The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
How Many of us who've read The Lord Of The Rings can claim to not have skipped those increasingly mind-numbing transcriptions of Elvish songs? Come on, maybe you ploughed through the first couple, but be honest, it is the literary equivalent of watching paint dry. So maybe it's to redress the balance that EA has undertaken to release such a relentlessly action-packed tie-in to round off the movie trilogy.
Return Of The King, as you'd expect, picks up the story with the victory at Helm's Deep. From there it follows three paths - one staying with Gandalf, one tracking Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, and the third trailing Sam and Frodo as they venture deep into Mordor.
What we have, in the parlance of console gaming (ROTK is released simultaneously on PC, PS2, Xbox and GBA), is known as a free-roaming beat 'em up. Typically, what happens is you wander through a level smacking the living crap out of a stream of orcs, goblins and spectres. The emphasis is on excitement -flashy effects, masses of action, and with as little thought necessary as possible. The one thing that stands out about ROTK is its striking looks. The 12 environments, from the ramparts of Helm's Deep to the Fangorn Forest to the evil wastelands of Mordor itself, are nothing short of magnificent.
Which is to say nothing of the legions of snarling orcs, armoured Uruk-hai and scuttling goblins and spectres whom you get to so sumptuously do away with. Decked out exactly as in the movies, with the same guttural voices, vicious-looking weapons and even animations, these make first-class cannon fodder.
There's no escaping that ROTK is designed with consoles in mind. Consequently, playing the game with a mouse and keyboard is like stirring soup with a severed sheep's head - it just shouldn't be done. So you'd better find yourself a gamepad if you're thinking of joining the fight against Sauron. While you're at it, make it a well-built and comfortable one, because for many hours you will be sat. face contorted, hammering buttons for all you're worth.
ROTK is a button basher. It's practically that arcade classic Gauntlet in Middle-Earth; a Diablo in 3D. Yes, there are a variety of attacks, special moves and combos to be learned, but simply smashing the basic attack buttons more or less randomly is enough to see you through most of the game.
Some steps have been taken to add extra dimensions to the non-stop gamepad abuse. All characters have a ranged attack, but an auto-aiming system removes any finesse that may have arisen from this.
There's an RPG-style levelling-up system, with experience points spent to gain extra abilities and combo moves, but it's not sophisticated enough to provide any real longevity. To its credit, ROTK tries to break things up with extra goals and tasks within the levels. At one point you have to slaughter reams of fleeing Uruk-hai with the assistance of some stomping Ents before the way ahead opens. Another level sees you helping defend the walls of Minas Tirith, where, apart from cracking skulls, you have to beat back orcs scaling ladders and siege towers to prevent an 'overrun' gauge filling up.
EA is obviously determined to get its money's worth out of this franchise. So we have footage from the films, the real actors' voices and likenesses, and even bits of concept art and interviews with the likes of Christopher Lee as rewards for finishing levels. Very glossy, very slick. However, as you watch cut-scenes from the film and listen to Ian McKellen narrate the next section, you know this Hollywood coating is not why you buy games.
However, as much as every anti-marketing, brand-hating bone in my body tells me that Return Of The King sucks ass, a few levels in, and despite suffering repetitive-strain syndrome from abusing my gamepad, I discover I am enjoying myself. It's nice to hear Mr McKellen's sage-like voice. It's nice to watch some of the best bits from the movies again. And slaughtering hordes of bellowing orcs can be fun.
But that doesn't mean we'd recommend this as a worthy buy - it's far too one-dimensional. If you've got a Rings-mad younger brother, or you're an insatiable consumer of all things Rings, then yes, this has got all the Tolkien trimmings you could ask for. Ultimately though, it's a shallow affair, something that no amount of EA gloss can hide.
Download The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
With peter Jacksons celebrated Lord Of The Rings trilogy set to reach its climax this Christmas, PC gamers could have been forgiven for feeling a little aggrieved. Whereas EA flooded the consoles with its take on The Two Towers, the PC was harshly neglected, despite surely being the most obvious market for all things bearded. So while console owners got to mince around as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, beating several shades of shit out of the residents of Middle Earth, the PC remained as barren as a New Zealand desert. Admittedly, we did get Vivendi's hasty cash-in Fellowship Of The Ring -based on the book, not the film - but it was a largely shoddy affair that did little to justify the licence. This time round, EA has done the right thing, and The Return Of The King will receive a cross-platform release this November, a good six weeks before the film hits the screen.
