Papa's got a brand new Baggins.
Poor George Lucas. Here's a guy who once ruled the fantasy film business with an iron fist (his real fist having been chopped off by his father), the king of an Empire, as it were. With one of the most beloved film trilogies of all time tucked firmly into the belt of his Jedi robe, he was thought to be more than just a man. He was a Force of nature.
And then, Jar Jar. And THEN, stupid Annakin. AND THEN?! Well, we'll have to wait for the final prequel to come out before we decide what else he screwed up.
But while George was off destroying his legacy, a little known fat guy was off rebuilding one. The man was Peter Jackson, and his unbelievably compelling vision of The Lord of the Rings, perhaps the most beloved book trilogy ever, has wowed both kids who are just now learning about it and old nerds like me who used to think Ralph Bakshi's uneven vision was as good as it would get. I'm STILL pissed off he never finished it, by the way.
But I'm certainly glad the movies are genuinely good, because that also means now we're finally seeing some good LOTR games. Last year, EA's The Two Towers was a smash hit despite some valid gripes by 'idiots' like yours truly (at least according to the stacks of hate mail I got after that review). EA knows when they have a good thing, but surprisingly, they also know how to make it better, because LOTR: The Return of the King is more than just a sequel. It's an improvement and the perfect warm-up to the soon to be released movie.
The game picks up where the last one left off. The battle at Helm's Deep has successfully transpired, and now the final stages of the journey begin to take shape. You guide the various heroes through memorable scenes from the upcoming film in a no-holds-barred, cinematic action romp.
Unlike the last game, you now get to take on the roles of those marginally useful Hobbits Sam, Frodo, Merry and Pippin alongside Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. And yes, you can be Gandalf, and yes, he rules.
Return of the King is still the linear affair Two Towers was, but now there are multiple paths to follow. The King's Path follows the central plot of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, from acquiring the help of the ancient warrior kings to the final diversion at the Black Gate. The Hobbit path is equally fun and is a bit less chaotic, as you take Sam through the motions while protecting Frodo and even dealing with a certain gigantic spider. Probably the best path is that of the Wizard, in which you take the reigns of the Maia Gandalf himself and basically wipe the floor with, well everything that gets in your way. It's good to be a god.
Beating each mission opens up new ones, and occasionally you'll have to backtrack down one path to open up the next mission in another. It works well and keeps you on your toes, allowing you to experience the different characters naturally. Other notable levels include a wild battle at Pelenor Fields, aiding the Ents during the fall of Isengard and of course plunging into the Crack of Doom itself.
The design is very good, albeit quite linear like the last game. You move through fixed paths while all kinds of neat scripted events unfold around you. While more freedom would have been nice, it's not really expected. This is a game based on a movie based on a legendary book that has a very well-known outcome. Suddenly charging into a random town to set fire to thatched huts in the name of open-ended freedom would be silly (but admittedly neat).
Instead, Return of the King follows its predecessor by letting you hack, slash, hack and slash all manner of evildoer. The controls are mostly unchanged, which is a good thing. However, new to this game is the ability to manipulate the environment'to a degree. You'll pick up and hurl spears, tip over pots of flaming embers, man catapults and occasionally be allowed to move a bit off the beaten path, all by way of the new Action button. It doesn't change the gameplay much, but definitely adds even more cinematic flair.
The combo system and limited RPG depth is back as well, which gives the game some extra oomph for hardcore gamers but isn't really necessary for the casual fan. Some moves are unique to each character, while others can be purchased for everyone. Eventually you'll need the trickier combos, as you'll be hounded by swarms of enemies who are undaunted by a few quick slashes.
And once again, this is where the game falls a little short of the film's brilliance. It's fun and frantic and thankfully longer than the last one, but the gameplay and design does lead to a repetitive game. You can learn the combos and perfect them, but even then you'll still be dispatching the same enemies found in the same places. It adheres to the hack n' slash design philosophy rigidly, which results in a game that provides tons of immediate fun but eventually wears a little thin.
But man, it's a pretty trip. The graphics are excellent in every version (the Xbox and Gamecube look a little better. Big shocker, I know), with tons of onscreen enemies and plenty of background motion to really bring the fights to life. Despite a preponderance of gray walls and dark orcs, the game never looks boring or bland because of its incredibly cinematic atmosphere. After Shelob's lair, I spent the better part of the night batting at the imaginary spider crawling around in my ear. Some levels are better than others and you will certainly notice a clipping problem or two, but by and large the game looks great and accurately reflects the movie.
If the looks are solid, the sound is exemplary. The rousing score is intact, the voice acting is done by the cast and sounds, well, perfect, and the effects are spot-on. Turn up your speakers.
If the game ended here, it would still be a good one, but it really scores some extra brownie points with its inclusion of co-operative multiplayer, which was sorely lacking from Two Towers. In all three versions, you and a buddy can play through the story together. What once were single-player Sam levels now let you play as Merry as well, and where once there was just Gandalf, now there's Legolas flinging arrows beside him. Though the camera gets frisky here - you will definitely die a few times because your partner is off beating someone up while you're getting wailed on in the corner and cannot move " the co-op is sweet.
The PS2 version, in fact, even lets you do it online in case all your friends are either SARS victims or have no interest in The Lord of the Rings and therefore should contract SARS anyway. It works well enough online and even supports the headset for chatting, but it's much better with a pal on the couch.
The extras are nice, including interviews with the cast again (so once more we can revel in the wonder that is Elijah Wood talking about video games), the ability to play any level as any character and some bonus levels. Good stuff, mostly.
But you're not playing LOTR: Return of the King for the extras. You're playing it for what it is: a raucous blast through the final chapter in a fantastic film trilogy. It's bigger, longer and smarter than The Two Towers and is a perfect gift for the LOTR fan who somehow didn't run out and buy it immediately. Imagine that " a game based on a movie that doesn't suck. Let's just hope Peter Jackson learns a lesson from Lucas and avoids the Ewok catastrophe altogether.