It's a good bet that the forthcoming movie The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is going to be pretty good. Peter Jackson's cinematic trilogy, based on J.R.R. Tolkien's seminal series of fantasy novels, is, by all accounts, a huge success, and since the three films were shot back to back to back, we can expect the same kinds of dramatic performances, wondrous scenery, and sheer excitement from the final chapter of this saga that we saw in The Fellowship of the Ring and last year's The Two Towers. This movie series is uncommonly good, which is certainly, in part, why Electronic Arts, the company that nabbed the rights to produce games based on these films, is going all-out for its game adaptations. The new Return of the King game follows closely in the footsteps of last year's hack-and-slash action game, The Two Towers, but picks up at the fever pitch where The Two Towers left off, and it's considerably better overall. It's still a relatively simple and short action game at heart, but a solid combat system, some extremely intense and cinematic levels, cool extras that fans of the movies will enjoy, and the option to play cooperatively with a friend all add up to make The Return of the King deserving of its name.
The Return of the King chronicles the final, desperate acts of Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn, and company to thwart the destructive plans of the evil Sauron.
Last year's The Two Towers game included sequences based on The Fellowship of the Ring as well as its sequel. The Return of the King is similar and begins, literally, with the climactic battle of Helm's Deep from The Two Towers. As if to make sure you get a grand first impression, the first level begins automatically when you first load the game--after a brief introductory cutscene that sets the stage for the wizard Gandalf's arrival at the break of dawn with the Riders of Rohan. The defenders of Helm's Deep are being overrun by the evil forces of Sauron, but Gandalf's perfectly timed intervention swings the momentum of the battle in favor of the forces of good, putting Sauron's armies into full retreat. As Gandalf, you'll smash through legions of the villainous uruk-hai, scale the castle walls to assist Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, and rupture the enemy's supply lines, all while war wages all around you. This first level suitably captures the chaos and frenetic pacing of the battle from The Two Towers, and, aside from the fact that you can't actually lose here, it's par for the course in The Return of the King: All the levels in the game are as spectacular as they are frantic.
Once you've won the battle of Helm's Deep, you're presented with the nicely done stage select screen, from which you'll also be able to access the game's various bonus features, as you unlock them. The game primarily consists of three sets of levels, which are modeled after the separate paths taken in The Return of the King by Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo, the ring bearer. The "path of the wizard" and the "path of the hobbit" are shorter than Aragon's "path of the king," but to finish Aragorn's path, you'll first need to finish the other two. This structure properly reflects how these characters are forced to go their separate ways in The Return of the King, but it also reflects how their efforts are for a common cause: the destruction of the One Ring and, with it, the elimination of Sauron, his general, Saruman, and their terrifying armies. Each of the three paths can be attempted in any order, but, as you'd expect, you need to finish the missions of each path in order.
Like The Two Towers before it, The Return of the King is pure action. You'll cut through droves of Sauron's minions in each hectic level.
Also as you'd expect, The Return of the King reveals much of the plot of the forthcoming film, though without being too specific. The game's storyline, in and of itself, is actually quite disjointed and assumes players' familiarity with the material. That is, if you didn't know anything about the story of The Return of the King, then the story of the game may be hard to follow, though you'll still get the gist of it. Many people already basically know how this story ends from having read Tolkien's trilogy of novels, but in case you don't want any aspect of the movie spoiled for you, it'd be wise to hold off on playing The Return of the King until after you've seen the movie. For what it's worth, The Return of the King actually includes very few video sequences from the movie on which it's based. The full-motion video is used pretty sparsely, in general, and most of it comes from The Two Towers.
The Return of the King includes a variety of playable characters. In the path of the king, you'll be able to choose from Aragorn the ranger, Legolas the archer, or Gimli the dwarf. You'll play as Gandalf in the path of the wizard, but rather than play as Frodo in the path of the hobbit, you'll actually take control of his faithful friend Samwise. Even if you played the similar Two Towers game, you might expect each of these different characters to have vastly different repertoires of moves, or you might expect that each requires considerably different tactics, but that's really not the case. While the speed and style of the characters' respective slashing attacks is somewhat different, each is comparably powerful and capable of holding his own. Purists may find it a little ridiculous that the diminutive Sam is about as good at slaying legions of uruk-hai as a seasoned warrior like Gimli and that the ranged attacks of the expert archer Legolas aren't really any faster or better, in practice, than those of any other character. However, for the purposes of gameplay, these similarities are fine. They basically mean that you can concentrate on mastering the game's parrying and combo system rather than relearning the controls for each of the game's characters.
Cinematic cutscenes and DVD-style extras help make this game an ideal supplement for fans of The Lord of the Rings movies.
As in The Two Towers, the action in The Return of the King rewards players for cleanly cutting down their foes in rapid succession. The controls for all the characters are identical: You may execute fast attacks, fierce attacks, physical attacks for knocking opponents back or knocking them over, killing moves for vanquishing opponents who've fallen down, ranged attacks for shooting enemies or other targets from afar, and parrying moves for deflecting enemies' blows. You may also use certain objects in the environments, such as spears, catapults, torches, and gate latches. Some of the characters have unique abilities. For instance, Sam can use his magical cloak to temporarily disappear from his enemies' sight, whereas Gandalf can create a defensive barrier about him. These aren't essential skills and don't really change the way these characters play, but they do help provide some differentiation. More importantly, as in The Two Towers, your characters gain experience levels as they fight, which grants them access to new combos and other improved abilities which can be purchased between levels by using the experience points you've accrued. The more efficiently you fight, the more experience points you gain, which is a good system that suitably encourages you to do more than just mash on the attack buttons.
New to The Return of the King are "fellowship upgrades," which are options to spend more experience points to unlock a combo or other ability for use with not only the character you're currently playing as but with all the selectable characters--provided they are of sufficient level. This way, when you're playing as lower-level characters in the other paths of the game, as soon as they level up during a battle, you'll be able to start using the abilities you've already unlocked. Most of the unlockable combos and other abilities in the game can be purchased for the entire fellowship, and The Return of the King offers more higher-level skills than The Two Towers did, which gives you a bit more incentive to keep playing after you've finished the main missions. Also, once you've finished the game, you may play any of the game's levels as any of the game's characters, allowing you to experience some rather goofy "what if" scenarios.
Though you'll always be outnumbered, fortunately, you won't always fight alone--nor do you have to, thanks to the cooperative play option.