given just a few moves to work with: speed, physical, and fierce attacks, as well as the option to evade. As you progress though and kill more foes, you gain access to new combination attacks, which are gained through spending your experience points in an RPG-type style. You can also purchase unique special abilities for your character to use. Most of the combos you perform are simply two to three button pushes, but they’re absolutely vital to the game, for one simple reason: this is one of the hardest games I’ve played in years. I haven’t been this seriously challenged by a game this much since GunValkyrie.
I think that’s enough bitching about the difficulty level. I stuck with it, so you can stick with it. What you’re treated to when you play RotK is three inter-twining tales of the struggle for Middle-Earth. You can play as Samwise and Frodo, who take part in their quest to get to Mount Doom to destroy the Ring of Power. If that’s not your style, you can play as Aragorn, Legolas, or Gimili, in their mission to unite different forces to come to your aide. And if you want something even different from that, you can play as Gandalf and help convince the creatures of Middle-Earth to fight by helping them in their struggles against evil. Ultimately, all of the different paths require you to fight off wave after wave of enemy, but there’s enough variety between the characters that it doesn’t really feel all that repetitive.
Sam and Frodo are excellent at sneaking around, and though they’re the weakest fighters, they’re fast and can backstab when using their special abilities. Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimili are pure fighters, and can take a few blows before losing too much health. Gandalf is a master of magic, and is capable of delivering decisive blows against all sorts of enemies from long range. Even more, the environments are interactive, which allow for a variety of different prescripted events to occur. In one battle, it’s necessary for Gandalf to kick ladders off the walls of a city to stop an Orc invasion. In another area, Sam has to sneak around a powerful Orc, open up a gate, and run to freedom. This also helps break the potential spell of repetition.
Your path in front of you is a linear one. Expect to find in RotK about 4 hours of gameplay, with 6 hours of actual play with all of the retries you’ll need. The length of the game is a pretty big turn off from purchasing it; however, a rental will probably suffice for most. The game does include with several interviews with the actors of the movie and a few extra levels that are fun to check out, but it’s the co-op mode that I imagine most people will be getting into the title for. It’s pretty fun to blast through the game with a friend, and it also makes it a little easier too, so expect even a shorter trip through RotK.
I’d have to say that the environments are the best part of the game for me. There are a ton of objects to interact with, such as catapults, molten liquid that you can dump down upon unsuspecting foes and you can even push a bell from a bell tower down upon several foes. This may all have been seen in other games before, but there’s nothing quite as exciting as watching it come to life in the Tolkien universe. Fortunately, the graphics allow this to look great. The character models are all accurately modeled after their movie counterparts, so expect to be able to recognize all your heroes. Even the animations are great, with my favorite being the coup d’état animation. When you knock down a foe in the game, you can opt to deliver an instant kill to them with the push of a button. If you do this, it leaves you vulnerable to attack, but looks really badass. And in the audio department RotK doesn’t disappoint. All the characters received voice-overs from the stars of the film, and the musical score is directly from the film, which isn’t a bad thing.
In the end, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King is an excellent way to spend your weekend. I doubt that anyone will feel truly ripped off by paying the full admission price for four hours of gameplay, but I for one was glad that I didn’t and only rented it. Give this game a shot if you’re a fan of action games, and if you’re a fan of the movie, then I shouldn’t even have to tell you to check it out should I?