Living up to the Lord of the Rings name is no easy task, especially as it’s one of the most successful and beloved book series of all time and, most recently, an extremely successful film trilogy. The videogames based on the movies have aimed towards this level of greatness, but none of them have achieved it. But surely it’s virtually impossible to successfully aspire to such lofty expectations. The games are based on the movies, not the books, because they all include features directly related to the movies, such as actor likenesses and voiceovers, and a distinctly cinematic feel. So, will EA’s latest installment of the Lord of the Rings gaming franchise be worthy of critical praise?
It’s logical that one of EA’s goals with the graphics was to have the gamer feel as though they are playing the movies. And it’s the only Lord of the Rings title on the market based solely on the movie Return of the King. The game’s graphics pull themselves up high enough to be seen as just above average. Every character is easily identifiable, which is always an advantage with action games, the characters tending to be more detailed than in other genres. The graphics closely mimic the movie but they may also provoke nostalgia in players who remember another video game: Golden Axe. Both titles share similar graphics, style, and battle systems, but obviously Return of the King is a more recent release and thus a technically superior game. However, the environmental backgrounds leave a little to be desired. After playing the game for a while, it will seem that the scenarios are the same. The movie franchise suffers from a similar ailment as the games on this subject. It has to be mentioned that there are some levels in Return of the King that are simply amazing; too bad that it’s just some of them. The visual display in some levels is quite repetitive but most of them have parts that capture the imagination. For example, The Road to Isengard is the same landscape for a while and then the Ents appear, battling Orcs while avoiding Ents stepping on you gives that feeling of being small. Also the camera helps a lot in those instances to make them more intense. Almost all camera angles are designed to be cinematic, sometimes making gameplay harder. One of the best examples is Peleannor Fields, where you have to reach giant crossbows to shoot at the Olyphants. When you reach a hill where the crossbows are found, the camera angle will go to a side view of your character, and in this way the incoming Olyphants look menacing and huge, but the angle gets in the way of seeing the oncoming enemies near the crossbows. So, you will find yourself looking at the spectacular view of the mountains, the Olyphants, and the action taking place at the other side of the hill while enemies can attack you by surprise because you can’t see them. The cutscenes sadly get in the way, too. I say sadly because they are amazing, many of them are in-game cinematics – only when you start or finish levels you get that awesome transition between FMV’s and in-game cinematics – that while they are running, enemies are lining up to kill you and when the cinematic is over, you have many enemies ready to hit you that weren’t there before. The good thing about this is that it keeps you on your toes all the time. For obvious reasons the game is tilted towards the presentation factor, it’s based on a movie that’s based on a book. If the goal of the developers was to make you feel in the movie they achieved that wonderfully.
The sound effects in Return of the King totally hit the mark, and they are impressively loud when necessary, too. In a Lord of the Rings game the sound needs to contain, accentuate and complement the same action as the gameplay and graphic departments. EA admirably achieves the goal of making the game sound much like the movie. The clashing of swords, the whizzing of arrows, and the snarls of Orcs, Goblins, and other beasts found in the movies are all heard lucidly throughout the game. One notable downside that both the movie and the game share is the lack of variation in background music; it’s just effective enough to promote the feel of the movie through your speakers, but it will not stand out. Background music aside, there are some aural plusses in the sound department. While in the midst of a battle, when the sheer measure of enemy numbers vastly outweighs your own, that’s when the sound effects are at their best. Subsequently, players will experience the gut-wrenching tension felt on any battlefield, especially while there’s a rabid bunch of beasties coming at you. To get an idea of the captivating sound, try the Minas Tirith Courtyard level where balls of fire crash into the buildings and fire arrows whoosh by you. You can hear the chaos of Orcs and giant Trolls entering the courtyard and killing people, while archers shoot arrows by you towards the enemy. You feel at war, and a chaotic one. It’s probably one of the most amazing aspects of the game.
Action games need to be simple to control and yet fun to play, and that’s what players expect to get out of these movie-licensed games. The gameplay is practically the same as in the previous two Lord of the Rings games. A good advantage at Lord of the Rings games’ disposal is that they are always fun to play – and that’s undeniably one of the most important aspects of any game. But the gameplay in Return of the King is not perfect. Controlling the characters in this series has proven to be an often difficult task, unless you are a skilled button-masher. Return of the King has to be bought with a spare controller, because by the end of the game the buttons in your controller will be softer than they where before. The great and simple triumph in the game’s gameplay is the combo moves, available for one character or usable by all. The fact that you have to “buy” your combos adds a replay factor to the game. Why, if I go through the game with only the Orc Hewer move? Or make my arrows deadly? That replay element adds to the fact that there are many characters to choose from to play the game.
There is a cooperative mode also available and it is very fun to play. The only bad thing is that there are no checkpoints, so if you lose back you go to the start. All of this is compensated if you play with a skillful gamer. Each player can choose his or hers favorite character, and each can have a different role in battles. For example, if one chooses Aragorn you better get ready to do some close combat and if your partner chooses Legolas then he or she better get ready to shoot some arrows. This adds strategy to a very action-oriented game.
Fans of Lord of the Rings – especially the movies – will surely have a blast with Return of the King. The game doesn’t live up to the qualities resplendent in either the book or the movies, but it’s still a technically competent game and fun to play (“The next best thing to being in the movie” says Sir Ian McKellen in an interview). Often that’s enough to make a successful game and the LotR video game series has certainly been successful. But the thought of the number of ways the game could have been better will linger long after the fact. If you want a gaming experience very close to seeing the movie, this is the best opportunity of doing so. EA’s slogan on Lord of the Rings: Return of the King should be, “If it’s in the movie, it’s in the game!”