RETRO – While Lord of the Rings: Two Towers was console-only in 2002?! The King returned to PC in December 2003, once again based entirely on the fantastic Peter Jackson film adaptation. Whether you’re Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Sam or Frodo, you’ll be able to fight your way through the film’s most important battles and gripping scenes in the skin of the Ring-bearer.
Since 2001 to be precise, the film adaptation of the novels of one of the forefathers of fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien, has been a source of excitement. While Peter Jackson’s trilogy did not reproduce Tolkien’s work word for word, The Lord of the Rings is one of the most ambitious, spectacular, epic adaptations of all time – and I could go on for five pages and be done with this article.
It’s no wonder Electronic Arts, a very well-funded company, has been a bloodthirsty slave to the rights to the film’s license, determined to break the old curse that only games that are weak as gold can be made from a movie. In 2002, the vow was turned into a brilliant hack’n’slash game that, despite its title (Two Towers), adapted the events of both parts. Unfortunately, PC gamers were left out of the great adventure because EA’s marketers – allegedly – thought that it was impossible to “make a game of the same quality on PC as on console”… So that’s how it happened, my little hobbits, that Two Towers was released for almost every platform but the blender and PC…
Fortunately, the marketers in question are not shy when it comes to contradicting themselves, and they have not left PC owners out of the next instalment, Return of the King.
As I had the pleasure of playing the excellent previous title on my first Xbox, I was looking forward to Return of the King with great anticipation. The story of Two Towers, which spans the first two films, is narrated by Aragorn to Princess Éowyn, and we were essentially treated to the main action scenes. After two short opening scenes – where we had to take part in a battle with Isildur from the Fellowship of the Ring, and then defend Frodo on the Windswept Mountain with Aragorn against the Ringwraiths, in a famous scene from the film – we were given the choice of three members of the Fellowship, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, to fight our way through the two films. The gameplay was very reminiscent of classic platform action games such as Golden Axe.
What made it such a considerable number? Well, not only did the creators work out the main characters, orcs, trolls, other monsters, and various locations to the smallest detail, but they mixed it all in with the more critical scenes: one moment, you can see Aragorn’s desperate face in battle in the film, the next flash of the screen fades into computer graphics, and you’re standing in the role of the Wanderer in the middle of the scene!
Although Two Towers wasn’t perfect, it managed to recreate the cinematic atmosphere to the maximum. I was expecting at least something similar but even more perfect than Return of the King… Well, as you can see from the reviewer, I wasn’t disappointed, but let’s see how it goes…
What makes this King the king of gaming?
I want to say right away for Peter Jackson fans: the cinematic feeling and immersion are perfect! The game starts with the eerie voice and beautiful face of the elven queen Galadriel, and then we slowly move to the battle of Helmsdark, where the previous episode left off. Aragorn looks despairingly, yet hopefully, at the hill beside the castle, at the top of which Gandalf appears as promised. Then on his white steed, he beats off to the stunned Orc army, with the rushing cavalry led by Éomer behind him.
As in the first part, we are subtly transported from film to computer graphics, and in the next moment, we find ourselves in the white robes of Gandalf in the heat of battle.
The first track is an introductory part, which means that you couldn’t leave your teeth there even if you wanted to. Good thing, too, because if not your teeth, your chin will undoubtedly fall victim to the perfectly crafted spectacle before your eyes. As we make our way through a torrent of orcs with the superbly animated Gandalf, green blood stains the castle walls, giant stone throwers are pounding the walls with fiery bullets, men are fighting desperately against the green-skinned, and there are cries and roars of battle everywhere.
Although it’s basically an action game, you’ll have to perform various tasks right from the start: climbing the castle wall, you’ll have to use your magic wand to hurl lightning bolts at the invading orcs, and then climb back down to crush their armies as they siege the castle gates with their stone throwers. This is only the opening scene, but I’m already captivated by the atmosphere of the game…
The ways of the Fellowship
Once the Helm’s Gorge battle is over, we move on to the “feed” screen (more on this later) and then to the “course selection” screen. There are essentially three ‘paths’ to choose from, modelling the quests of the main characters Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo. It’s a great joke for a game like this that you can start on any one of them and switch between them, and it won’t be distracting, thanks to the cleverly edited film and story elements. But by the time you and Aragorn reach the Black Gate for the final battle, you’ll have to complete the quests of each story thread. Not only is this an exquisite solution that enhances replayability, but it also adds to the story’s significance by making us feel that each character plays an essential role in destroying the Ring and defeating Sauron.
Huh – did I tell you too much? I suppose you guessed that it wasn’t Sauron who would win a Dungeon Keeper-style victory… And how much of the game itself was spoiled in the movie? Well, the major scenes, the ending, and who the final battle for the One Ring is between will be revealed, so if you haven’t even finished the book and are sticking to the surprises in the story, you really shouldn’t. The makers of the game have also been careful not to spoil anything: we see relatively little of the film, as they have very cleverly cut together much of the footage from the trailers we already know in such a way that you will never feel you have seen too much, and they have also cleverly interspersed parts of the previous episode, Two Towers.
