Lord of the Rings: Return of the King Review
With few exceptions, games based on movies flat out stink. Starting with the famed Atari 2600 stinker E.T, and continuing to the buggy Enter The Matrix, it seems that developers just can't turn a good movie into a good game. EA has worked hard to distance themselves from this problem and while the previous Lord of the Rings game was good, it didn't quite live up to both of the movies it represented. It seems that the third time around is the charm, however, and LOTR: Return of the King is a solid game that manages to capture the wonderful cinematic feel of the trilogy.
ROTK's story actually picks up towards the end of The Two Towers at the battle of Helms Deep. Before even going to an options screen, you're thrown into the thick of the battle and are gently guided through the game's controls and fighting mechanics. After completing that short level, you are taken to a main screen where you can choose the path you wish to take through the game. The path of the king, path of the wizard, and path of the hobbit all closely follow the movie's plot and take you on a journey with each character through Middle Earth. If you haven't read the books or seen the movies, you'll probably have a difficult time following the story, though EA does an admirable job of making the pieces fit together, it's tough to cram that much story into a short game.
At its core, Return of the King is a basic fighting game. Your job is to battle through hordes of enemies while trying to keep your combo meter at its highest level. After you've completed a level, you receive a grade based on your performance, and you can then use the points you earn to unlock new moves for your character, or the entire fellowship. The combo system is easy to learn, and while there are lots of moves at your disposal, you will likely find a few combinations that you can use over and over again. In addition to just fighting bad guys over and over, you can interact with various aspects of the environment, and even guide Frodo and Sam through a level with your main goal is to seek shelter to hide from flying beasts of the Nazgul while all the while fighting your way through a ferocious battle. The action is fast-paced, and never slows down through the game, and despite the fact that it's a simple brawler, it never gets boring. The distinct lack of checkpoints is probably the game's biggest flaw, as it seems to have just been done to artificially extend the length of the game. In this day and age, there's really no good reason for doing this to make a game last longer.
The game's graphics and presentation are second to none. From the moment the game boots up, you find yourself in an amazing battle with dozens of characters on screen at the same time. The game also seamlessly blends computer generated characters with actual film clips and will blow your mind at times with the things that it's able to do. Each character is animated as close to lifelike as you can get, and when you see the game in motion, it really is like watching the movie.
The framerate is generally pretty solid, though there are times when heavy fog and a plethora of enemies cause it to slow down a bit. The game's camera is also problematic at times. Part of the problem is that it's designed to be cinematic which often doesn't yield the best angles for fighting. This problem is somewhat alleviated by the game making enemies translucent when they're blocking your view, but even then sometimes you just have to mash buttons and hope you're standing when the bodies clear. The bad camera angles also make it tough to find out where you supposed to go, and even though the levels are strictly linear, it's tough to figure our how to get to the next room because you just can't see the door.
Return of the King's audio is absolutely phenomenonal. Ian McKellen himself did voice work just for the game and his narration is fantastic. Each character features their real voices from the movie, and while they do spout out catchphrases every once in a while, they are so well done it never gets obnoxious. The game supports Pro-Logic II, and when the sounds of battle mix with the beautiful score and awesome presentation, you really feel like you're controlling the movie.
If you're a fan of the movies, books, or the previous games, Return of the King is right up your alley. The game's technical flaws are minor, and the game's only other negative point is that it's somewhat short. After you've beaten the game you can go back and play levels with different characters, though this isn't much incentive to go back. Online play, which is PS2 exclusive, is a nice addition, but ROTK isn't really a game that lends itself to online play. There's not much strategy involved, but the ability to play co-op offline was a glaring oversight in the previous games, and is nicely implemented into ROTK. Even if you're just a casual fan of the franchise, Return of the King is a solid fighting/adventure game that isn't likely to disappoint.
3/1/2004 Aaron Thomas