At its core, the combat in The Return of the King is simple. One catch is that enemies who carry shields will automatically deflect your fast attacks, but your fierce attacks will shatter these shields. The enemy AI puts on a convincing show, as many of the missions will put your character and his allies in the middle of pitched battles where combat is occurring all around. Enemies who have noticed you will tend to lunge in with an attack, then dance around and intermittently stab at you some more. The enemies will also do a good job of surrounding you as they rush in from every direction. If you attack at the same time as an opponent, neither one of you gets hurt, so it's the same as parrying a blow. Parrying requires no real timing. Keep tapping the parry button and a frontal attack will never penetrate your defenses. The various combos don't require much in the way of timing, either, though link moves--which you can use to instantly kill certain enemies after parrying their blows--can be a little tricky to get the hang of.
These countermoves automatically put you in "perfect mode," a temporary state from which you'll get maximum experience whenever you kill foes. Repeatedly using combos while avoiding getting hit will also put you in this zone. The game doesn't penalize you for using the same combo over and over, either. In fact, some of the earliest combos you acquire are also some of the most useful, and though the effects of each combo are slightly different for each character, the combos themselves are performed using the same button sequences. You'll take damage pretty often in the game's levels, but enemies will occasionally drop health potions, which instantly restore a portion of your life and keep you going. The core gameplay of The Return of the King has just enough depth to be interesting, and it's got a pretty good feel to it overall.
The level design is really what makes this game such a thrill to play through, at least once. Each level effectively conveys the chaotic feel and epic scale of the outstanding battle sequences from The Lord of the Rings movies. Enemies number in the hundreds, and the sounds of warfare constantly fill the air. Massive explosions, collapsing walls, and a constant sense of danger combine to make you feel like you're really there in the thick of these seemingly hopeless battles. The levels are almost completely linear, and the camera perspective automatically tracks you to give an ideal vantage point for the relentless action. Sometimes you'll find yourself fighting from an awkward angle, like from too far into the background, but this is rarely an issue. Conveniently, characters standing between you and the camera angle (like when the camera tilts closer to ground level) will become semitransparent, ensuring that you pretty much never lose sight of where you stand.
If you don't already know what happens at the end of The Return of the King, you may want to hold off on playing it until you've seen the movie.
The levels are completely and meticulously scripted and play out in much the same way each time. That diminishes the game's replay value, but it also gives you the prescience of knowing what to expect as you inevitably retry some of the tougher sequences. Some levels have one or more checkpoints, at which you may restart if you lose all your health or otherwise fail your mission, but other levels force you to start over from the beginning. At the normal difficulty setting, many of the levels in the game are surprisingly challenging, as you'll often find yourself racing against time or trying to defend other characters rather than just trying to defend yourself. More-casual players, fortunately, have the option to switch to an easy difficulty setting, but there is a hard mode as well. At any rate, the game isn't overly difficult, but, by all means, it's tough enough to help sustain the illusion that you're at the center of these incredible, against-all-odds conflicts.
Many players wished that The Two Towers offered a cooperative multiplayer mode, especially since you'd often find yourself fighting alongside computer-controlled allies. The Return of the King provides this option, and it works as well as can be expected. The challenge ramps up to make it worth two players' while, and, though there's not much in the way of new tactics to be found in the two-player version of the game, it's still inherently entertaining to go through these often incredible action sequences with a friend. The co-op mode is probably the least practical on the PC, where you'll want one player using a gamepad and the other using the default keyboard/mouse controls (which work about as well as the gamepad controls on all the other versions). Meanwhile, the PlayStation 2 version of the game uniquely offers the ability to play the co-op mode online and also supports voice communication using a USB headset. The PC version, unfortunately, doesn't have online support, but The Return of the King's co-op mode is better when played with a friend than with a stranger over the Internet, anyway. Also of note, the GameCube version supports Game Boy Advance connectivity with the GBA version of The Return of the King, which is simply used for the transferring of small amounts of experience points between characters.
The Return of the King looks quite impressive, and each version of the game looks comparably as good. The Xbox version, overall, looks best and boasts the sharpest visuals and the smoothest, most consistent frame rate. The GameCube version is similar, but its frame rate is more prone to fluctuation. The PlayStation 2 version is certainly no slouch, and, while its visuals don't look as sharp as those of the Xbox and GameCube versions, it runs pretty smoothly and boasts the same terrific special effects. The PC version looks great, too, but a top-of-the-line machine is needed to make the game look its best. You may need to run the game at a lower resolution than you're used to in order to get the action to move at an acceptable frame rate. Frame rate issues do affect each version of the game, to varying degrees, and none of the character models for the main characters look all that remarkable, either. They're more in line with their cinematic counterparts than those of the previous game, but they're still pretty flat-looking. All other aspects of The Return of the King's graphics are outstanding. The scenery, colors, and special effects all perfectly mimic the look of the movies. The relative simplicity of the character models allows for tons of characters to be rendered onscreen at once, for dramatic effect. The full-motion video is also of very high quality.
The Return of the King, the game, offers the same sort of epic, nail-biting action that's helped make Peter Jackson's movie trilogy such a phenomenal success.
The game's audio is even more effective than the graphics at conveying the intensity of the action. Ian McKellan, as Gandalf, provides original narration for the game and gives the proceedings a truly authentic touch. Sound bites from the other actors are also used to good effect. The now-familiar Lord of the Rings theme blares triumphantly, oftentimes during the combat, but the ambient effects of battle, along with the sounds of your weapons cleaving orc and uruk-hai armor and flesh, are the best part of the audio. As in the movies, there's no truly graphic violence in The Return of the King, but the sound, combined with some of the nastier-looking animations (mostly for the killing moves), makes this combat far from subdued.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King features fast-paced, cinematic action with plenty of pick-up-and-play appeal. It captures the sights and sounds of The Lord of the Rings movies and offers lots of DVD-style extras for fans of the movies. On its own merits, it's not a particularly lengthy or complex game, so you should be able to get through most of its content in a weekend. However, it's a great experience while it lasts, and the Lord of the Rings fan will want to hold on to this one for posterity. It does justice to the movies that inspired it--and that's no small feat.