Therefore, keen gamers will already be familiar with many of the scenes before they load up on popcorn and bed in at their local cinema for the final instalment. Not only will the game feature actual - and unseen - footage from the film, but the environments are also taken directly from it. As such, you'll be able to convincingly explore the Paths of the Dead, defend Minas Tirith, and battle Sauron's forces at the Pelennor Fields before final confrontations at the Black Gate and the Crack of Doom. EA has clearly invested a great deal in the licence, something that has guaranteed the game's development team near unprecedented levels of access to the property. This extends as far as the digital assets, as well as voice-overs from the actual actors, and the haunting score composed by Oscar-winner Howard Shore.
Look Who's Tolkien
The authenticity of Return Of The King isn't in question. What PC owners will be looking forward to discovering is how the undeniably rich universe has been fashioned into a game. Essentially a third-person action/adventure affair, the gameplay will incorporate multiple character paths for each member of the Fellowship. And in contrast to the limited number of characters in The Two Towers, this time there will be a total of nine playable and unlockable characters, including Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Sam, and Frodo, all looking the part, and of course sounding the part thanks to the involvement of internationally famous film stars.
More than mere hideous replicas, the characters will be able to get stuck into the action in an impressive fashion, interacting with the environments during both melee and ranged combat. As well as punching enemies hard in the face and wielding great big swords, characters will also have the ability to jump and swing from ropes, fire catapults, kick boulders and tweak armpit hair (one of these may not be true). And as is becoming increasingly fashionable, multi-directional attacks will be possible, along with a variety of combos that should help to slay such boss monsters as Shelob. the Witch King, and of course the Dark Lord Sauron in the final showdown.
Tolkien Bout A Revolution
While the emphasis is clearly on action, there will also be some adventure elements and even an RPG-lite system whereby characters can gain new combat attacks, new skills, and weapon upgrades. And although it's not shaping up to be a radical departure from The Two Towers, it will be a bigger game, boasting one extra level for a total of 14, all of which promise to be larger than in the previous title. The Al has also had an overhaul, and should be a lot more robust, with multiple attacks making for a more challenging experience.
We've recently been to Redwood City to see the game in action, and have to confess to coming away mildly impressed. On the surface, the gameplay seems to largely consist of clubbing enemies about the head and neck, but we're assured that greater depth will become apparent during extended play. Visually, there can be few quibbles, despite the console origins, with the PC version boasting the obligatory high resolution graphics.
EA certainly seems to be making the most of its lucrative licence, and we have to say it looks just like the films. Except smaller.
Criminey, Atari should have made Gauntlet LOTR characters to begin with--the cast is perfect for it (warriors, magicians, even a dreamboat elf-boy, Legolas). And I almost thought I had the remake I wanted in GBA's King, but this year's token Tolkien spin-off actually goes a lot deeper than that. The combat, based heftily on last year's handheld Two Towers title, is mostly raw and unappealing. But the Diablo (PC)-inspired RPG qualities and diverse mini-quests make monotonous fights worth enduring. I saw satisfying changes in my characters' abilities just by tweaking their weapons and accessories, the best of which were usually found rather than purchased. The frail Frodo himself was soon cracking Ore skull with relative ease, even taking on four Ores at once in a frenzy of murderous Hobbit rage. I was eventually content, however, just to let computer-appointed allies like Sam Gamgee kick all the ass while I hunted for cooler, more "precious" items. Yeah, we'd all be screwed if I had the One Ring.
Playing Return of the King was a roller coaster of conflicting emotions for me--first boredom as I hacked and slashed through endless hordes of Goblins, then addiction as I built up Aragorn and Legolas into level-22 demigods, and finally profound emptiness when I realized your only reward for all this is a couple of still pictures from the film. It's a decent dungeon hack, but "decent" is where it stops cold. And if you played Two Towers on GBA last year, then consider a King purchase very carefully--it's more of an expansion than a sequel.
Fans of dungeon crawlers like Diablo and Gauntlet will feel right at home with Return of the King. The core game-play is essentially the same as last year's Two Towers, though the graphics have been given a minor facelift and the stages are a bit more varied. Despite the marginal improvements, King is still a bit too repetitive for my tastes. The non-stop button mashing that's required to perservere gets old fast, but the fantastic LOTR universe that the game is based in definitely helps ease the pain.