Electronic Arts continues their exclusive relationship with the cinematic versions of J.R.R. Tolkien's famous trilogy with the release of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. In this combat game based on the third film by Peter Jackson, players will fight legions of orcs and other creatures from a third-person perspective as heroes Aragorn, Gimli, or Legolas. Following the same structure as its action-oriented predecessor, players will wield swords, axes, daggers, and bows to fight multiple enemies simultaneously. Featured locales include Minas Tirith, Mount Doom, and more, with each environment offering multiple tiers or planes to travel across. Now characters will be able to jump and climb, enabling them to interact with their surroundings to a greater degree. Film composer Howard Shore's epic score punctuates the battles as the original cast provides the voice acting. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King also features a number of film clips used as segues to the game's action scenes.
The basic story of Lord of the Rings is well known to most, and Return of the King follows the last part of the tale, starting with the battle at Helm's Deep and eventually ending up in an all out brawl at the Cracks of Doom. The game has 14 missions, each of which is played through the first time using specific characters. Once the game's been beaten, the missions can then be replayed using new characters from the film -- including three unlockable ones.
If I had to choose just one reason to play this game, it would have to be the game's presentation. The original game, The Two Towers, pioneered an interesting technique where actual footage from the Peter Jackson movies would magically transition into in-game models as missions began. Return of the King also uses this technique, but the developers have clearly mastered it. Transitions between film and game models are smoother, the choice of edited film footage is better, and the pre-mission cinematics are constructed to be much more exciting. While the pre-mission films are a bit too long to watch every time you play, the first time through they do a great job hyping you up for the action to come.
Once you get down into the action, the presentation continues to impress. While the phrase "Play the Movie!" has been beaten to death over the years by marketing types, Return of the King does an incredible job at making you feel like you've really entered one of Peter Jackson's insanely complicated battle sequences. This is partially because of the game's well-implemented camera system. The angles selected are almost always well chosen and let you get a good sense of the action and let players see and control their characters in combat. It's not perfect, of course. Once in a while the camera will fail to follow as your character moves off screen or behind scenery, and there's one entire mission ("The Battle of Pelennor Fields") that has some really poor camera positions.
The big reason for that sense of immersion, though, is how well the mission playfields and the missions themselves are constructed. The game absolutely leads the player by the nose from one point to the next, but the layout of the levels gives the player much more freedom than normal for this type of game. Mission construction has also progressed from the "move from point A to B and kill everything in between" style of previous games in this genre. Missions in Return of the King are being constantly interrupted by quick in-engine cutscenes and character voiceovers that present varied new challenges.
In just one example, the defense of Helm's Deep mission has the player playing as Gandalf. The first few minutes are taken up just beating up orcs, but that quickly changes when the orcs storm over the bridge to a small gate. You'll need to fight your way over a wall to three ballistas and use the "interact" control to fire them at the orcs and save the tower. A later mission has the player as Sam sneaking his way through the Tower of Cirith Ungol trying to avoid two tribes of fighting orcs in order to rescue Frodo.
Clearly, the one thing that the PC version has over the console is the beauty of its graphics. Not only is the PC version able to be displayed in resolutions up to 1600x1200, it uses higher detail models than the console versions. Even better, on a high-end system there wasn't much graphic stutter even at highest resolutions. While playing at 1600x1200 I did see some sticking during big explosions, but the game was definitely playable. When I lowered the resolution to 1024x768, the game ran perfectly with nary a crashing bug to be seen.
There was also a minor issue with the video playback of the film footage during cutscenes. The video compression method used in the game leaves some clearly noticeable artifacts, especially when the scene is dark. The video on a PC monitor is also somewhat fuzzy looking -- especially when compared to the crispness of the in-game graphics. It's probably not an issue on console, but it's very noticeable here.
The sound and music, on the other hand, are stellar. That's probably to be expected considering that much of the dialogue and score was pulled from the films, but the original actors have also done some new voiceover work for the game and the quality really shows. In fact, the importance of having the original actors can be heard in the one or two times where a sound-alike for Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn) was used; the result was pretty poor.
Of course, without a decent control scheme, the best graphics, presentation, and music in world doesn't matter, and that's where I got really nervous. If a console-to-PC port is going to screw up, this is usually the place. Moving from a joypad to a keyboard and mouse control scheme is no small undertaking and many companies don't even bother. Fortunately, the game is entirely playable using the keyboard and mouse (the on-screen tutorial text even assumes you're using this control scheme), although this really isn't the ideal way to play. Using this control method mean you'll be pressing the mouse buttons with your index and middle fingers a lot and mine started to hurt after a while.
The best method of control, of course, is still a joypad. I used a Logitech Wingman, and the game recognized it immediately and even gave me a default configuration to go with it. True, the default config wasn't that good and I had to re-map the buttons, but it was easily configurable in the game and once I used it, I realized I could never go back to a keyboard. One odd glitch: When the game was transitioning back from an in-engine cutscene, it didn't properly reorient the joypad and my character was running in the wrong direction until I let the control stick center. Still, I only saw this on one level (Pelennor Fields again) -- other players using different equipment may not see it at all.
In the end, Return of the King is still your basic beat-'em-up game. On lower levels it's winnable by button-mashing, although the expanded combo system is quite easy to use even for players like me without the hand-eye reflexes of a ferret on a double espresso. The several characters available also play somewhat differently, with various combos and special powers. Hobbits, for example, are pretty weak combatants who spend a lot of time running, and Aragorn is the quintessential swordsman with lots of cool moves. The differences aren't huge, but it's enough to make replaying levels with different characters an interesting experience. That replay value is important, because at 14 levels, the game is quite short.
The one thing that makes me pull my hair out is one of the best things from the console versions: the ability to play through the game cooperatively with a friend. Oh, the co-op mode is in the game (and it's awesome), but there's no Internet or LAN support in the PC version -- you have to have two people crowded around the same monitor. This format just isn't that much fun on a PC, and for the PS2 version of this game to have Internet play but not the PC makes me wonder what the thinking behind the decision was -- I mean, it's not like this Internet multiplayer thing is popular or anything, right?
So, if you're confronted with four different versions of Return of the King, which version should you get? I guess that depends what you're looking for. If you're a PC action gamer who doesn't own a console, or you're looking for the best graphics and great single-player action, then the PC version is for you. If co-op is important to you, though, you might be better off going with a console version. Whichever version you choose, however, you really can't go wrong with Return of the King.
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