The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Visually, this game is a delight. Players will experience DVD-quality movie footage (including never-before seen clips); and enjoy interviews with some of the main players from the film. The characters and environments of the movie have also been developed to furnish gamers with a cinema-like experience, and the storyline remains close to the movie and the classic books on which that movie is based.
But it’s no cakewalk. The game developers had a choice with this title: create a tame movie tie-in offering fantastic visuals but no real challenge; develop a game that would challenge younger players; or, recognizing the mass appeal across age groups of the film, create a rewarding experience that combines a strong storyline with real challenges, even for experienced gamers. They chose the latter course, though the game does focus on m´l´e-based combat throughout.
Take the beginning: Dawn at Helm’s Deep and Gandalf leads the fortune-changing flank attack that saw tainted wizard Saruman’s bid for power end. You come in fighting from the off – so learn the controls before you begin. As freedom’s wizard, you’ll find yourself assailed by brutish orcs, intent on your destruction. Get ready. The action is fast, and you have a lot to do to save the day.
Once you pass through level one, the action splits into three tracks: one features Gandalf in a series of bloody combats that grow increasingly more challenging. Another lets players choose one of Gimli, Legolas or Aragorn (King of Middle Earth) in a series of demanding levels as the three struggle to save the day at Gondor. The third track features Sam (and Frodo) in the quest to destroy Sauron's evil ring of power.
The game designers have made an excellent compromise between the needs of the storyline and those of gameplay: playable characters begin at level one, with limited hit points and abilities. As they progress, they gather experience points that can be exchanged for character upgrades and which translate into higher levels. As characters gain experience levels, they can acquire new abilities. A nice twist here – some abilities are character-specific, while others can be applied to the entire fellowship. While the latter cost more, this represents a good way to strengthen other characters to help them progress through their game tracks.
The game assesses skill at dispatching foes: the less your enemy hurts you, the better the skill – Fair, Good, Excellent and Perfect. These are totted-up at every level. If Gandalf kills all those orcs perfectly he will benefit from bonus experience points.
The game has hidden features, levels and characters. You unlock these as you progress, gaining extra playable characters and levels as you go along. You also unlock movie clips, interviews and more. You get the secret characters when you complete the game, after Frodo and Gollum’s difficult stand-off at the Crack of Doom. The final, secret level requires that you complete all the levels with a Perfect rating. As I said, it’s no cakewalk.
Success in this game is all about control. Like many console ports, players may find themselves frustrated by these. Don’t shoot Aspyr – the game remains excellent and engaging. No, this time the fault is with Apple. The company hasn’t developed adequate Mac OS X system-level support for external interfaces specifically for gamers. While I’m told that may change this year, the current position is that third-party game controllers (mostly based on the PlayStation/Xbox interface) aren’t yet adequately supported by Apple.
There have been Lord of the Rings games before. In fact, some may argue that the games industry owes a massive debt to J R R Tolkien’s modern classic trilogy, as the introduction of paper-&-pencil fantasy role-playing games in the years before computers helped prove that there can be more to gaming than Pac Man, Breakout and other arcade classics. I’m sure this won’t be the last Lord of the Rings title – I’d still welcome a modern Mac strategy title combining RPG elements, for example – but this title’s breathtaking levels, intelligent use of movie clips and superb character animation set it apart. The fact that the game is difficult to win only adds to its appeal for yours truly, as the sense of achievement you get as you overcome its obstacles really add to the experience. I think this title should appeal to a wide range of ages, and I hope will please both fans of the movie and those who just want to explore the world of the original books a little.