EA's newest game-of-the-movie is still great for a licensed title, but it also has the same problems left over from The Two Towers.Review by Jonathan Metts
Last year's console adaptation of The Two Towers was most surprising in that it didn't suck. In fact, it was a fun beat-em-up with some great RPG-style elements thrown in to give the game more depth. I enjoyed the game but noted some problems with level design, and like so many others who played the game, I pined for a two-player cooperative mode that seemed like such an obvious feature for this kind of game.
With clockwork predictability, Electronic Arts released a follow-up game to coincide with the release of the final movie in The Lord of the Rings. The most prominent addition is exactly what everyone asked for last time, a two-player mode. Otherwise, The Return of the King looks, sounds, and plays exactly like its predecessor. It has also inherited all of the flaws of the original, while adding or exacerbating a few others.
This time around, there are three paths, each corresponding to a character's travels in the storyline. The Path of the Wizard follows Gandalf's battles in and around Minas Tirith and is probably the easiest section of the game. The Path of the Hobbits follows Sam and Frodo on their trek through Shelob's Lair, Cirith Ungol, and Mount Doom. (However, only Sam is initially playable in most of these levels.) The Path of the King tells of Aragorn's trials in earning his undead army and riding upon the Pelennor Fields and the Black Gate. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are all selectable for these missions, and completed levels can be replayed with the other characters to gain extra experience points. You can switch among the three paths at any given time, so if you get stuck on one level, there are others to attempt before you just give up. Playing the paths evenly is actually a good strategy, because now each character's experience points can be used to purchase upgrades that will benefit all of the characters, not just himself. So, if Gandalf just doesn't seem strong enough for his final level, you can play on the other two paths to unlock more abilities for him. All of this makes for a flexible game structure that helps cut down on the frustration of not being able to beat the next level in one of the very linear paths.
Unfortunately, frustration is still likely to be a memorable part of your experience with The Return of the King. It's not really that the game is too difficult, because most of the levels go smoothly if you know what you're doing. That "if" is a major qualifier though. Most levels are structured like missions, in that the object is not to get from one end to the other, but rather to fulfill some set of objectives which are probably not spelled out very well. Sure, the game may show a counter on the screen that implies you need to kill a certain number of orcs, or the introductory cut-scene may indicate that you need to protect a certain character. It's the details that are missing, like knowing that a particular part of the level will automatically kill you until enough enemies are defeated, or that you are meant to kill enemies in a specific order, etc. Players are simply expected to guess these things or fail the mission enough times until the solution manifests itself. For me, the solution often manifested itself at GameFAQs
, after trying over and over and over with no idea what I was doing wrong.
A similar issue is related to the game's fixed camera and its poor coordination with level design. There were at least three instances in which I couldn't beat a level simply because I didn't realize how to access a huge portion of the environment. The camera angles and visual presentations of the levels do an extremely poor job of showing the paths of movement, like a way down from a hill that can't be seen because the camera is perfectly horizontal and because the trail is hardly distinguishable from the rest of the ground. Another level contains a forced-scrolling section in which the character must run towards the camera to escape an approaching rockslide. As if the dust clouds and falling debris weren't enough to impede your progress, neither the environment art nor the camera manages to show which parts of the ground can be run across and which parts are impassable. Such information might be appreciated when a hesitation (or obstruction) of more than two seconds means instant death.
Then there are the archers. Now, I have no complaints when one or maybe two of these guys are flanking the melee fighters, pestering Legolas with arrows so that he can't complete a combo move. It's a strategic challenge to figure out how to deal with the long-range guys while dealing out hot death to the big orc all up in my face. It's pretty sick in the later levels though, when five or six orc archers are spread out over the battle area. Every single one of them manages to target your character, and in all likelihood, their shots will be staggered so that you have to block every arrow individually. That leaves no time for shooting back, much less for dealing with all of the surrounding enemies who won't stop attacking. In other words, the number and placement of these archers makes it virtually impossible to do anything
. If you try to ignore their arrows, you will die in a matter of seconds. So the game demands that you deal with these archers immediately, yet it creates a situation in which you have no way of dealing with them, either one at a time or all at once. Are we having fun yet?
To some degree, these problems were present in The Two Towers as well. Yet they seem to be more severe in the sequel, and they are certainly less excusable. Moreover, they take away much of the enjoyment the game could be offering. The cooperative mode, a fine addition and fully functional in itself, couldn't hold the interest of my friends for more than a few minutes. They all complained of how frustrating and arbitrary the missions were, and then they asked to play a different game. These are casual gamers and fans of the movies, i.e. exactly the crowd that this game is supposed to hold appeal for. As a hardcore gamer, I find myself turned off from the game not because of its simplistic gameplay or relatively short length, but because it takes me three hours of constant retries to beat a single mission, thanks to inadequate game design.
If you can somehow look past these flaws or don't mind playing with a walkthrough that will explain what each mission really
wants you to do, then The Return of the King has a lot going for it. The graphics do a terrific job of recreating the visual style of the movies, and the sound offerings include epic music and extensive voice-acting from the real actors. The hack-and-slash combat is just as good as in the last game, and it's still fun to build up the characters with new moves. The number and length of levels are respectable, and the two-player mode adds a lot of potential replay value. Occasionally, I found myself having a great time... usually after discovering online why I couldn't beat a mission, and subsequently getting through it with no other problems. When the game flows as it was meant to, and all the scripted events chain together, and you use your new combo to beat a boss, and you buy a lot of cool new abilities to use next time, The Return of the King is one hell of a compelling experience. It's a shame that the game keeps getting clogged up with frustration and confusion.Pros:Satisfying combat engine
Excellent sound design
Two-player cooperative play
Loads of unlockable goodies
Terrible mission objectives
Cheap enemy placement in some levels
The dark, gritty art style matches that of the movies. Character models vary in quality, but most could use more polygons. In hectic battles, it's often hard to tell which characters are the good guys, including the one you're controlling. Environments look great and have plenty of scripted events, but itâ€™s hard to tell where you can and can't go. Special effects for combos, fire, cinemas, etc. are very well done.
Gandalf narrates the entire game, which is impressive enough. All of the major characters from the movies lend their voices, and though some lines are acted better than others, the positive impact is tremendous. An atmospheric soundtrack sounds just like the movie, which is a great thing. The sound effects for battle are perfect.
The control scheme remains very simple and easy to pick up. The game is responsive, but sequences for entering combos feel inconsistent, because it's not very clear how the button timing correlates with the attack animations. Linked parry moves are unreliable; sometimes they work, sometimes not. Consequently, it's hard to justify using these particular moves.
The formula still works and can dish out heavy doses of fun, but the challenging, engaging combat is too often broken up by the dominance of incompetent mission design. Later levels have problems with the number and placement of enemies, especially archers. Missions sometimes depend on luck, as certain events may happen at different points. For example, you may have to keep playing until the champion orc comes out at a time that you aren't completely swamped by smaller enemies. Tiered mission structure works great, especially with the new Fellowship upgrades. Bosses seem to be tests of endurance more than skill.
The game is not terribly long, but missions can be replayed with different characters to earn more experience and unlock new moves for everyone. The new cooperative mode works perfectly and is a great way to play. Progressing through the game opens up interviews with the actors, production stills and artwork, etc. There are two bonus levels and four unlockable characters.
The Return of the King is a fun and intense game at heart. If only its missions were more understandable, balanced, and streamlined. Worth buying for fans who will appreciate all the special features as archive material, but most people can experience all of the levels --and frustration-- with a rental.