Return of the King: The Video Game

This morning’s Raleigh News and Observer published an Associated Press review of EA’s video game, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, a tie-in to the upcoming New Line film. As reviews go, it wasn’t a bad one, and I thought I would offer my own perspective on the game.

I’ve had the game since November 4th, the game’s release date, and after about a week I had completed the game, taking the One Ring to Mount Doom, defending (as Gandalf) Minas Tirith from being overrun by Orcish hordes, and defeating Sauron’s army (as Aragon, Legolas, and Gimli) on the Pelennor Fields and at the Towers of the Teeth. All told, I probably spent a dozen hours working through the game. Difficult? Insanely so in places, at other times not at all. As with a DVD, there are bonus films that can be unlocked, and as a reward for finishing the game, taking the One Ring to Mount Doom and casting Gollum into the fiery chasm, I earned several interviews (with David Wenham, Andy Sirkis, and the Hobbits) and the ability to replay the game with additional characters (Faramir, Merry, and Pippin).

It’s a good game. But it’s not a great game. As a hack-and-slash game in the mold of Gauntlet, Return of the King is fine. As an evocation of Middle-Earth, the game certainly captures well one aspect of the story–the martial quality that the characters are forced to endure. But there are three problems with the game, the improvement of any of which would have made Return of the King a great game. As it stands, I honestly prefer The Two Towers game from last year as a game-playing experience, despite its more linear story and its limited characters.

One of EA’s selling points is that, unlike in The Two Towers where your character choices were limited to Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, there are nine characters in Return of the King that can be played–the surviving members of the Fellowship and Faramir. At the outset of the game, however, only five of the characters are available; Frodo is not available until the final mission at the Cracks of Doom, and the remainder become available once the final mission is completed. But there’s only a limited number of characters each character can play from the outset–three missions for Sam, one for Frodo, five for Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. While any of the missions can be replayed with any of the characters once the game is finished, by that point the characters have been so improved by buying new attacks and increasing health that the game becomes incredibly unbalanced and the play challenge is diminished.

One area where The Two Towers game succeeded was in expanding the story of the film–as Aragorn and his party moved across the plains of Rohan there were missions where they had to save villagers from Orc raiding parties, stop a column of Orcs from moving through a town, and so on. While we didn’t see these events in the film, they were consistent with the story the film told, and it wasn’t difficult to envision the characters in those particular settings. Return of the King, however, doesn’t have anything beyond what is on the novel’s page, beyond increasing the jeopardy of the Paths of the Dead. Something that could have vastly improved the game would have been to add missions that, as in The Two Towers, expanded the story by putting the characters in situations and places where they might have logically gone when the camera’s focus was elsewhere. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to play as Aragorn as his fleet tried to pass the Corsairs of Umbar on their way up the River Anduin? Wouldn’t it have been interesting to clean the ruins of Osgiliath of the remnants of Mordor’s armies after the Battle of Pelennor Fields, as Aragorn’s army moves north toward the Black Gate? Perhaps these additions wouldn’t have amounted to much, but I would have been curious to see them attempted.

As it stands, Return of the King is a fun game, a difficult game, and one that will always have a place on my shelf. It could have been a better game, though.

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