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The game opens up to the evil overwhelming forces besieging Helm's Deep (the last bastion of hope from The Two Towers?). A few minutes later (the exposition runs a bit long) the player, as Gandalf, leads the charge to flank the stunned orc forces. Within moments Gimli is chatting it up with you as you and he make quick work of Isengard's horde. The in-game chatter (Aragorn barking orders, Gollum sneering, and Gimli grumbling) that occurs while you are battling is perhaps the freshest addition to the game. Listening to the characters interact on the fly creates a truly cinematic feel--even more so than the movie clips do. Although many of the movie clips are edited impressively and effectively, they are usually montages splicing footage from all three films, the clip that ends the game falls noticeably flat, which cannot do justice to a panoramic epic in a few moment's time.
What is truly splendid, however, are many of the board's architectural majesty. Sam, Frodo, and Gollum's Escape from Osgiliath? (the first level on the Path of the Hobbits?) could be a game in itself. As Samwise, the stout-hearted hobbit, the single player must guide the ring-bearer and Gollum through the besieged city by battling goblins, slipping in and out of half-demolished buildings, all the while dodging the Nazgul who are hunting Frodo on dragonback. Twenty minutes later the player will find herself slipping past a group of orcs guarding a sewer grate which completes the level. Unfortunately, only six of the dozen-or-so levels are so expansive. Generally the environments are much smaller, very crowded areas which require the completion of multiple tasks. For example, at Pelennor Fields? the player must kill a specific number of mercenaries before protecting Pippen and Eowen from oliphants and The Witch King. The board is definitely fun to play wherein it requires the player to bum-rush the battlefield several times to climb the two hills which border the pitch; however, when compared to levels like Escape from Osgiliath? or Cirith Ungol? the board is noticeably lacking depth.
This is frustratingly true of five out of the six final levels (I'm including the two hidden boards?). What EA failed to realize again (they committed the same offence in The Two Towers?) is that killing five hundred orcs in a row is good fun, but if that's all you have to do to complete a level, mass murder quickly becomes tedious. On the other hand, if I, as Gandalf, happen to kill five hundred orcs while having to traverse a forest, deftly maneuver my way underneath raving Ents' feet (roots?) and finally assisting in Isengard's destruction, than that killing spree is no longer tedious; it's a means to an end.
The fighting itself has improved from EA's last installment making the non-stop battling much more fun. Button mashing to create combos is pretty standard fare in the hack-and-slash world but, The Return of the King's? interactive environments often offer you a refreshing number of alternative ways to kill your foes. For instance, one can grab a polearm from a stack and impale an oncoming orc with it or dump hot coals onto enemies from atop the battlements of The Southern Gate.? These extracurricular activities are performed via the action? button which allows you to lift drawbridges, swing up/down grappling hooks, as well as chuck torches at charging giant spiders. Small details such as these are what make The Return of the King? shine.
The character advancement/development is perhaps the blandest part of the game and is in need of the most revamping. Players earn experience points by how flawlessly they hack their opponents to bits. The longer you go unscathed and on a continual bloodbath the more experience points you earn per kill. At the end of each level the player is allowed to spend these points on combos and bonuses (such as more health or an additional super move?). That's all the development you're allowed.
This is from where my strongest feelings of ambivalence stems. The Lord of the Rings is a saga. Its characters are dynamic. They fail, succeed, sacrifice, rejoice, and lament. Each of the heroes and villains have fleshed-out personalities that never come through when playing this game. If one would pick up this game never having read the novels or seen the movies, he would think that Tolkien's/Jackson's stories were pure non-stop action films when, in fact, there are parts in the books/movies which make people laugh and cry and rejoice and lament. The game fails to capture any of that type of development. The only emotion I felt while playing the game was fear--fear that my character would be killed (and maybe piety: Please God, don't let my character be killed.?). It's ironic that a movie which featured a digitally rendered character as human and as touching as Gollum couldn't produce even a smidgen of that emotion in a videogame.
In all fairness though Return of the King? doesn't set out to make players cry or feel; it sets out to let players kill, and kill we do. The sheer number of enemies a single player must battle simultaneously is daunting. Which is why it is immensely satisfying to enlist a friend to fight alongside you. The two-player game is an immeasurable addition and will undoubtably add to the replay value which was a common complaint lodged against last year's The Two Towers.? Allowing unconventional pairs (Pippen and Legolas or Gimli and Samwise) two players can venture forth and play the game in an almost identical fashion as the single player, though two players are limited more so than a single player in the order in which levels need be defeated. Although the camera is usually positioned a tad bit distant from the battles, the players have no major problems keeping track of their character, unless you are a hobbit or dwarf who sometimes gets lost in crowds. Another commendable aspect of the game is how heath potions are doled out to keep near-death characters alive--but just barely. This keeps the battles strenuous and worrisome for the player while not becoming too difficult.
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