One for all, all for One Ring
Many people regretted that Gandalf was not a controllable character in Two Towers, so this wish was granted: the “way of the wizard” was reserved for him. The “Hobbit’s Way” was a bit of a surprise, as it was not Frodo but his loyal friend Samu who was to be guided, so the famous blue-glowing “Stinging” sword would not be in our hands most of the time… Finally, the three more combative characters who could be controlled in the previous episodes, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, who always stood by each other, were added to the “King’s Way”. Although each of them is an entirely different character, whether, in terms of physique, training or fighting style, this is unfortunately not reflected in their control. While their speed and cuts differ somewhat, they can help each deal with an army of orcs just as well.
I think it’s a bit ridiculous that, for example, Samu is as good a swordsman as Aragorn or that everyone is as quick and efficient at shooting from a distance as Legolas. True, it makes it easier to learn their controls and unique combos, but it makes the characters a little less unique, and it makes us disinclined to maybe start ROTK over with a different character if it doesn’t really affect the gameplay change.
“Virtue only, my friend Gimli!”
As in the previous section, combat prowess, or how quickly and efficiently you can cut down enemy orcs, is also very important. Although some combos differ, the basic controls are the same: a quick attack can kill a shieldless enemy with less armour, a ‘hard’ sword strike can smash their shields, and a punch or kick can knock them backwards – or, if you’re lucky, to the ground. In the latter case, the “killing move” can be done with a single thrust at the orcs on the ground, which is relatively slow, but can be done when they start to get up.
In principle, you can use it to defend yourself, but I’ll be honest, I’ve rarely used it in the heat of battle, only against the main enemies, because if you do it for too long, you’ll soon have three times as many orcs on your back…
The long-range shooting, as I wrote, is ridiculously as fast and effective as Legolas’ archery. Still, at least the “projectiles” are different depending on the characters: the dwarf thins the opposition with small battle-axes, Samu throws stones, Gandalf casts lightning spells, and Aragorn… well, Aragorn is a master of arrows, but he could have thrown daggers. Not to forget the special abilities: Samu, for example, can disappear from sight for a short time thanks to his elven cloak, and Gandalf can cast a protective spell.
You can also often use (optionally or sometimes obligatory) some object in your environment: by throwing burning spears into the ground, you can instantly impale a full-sized orc or Uruk-hai; by shooting burning darts at their necks or torches at them, you can “warm” them up a bit, and with the catapults found on some maps you can kill larger armies or the “oliphants”.
Finally, you can only move on in some places by continuously turning a lever to open a gate or lower a bridge.
A hint of RPG
The creators have spiced up this game with essential RPG elements like the previous episode. Our heroes gain experience points and level up during the fights. XP is used to ‘buy’ various combos in the menu that pops up during a mission, which can only be used when you reach the appropriate level. A fun feature, and a new idea in ROTK, is the ability to buy special moves for the whole team that everyone can use once they have reached a certain level. So, for example, when you’re fighting orcs with Samu and levelling up, you can start using combos you bought from Gandalf. Since some high-level specials are only available towards the end of the game, it makes sense to possibly start over, especially since you get hidden characters after completion.
So often neglected in other action games (BloodRayne being the most glaring example), the track structure is top-notch here. Not for a single moment did I feel “oh-so-small” about this corridor or wasteland, as the locations are all as meticulously crafted as possible – not only are they simply varied, but pixel by pixel, you feel like you’re fighting in the movie! You can see that the developers have worked with Peter Jackson to the maximum, not just the licence.
The camera angles are 80-90% perfect, which is a pleasant surprise for a game of this style – you rarely have to shoot a character from an unfortunate position. The only downside to the cinematics is that every scene and monster location is pre-set: it’s as if Peter Jackson is standing somewhere in the back behind the cameras, shouting to the orcs, “take one”, and now you have to run forward. It’s a bit of a detriment to realism and replayability, but at least it helps when you have to fight your way through a level from the front because you’ve left your teeth, and no matter how great a spy you are, it’s bound to happen… Yes, like it or not, you can’t save during the maps in this game either; you just get the usual “checkpoints” from the consoles, which the creators have been rather stingy with.
Atmosphere all above
I cursed a lot during the parts that were too difficult in places, but the atmosphere was worth it, and the makers did their best to make me feel like I was in the middle of the film. The graphics are a little console-like, but the effects are still awe-inspiring, and Howard Shore’s catchy music, which is constantly playing, is captivating.
Of course, it’s basically a hack’n’slash game, so you won’t be doing any adventure game-like logic tasks or controlling large armies – if you’re looking for that, you’d better not load Return of the King. However, performing combos requires excellent skill and coordination, so overall I wouldn’t call it a mindless grind. Unfortunately, that’s not true for all of it – indeed, there were times in some maps when I had my snowshoes full from having to wipe out an Orc army the size of China’s entire population. I understand that the film’s spirit had to be upheld, but I still wished the whole thing to hell.
The “sliced” nature of the game is also a bit disturbing: it somehow doesn’t form a whole, and because of that, you feel somewhat alienated from the main characters; you don’t feel as immersed in their situation as you do in Max Payne 2 or Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.
The Lords of the Rings: The Return of the King is a real hack’n’slash, with combos and levelling up from start to finish. The cinematic atmosphere, the graphics, and the music are perfect, and it’s “cool” that you can control all the characters. A little more complexity and less hacking wouldn’t have hurt…
+ Captivating, cinematic atmosphere
+ You can be with any character of the alliance
+ Well-developed combos and development system
– Too much butchering
– “Sliced” character
– Few checkpoints
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Redwood Shores
Style: Hack’n’slash TPS
Release: November 6, 2003 (US) November 14, (EU)