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Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Xbox) artwork

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Xbox) review


"Since the advent of CD based gaming technology, insiders in the know and armchair experts alike have been predicting an ultimate merging of Hollywood and the game industry. This long sought after goal has been something of a Holy Grail for developers, and one that until recently may have seemed impossible to achieve. But just as surely as the sun inevitably rises each morning, so is new gaming hardware developed. The recent rise of the DVD format combined with the increased power offered by mode..."



Since the advent of CD based gaming technology, insiders in the know and armchair experts alike have been predicting an ultimate merging of Hollywood and the game industry. This long sought after goal has been something of a Holy Grail for developers, and one that until recently may have seemed impossible to achieve. But just as surely as the sun inevitably rises each morning, so is new gaming hardware developed. The recent rise of the DVD format combined with the increased power offered by modern CPUs has made this once far fetched prophecy a likely reality. One of the key proponents of this merging of the mediums has always been US developer, Electronic Arts. With a fist full of highly desirable Hollywood licenses and the financial clout with which to do them justice, Electronic Arts have proven themselves to be at the forefront of this challenge time and time again. It's then with a comfortable sense of trust that we welcome their next stab at cinema style gaming, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. The pieces are set and your time is now. Do you dare once more stride onto the fields of war?

Middle Earth stands at a crossroads. Under the command of Sauron, the forces of darkness have begun their march on the city of Minas Tirith. As the armies of light gather their strength to repel the coming onslaught, the hobbits Sam and Frodo continue their journey into the dark lands of Mordor. With the guidance of the treacherous creature, Gollum, these two unlikely heroes are about to face their greatest challenge yet... each other. Surrounded on all sides by evil, they must overcome their own darkest fears if they are to save the world they love... and who said drama was dead?! Though obviously watered down, the timeless nature of the original story has survived the arduous transition from book to big screen to game intact. From Sam's heartfelt concern for Frodo's condition to Gandalf's subtle manipulations in trying to bring the human kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor together, the all important human drama has survived intact. Surprisingly though, the onscreen representation of the characters and the situations they face have been kept as accurate as possible while still managing to avoid spoiling many of the key plot points. Truly a remarkable achievement of editing to say the least.

Following in the highly acclaimed footsteps of its predecessor The Two Towers, Return of the King is a meaty combination of arcade-like combat and unobtrusive RPG style character building. Viewed from a third person perspective, the action comes thick and fast as wave upon wave of Uruk-Hai rush the player only to be met by the sharp pain of cold righteousness steel. If you're thinking that this is sounding pretty familiar then you would be right. Essentially an update of The Two Towers, Return of the King's guiding philosophy is one of not fixing something that isn't broken. With that in mind, returning players will welcome back the beat'em up slash'em down gameplay that worked so well in the previous title. Though the action is still combo intensive, players not interested in memorizing attack strings can once more button mash their way through the game like a cave troll on heat. This air of forgiveness ensures that much like the movie that inspired it, the game is also accessible to people from all walks of life. That being said however, those who do go to the effort of learning the ins and outs of the combo system will be able to make the most of the loosely fitting RPG elements later on.

By chaining combo attacks together, players stand to earn experience points that may be used upon the completion of each of the game's 13 levels. It's here between the chaos and bloodshed that a wide range of upgrades and new attacks for each character may be purchased. In keeping with the theme of refinement over revolution, there's an interesting mix of new and old attacks to be learnt. Each combo is easy enough to perform and while they may not be the most spectacular attacks ever coded, they do work perfectly well within the confines of the license. And in the end that's all that really matters. Complimenting the well thought out action are the incredible controls. Responsive and intuitive at all times, it won't be long before players find themselves in the zone and cleaving skulls with the best of them. And trust me, when the action begins to heat up, you're going to need as much help as you can get! For the long journey to Mount Doom is fraught with peril and danger at every turn. Giant spiders, Nazgul and Uruk-Hai... oh my... the odds are certainly stacked against you.

