Say what you will about games tied-in to movies, but it’s hard to refute that only two such titles have ever really lived up to the hype: Activision’s Spider-Man: The Movie and, now, Electronic Arts’ The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. The first game’s vertical real-estate, coupled with a good fighting mechanic, made it a surprising success. So what makes Return of the King even better?
Well, first you’ve got the fact that EA’s Return of the King (RotK) presents the only opportunity consumers will have until (presumably) November 2004 to see even a clip of the third film in their home. That’s going to sell a few thousand copies right there. But the footage is much more than a marketing gimmick; it actually drives the game forward, letting people play scenes from the film and embellish them a bit by fighting through “off-camera” scenes. Still, it’s the other outstanding elements that really make the game a winner, and naturally, it all starts with the gameplay.
At its heart, RotK is a combination-driven hack-and-slash game, not unlike the aforementioned Spider-Man, which did its “hacking” via fists and feet. Take that phrase for what it means, though: combination-driven. RotK is not an overly simplified button-masher, but a game where button presses actually mean something.
At the beginning of the game, players have relatively basic controls: fast attack, power attack, ranged attack, parry and push/shove. As players advance, these attacks can be upgraded and applied in new, unlockable combinations. Rather than simply finding these new attacks in secret areas, though, players can purchase them between levels using the experience points they’ve acquired. This definitely compels you to kill as many Orcs, Uruk-Hai and trolls as possible, because the more XP you earn, the more moves you can potentially have at your disposal. Earn enough points, and you can even purchase some of the upgrades for all the members of your Fellowship who have reached the same level.
To boost the XP accumulation, RotK uses a “multiplier” effect where chaining together many kills without being hit yourself earns you more points per kill. For example, taking your time between Orc slayings will score you 150 XP per kill and a low level-ending bonus, but three, four or five kills in quick succession will move you closer to the temporary “Perfect” status, during which time you’ll earn 600 points per kill. Maintaining the multiplier meter between Orc killings can also be achieved by parrying, which adds a fantastic finesse aspect to the battles.
Using accumulated XP to purchase new and more-powerful combinations is important, because the later stages get ridiculously tough, even on Easy. The most common obstacle is the sheer number of Orcs, Uruk-Hai and trolls the game throws at you, which is simply staggering in the last couple of levels.
As in the movie, the intelligence of these creatures isn’t exactly Elven, and their group AI essentially amounts to repeating the same attack as the 14 other Orcs surrounding you. During the infrequent one-on-one battles they’ll make more advanced moves like blocking your attacks or jumping at you, but for the most part the AI is pretty standard. But even standard AI can be a challenge when it’s coming at you from 14 different directions.
With all that action, you’d expect the graphics to take a hit or the framerate to end up slower than Gollum approaching a cooked rabbit. In neither case, though, does RotK disappoint. There are no two ways about it: the graphics in RotK are amazing. In the epic battle scenes, the enemy models can seem a bit blocky or have low-resolution clothing, but that helps keep the framerate steady and is something you notice more in screenshots than in the heat of battle. The repetitive enemy textures can also be forgiven when you consider that even in the movies, these beasties all looked alike anyway.
The primary characters (you play as every member of the Fellowship through the game’s three-branch storyline) are all outstanding, with each character closely resembling his movie counterpart. Likewise, the environments are all based on models and locations from the film, so there’s no mistaking when you’re at the Black Gate.
Given those great environmental details, it’s a bit disappointing that players can’t poke around a bit more, neither in their movement nor in their views. Like in EA’s The Two Towers, the camera angle in RotK is static, which helps to promote a cinematic feel but, when combined with the game’s linearity, makes RotK feel a bit confined. Pretty, yes, but confined nonetheless.
This limited exploration doesn’t bode well for the game’s replaybility, but RotK does include several unlockable characters and the allure of replaying a level to see if you can get a better score. The real saving grace, though, is the two-player cooperative play, an outstanding yet necessary addition. RotK handles co-op play like the Gauntlet games of old, with a single-screen vantage and shared health power-ups. It’s a bit bizarre, though, that the game doesn’t increase the number or difficulty of enemies as you add a second player, as did Hunter: The Reckoning. Still, the co-op play is a definite plus. It was a bit ironic in EA’s The Two Towers that gamers played as characters from a Fellowship but couldn’t actually play together, so the addition of multiplayer in RotK is quite welcome.
With characters and environments taken straight from the movie, it’s only appropriate that the soundtrack, voices and environmental sounds are also sampled from the film. As a result, the sound in RotK is simply wonderful. Add the Dolby Digital support, and you truly feel like you’re playing through the movie.
All of these elements combine for a fantastic game, especially for fans of the films and genre. If you’ve liked Peter Jackson’s trilogy, this is the closest you’ll ever get to becoming an extra in the greatest movies in years. Likewise, if you’re a fan of hack-and-slash games, Return of the King is among the best you can find. But unless you’re in one of those two camps, this game is probably a rental. For sheer presentation, RotK is hard to beat, but its surprising brevity and amazing difficulty, particularly in the later stages, are too much of a Mount Doom for the game to climb.
- Gameplay: 8.9
- Graphics: 9
- Sound: 9.3
- Replay: 8.5
- Overall: 8.9
- Phenomenal presentation, but hard and short.
— Jonas Allen