Lord of The Rings: Return of the King

Gamestyle Archive intro: 2 sources combine to restore a previously lost review. This is a technique I’m sure we’ll see more and more of over the lifespan of the archive. In this case the review dates from November 2003 and JJ. The spreadsheet backup ends suddenly right after ‘the PAL version is disappointing’ but using our resources it’s all good now.

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LOTR: Return of the King is the third and final instalment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, although Gamestyle suspects Electronic Arts is already concocting new and devious ways of ‘alchemically’ rebranding the licence. The battle for Middle Earth has finally begun, and only the Fellowship of the Ring can prevent evil from winning through.

Gamestyle will not divulge the storyline – which obviously allows players to experience parallel events – before the film reaches cinemas. All that needs to be said is that key moments from Return of the King are broken down into the form of fifteen levels. These are punctuated by in-game sequences and footage from the film itself – guaranteeing spoilers all the way. Those familiar with LOTR: The Two Towers will be on common ground, as unsurprisingly, the hack ‘n slash ethic is retained. The combat system is extremely shallow, and Gamestyle can find little in depth to favourably commend it. Chopping through waves of automatic foes is simply a means of enjoying the cinematic sequences, which inevitably lead to those valuable experience points. These can be spent between missions on special moves and combos (when you have reached the applicable level).

Of course, how the members of the Fellowship made it this far into the trilogy with only a simple spell or chopping move to call upon is something of a mystery. In spite of this, the upgrade system is enjoyable, and presents the best evidence yet of replay value; especially as each character only has ten skill levels to work through. As some character selections are forced upon the player (depending on the level), the curiosity value is piqued somewhat more than it should be.

The branching structure of the mission layout allows for some variety when approaching the grand finale. However, Gamestyle completed every level before progressing up the tree, and expects others to effectively do the same. The layout does however sprinkle some much-needed freedom of choice into a melting-pot full of constraints and repetition. The appearance of bonus extras are a welcome diversion, and given that Electronic Arts has contractual agreements with New Line Cinema, includes access to the actors and storyboards from the trilogy. It is unfortunate that such interludes are extremely brief, and The Hobbit’s interview for example is entirely risible. The levels themselves are bursting with action, movement, and the riposte of death.

The execution is a tad disappointing, given the introduction and rousing soundtrack, as you are left with a totally linear and limiting experience. Everything is very much set in stone, with a reliance on scripted events that so castrated EA’s Medal of Honour. An example would be the convenient location of explosives, placed right near the guard towers. If it wasn’t obvious enough, the camera suggestively pans around to provide the optimal view to triggering their detonation.

LOTR: Return of the King is an exceptionally dumb game, and fails to elicit any thought from the player – save for slash and stab. Some may enjoy switching off all thought processes for an hour or so, but Gamestyle expected much more, given the rich vein of source material. LOTR: Return of the King excels though when it comes to visuals, and like any Hollywood blockbuster, is loud, brash and superficial. The screenshots back up this verdict, as the game is very much like wandering through a museum. There is plenty to see, but you are unable to touch or qualitatively interact with the majority of objects on show. The main reason for this is linear constraints; no doubt needed for hitting that November release date. The camera too is likewise fixed, and its aloofness does not improve matters; always hinting at what might be possible, but never revealing the true texture of its canvas (though the implementation of backdrops is cleverly recognised). Regardless, EA’s programming proficiency is unquestioned, and does help to camouflage the shortcomings of the game to a certain degree.

The PAL version is disappointing – especially for Playstation 2 owners and should have been subtitled Hail to the Thief.  By this Gamestyle highlights the expected black border, which fills the bottom of the screen, however this is minor when pitted against its American counterpart.  The DTS soundtrack has vanished, and despite the excellent remaining Pro Logic soundtrack, a missed opportunity to experience what Xbox players take for granted.  Most devastating of all is the removal of the online co-operative mode.  This proved an opportunity to play online with another, work through the game and communicate through the USB headset.  Instead European players will have to make do with the offline version, yet still pay the full retail price.

The lifespan of Return of the King is very much debatable, as the single player mode can be completed in only a few hours, and that is sizeable chunk of this release.  The removal of the online co-operative mode, scuppers any long term interest that co-op offered potentially.  There are no exclusive levels for this mode, only the ability to play with a friend.  Why such a feature was removed is unknown – perhaps an attempt to avoid the problems that have plagued FIFA 2004 and its online mode.  Thirteen levels may sound impressive, but the actually playtime for each rarely rises above twenty minutes.  Add to this a dubious level such as King of the Dead, which is nothing more than a glorified boss encounter, and Gamestyle beings to value such things as a ten-day return policy.

Return of the King is enjoyable while it lasts, but there is little progression as the third game in a series. Without the flair of Electronic Arts presentational skills and the attached license this would be deservedly overlooked.  The tragic realisation is that at the final hurdle, the series has run dry.

Gamestyle Score: 4/10

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