Honestly speaking, the word difficult doesn't even begin to come close to explaining how soul crushingly hard RotK can get. In keeping with the spirit of the movie's large scale battles, the screen is for much of the time filled shoulder to shoulder with enemy forces. With such odds stacked against the player, imminent and repeated death is certain. Whether this challenge is a good thing or not is totally dependent upon the individual's preference as a gamer. Though the freshly implemented 2 player mode goes a long way in alleviating some of this stress, there are many gamers out there that simply do not have that luxury. Players that do decide to suck it up and face the hordes head-on may take some comfort in the presence of the recently expanded line up of characters. Gandalf, Sam and Frodo now join returnees Aragon, Legolas and Gimli in their quest to defend Middle Earth from Sauron's icy cold grip. Each character comes with their own special skills and abilities thus forcing players to adapt their battle strategies accordingly. Whereby Gandalf naturally excels at ranged and magical attacks, his physical power is no match for the mighty swing of Aragon or Gimli. The hobbits on the other hand are extremely nimble of foot and have the limited ability to cloak from danger. RotK has an adventure for every occasion...

Taking advantage of this expanded line-up, Electronic Arts have designed RotK's quest around 3 separate gameplay paths. The Path of the Wizard (Gandalf), the Path of the King (Aragon, Legolas and Gimli) and the Path of the Hobbits (Sam and Frodo). Playable in any order, these 3 individual journeys accurately follow the story's inter-connected arcs and give players a chance to experience virtually every major event witnessed in the movie. Though some artistic license has been used in the presentation of these events, the overall feel and flavor of the original material shines through perfectly. The brilliantly atmospheric ''King of the Dead'' level serves as a perfect example of where the game had to diverge with the movie in order to fit the new medium. Rather than serve up a dull, albeit atmospheric, journey through the dark catacombs under Dwimorberg, Electronic Arts have charged the situation with far more action than was seen in the theater. Before you roll your eyes at the thought of yet another shameless warping of the source material, please bear in mind that this time the changes actually fit the context of the situation. After all, the dead have always hated the living. So go on, check your anoraks at the door and fight like the very future of your realm depends on it!

If anything is going to convince the player that the end is nigh, it's going to be RotK's outstanding presentation. Going far beyond what most games can ever hope of achieving, RotK delivers an exciting audio visual feast that perfectly captures the epic nature of the movie's action sequences. Prepare to bear witness to some of the most spectacular environments and pre-scripted events yet seen in a video game. While orcs and humans clash on the battlefields, the Nazgul King soars high above carnage astride his monstrous black dragon. Swords swing, sparks fly and the audioscape swells to the sounds of war. It's then that the smoke filled skies suddenly part revealing an incoming barrage of flaming debris launched from the catapults far below the battlements. Amidst this big screen action, Howard Shore's thunderous soundtrack weaves its magic. Taut with tension and drama, it masterfully rises and falls in accordance with the action re-enforcing the all important cinematic aspects of the gameplay perfectly. You can genuinely feel the danger that these battles represent. A tightness in the chest and an uneasiness in the stomach, this is what it means to stand before the might of Sauron.

From the large selection of unlockable extras to the wealth of documentaries and bonus characters, every conceivable base has been covered. In reaching these lofty heights so easily, Return of the King has shamed virtually every other half baked movie adaption ever released. This is the type of game that the likes of Enter the Matrix could only dream of being. Sporting total immersion and licensed authenticity, Electronic Arts have demonstrated once more why they are the #1 developer in this field. Their utmost respect for the source material has certainly paid dividends this time round. It may be overly difficult and there may be times when you will want to scream, but the rewards in return are immense. Return of the king has it all. New levels, new characters, and all the Middle Earth loving fun you could possibly shake a ring finger at. Electronic Arts really deserves to be commended for this release. With it they have shown that the Holy Grail is finally within their reach. Here's hoping that they make a hobbit out of this in the future... popcorn not included...

Pros
----
* Classic hack and slash gameplay
* Deep combo system adds the needed technique
* Each of the 6 character's abilities and attributes can be upgraded
* The controls are easy to pick up, and even easier to master
* Minor amounts of artistic license has been used to good effect
* The outstanding graphics make you question whether you are indeed playing the game or watching a new edit of the movie
* Stunning pre-scripted events capture the feel of the movies
* Howard Shore's orchestral soundtrack returns in full
* The 2 player mode is perfectly suited to both the theme and the gameplay

Cons
----
* Insane difficulty levels make this a game for the hardcore gaming elite
* 13 stages is still not enough

Rating: 8.0/10

midwinter's avatar
Community review by midwinter (August 27, 2004)

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