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LOTR: Return of the King Review

By Jeff Buckland, 11/12/2003

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Just about everyone is caught up at least somewhat in the Lord of the Rings craze as opening day for the third and final movie, Return of the King, looms close. EA Games did a surprisingly nice job with their version of The Two Towers last year, and they've for the most part outdone themselves this year as well. ROTK boasts great action, cooperative play, many playable characters, and a ton of scenes from the LOTR movies.

The controls for ROTK haven't changed much since last year's title, and this is pretty much for the best. Each character now has a unique special ability that is enabled by pressing both triggers, and a couple of interface and button changes are present. Still, it's easy for anyone to get started with the game, and one can even button-mash their way through a couple of hours. Eventually, one must actually learn the more complex combos and tactics in order to win, but the learning curve is somewhat forgiving.

Each playable character - Gandalf, Gimli, Aragorn, Legolas, Frodo, and Sam (as well as a couple of secret characters) - all have their own animations and styles, and you will probably have to change up your own fighting style to match theirs. And yes, Gandalf does plenty of fighting in the ROTK game that is fun as hell - one can only hope he'll be mixing it up this much in the upcoming third movie.

The Two Towers looked excellent, especially in their drawing of the movie landscapes. ROTK continues this tradition with some truly excellent-looking levels that rival just about anything else on the Xbox. The character models are certainly improved since the last game, although I still find that Gimli's face looks way off. Better, but still very noticeable.

Most of the enemies in the game are orcs, but EA did a nice job changing around the situations and encounters to where they don't become boring. You will fight some undead monsters as well as some creepy spiders (yes, a spider level!), but it's mostly orcs - and yes, they look for the most part the same as they did in TTT. Again, considering the quality of those original models and textures, that's great anyway.

There are plenty of new special effects in ROTK, including an invisibility mode for Frodo and Sam, huge blasts courtesy of Gandalf, some nasty stuff from a couple of the game's bosses. The frame rate stays nice and stable throughout all of this, with only the occasional slight slowdown.

The best way I've heard EA's LOTR games described is this: they are a modern day version of the classic Sega arcade hit Golden Axe, but with a movie license and actual acting. You'll be fighting hordes of enemies all while struggling to reach objectives - sometimes you're on a timer, and sometimes you simply have to get to the end of the level any way you can.

While this is no RPG, the game does offer a simplistic level system where your ability to score more hits without getting hit yourself nets you more experience. You can then buy new skills either for yourself or for all the characters (a very nice addition) with the points. Some areas of the game offer a seemingly limitless number of enemies for you to fight, and you can leave whenever you want. If you can hold out and keep fighting, you can net a bunch of experience in order to make all the characters more powerful. Basically, killing enemies and doing it in style is highly rewarded in many levels.

The game takes you through three "paths" - Gandalf is the first, Aragorn/Legolas/Gimli is the second, and Frodo/Sam make up the third path. Each path must be completed in order, but you can switch around and do any of these levels you want as long as you've beaten the prerequisite one. The game's story follows the plot of the movies and books pretty well, but there are plenty of objectives and added things never seen in either the books or the movies. While some may complain about inaccuracies, it makes the game a bit less of a bore for those who know how LOTR ends already.

As before, EA splices in real movie footage with the game's action and cutscenes; and again, it is a risky move but it really pays off. Ok, sure, the game's backdrops still aren't quite as good as what we see in the movies, but they're close. The effect overall is that you feel like you're playing in the movie, not in a game based on the movie. Sure, the effect won't last long, it makes for an awesome first impression. Unlike this year's disappointing Enter the Matrix, the footage here isn't a bunch of boring filler - this is the good stuff pulled right from the theatrical releases.

Of course, it's difficult to play a game based on a movie without spoiling a good chunk of the movie's plot - in this case, if you don't want anything to spoil your movie experience, I would definitely suggest you hold off on playing Return of the King until you've seen the film. At the very least, you can go through a few levels that recap some of TTT, but don't go much further than that.

The game's levels don't always have you mixing it up with enemies - sometimes your goal is simply to evade, or to get somewhere in time at all costs. The camera angles are a bit funky in some areas, and you may get caught completely off-guard simply because the camera hasn't panned out enough to show the enemy breathing in your face. A little memorization and some fast reflexes with the Parry button are sometimes your only recourse.

This time around, EA has gone ahead with some new features not seen in last year's game. There are now three difficulty levels as well as the usual round of secret levels and extra movie clips to unlock. We also get a two-player cooperative mode that's actually a lot of fun to play, especially considering how useless the AI is when they control your companions in the single player mode.

The problem comes with online play. EA is in the middle of a big fight with Microsoft currently over online play, as Microsoft wants to control the servers and charge their own yearly subscription for the Xbox Live! online service. EA wants no part of it, and in the end, the Xbox gamers are the ones getting screwed. Only the PS2 version of Return of the King supports online play, even though all three major consoles can easily do it. I can understand the lack of internet play with the GameCube, seeing how few players actually own online adapters for that system. For Xbox, though, there is no excuse from the gamer's perspective. It's rumored that EA is working with Microsoft for online play in their Xbox games, but it's safe to say that at best it will only be for future titles - certainly not for ROTK.

Between the large number of cool skills each character has, the three difficulty levels, and the unlockables, EA has tried to make this game one you buy rather than one you rent. I can't really say that their efforts are a resounding success, but it's still damn fun and probably worth the price tag for anyone wanting to kick some orc ass. You might be totally done with the game in a week or two, but that's kind of par for the course in today's gaming world.

Return of the King has some of the best sound I've heard in any action game - the integration of the actual movie footage in with cutscenes is still as brilliant as it was in The Two Towers, and the original actors supply a ton of new voice work to flesh out the game. Again, there is the issue of inaccuracy, but when it bears the official name and the voices are done by the original actors, it's hard to argue that the game is somehow not authentic.

EA has recycled plenty of sound effects from TTT here, but most of them sounded great the first time around anyway. The new enemies and effects you'll encounter here fit in well with the old ones, and the atmosphere this game generates through sound and visuals is something any LOTR fan has to experience.

The music is basically pulled right from the soundtracks of the three movies, and it's mixed together very well. There's nothing really high-tech here, but the game does make sure to ramp up the music during battles and even give you a few orchestra hits when an enemy pops out to surprise you. It's all really good stuff - I wish more developers would work on music and ambience in their games.

Rarely does a game boast this sort of cinematic appeal while actually being fun to play, but Return of the King delivers. The lack of online play is annoying and stubborn on EA & Microsoft's part, but we still get a great game with lots of unlockables, a two-player mode, and all the Lord of the Rings charm that you can handle.

Overall: 91%



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