The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Hands-On Impressions

We check out new levels in the console versions of EA's upcoming action game based on the movie trilogy.

We tried out three new levels in EA's upcoming action game based on Peter Jackson's final entry in his acclaimed movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is being developed internally by EA and will follow the events of the upcoming movie of the same name. Unlike last year's well-received The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers game, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King will be coming to the PC in addition to the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. We played all the versions of the game and were suitably impressed by what we saw.

The new version of the game we saw featured three new playable levels: Cirith Ungol, Minas Tirath Courtyard, and Paths of the Dead. The new levels showed off the new game's improved gameplay mechanics, though we were also able to check out the game's expanded roster of playable characters, including Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli from the original game, as well as Gandalf, Sam Gamgee, and Frodo Baggins. The new game will also feature three secret characters to discover--a distinct improvement on the previous game's single hidden character. The new game will also have a total of 14 levels.

The Cirith Ungol level lets the hobbit characters, such as Sam, make good use of their stealth abilities, which make up for their abysmal fighting skills. The level's focus was on infiltrating a fortress chock-full of assorted enemies squabbling among themselves. While the orcs and uruk-hai were intent on pummeling each other to death, they wouldn't have objected to putting their differences aside to skewer a hobbit--so in this level, Sam must be very stealthy and make good use of the game's interactive environments. To successfully make it through the level alive, you'll have to use Sam's elven cloak, which grants you brief periods of invisibility. Once your time is up, you'll have to wait for a bit before you can use it again. While managing your invisibility meter is crucial to your success, interacting with the environment is also another key component, since you'll have to deal with some enemies directly. While taking on your foes head-on is an option, you'll also be able to make use of elements in the environment such as traps or conveniently placed flaming spears to skewer your foes. You'll also find flaming pots you can trigger to strike down your enemies before they know what hit them.

The Minas Tirath Courtyard level charges you with saving 200 comely lasses intent on racing to safety before they're killed by the advancing hordes of Sauron. You'll have to provide cover for a steady stream of ladies as they race past orcs, uruk-hai, and cave trolls in order to reach the exit. The level is a fine showcase for the enhanced attack system in the game, which gives each player unique combination attacks. You'll find yourself relying fairly heavily on this system later on in the game, as things descend into chaos, as a final volley of Sauron's forces, complete with rock trolls enter the fray.

The final new level we were able to try out, Paths of the Dead, showcases new undead enemies and an eerie cave environment. The cramped level features patches of thick mist that impede your progress, much like the water did in certain levels of the previous game. As you'd expect, you'll be ambushed quite often as you slog through the mist.

The Return of the King's gameplay mechanics haven't changed much since The Two Towers. You'll have the same types of attacks mapped to the controller buttons and have the option to use the second analog stick on the console controllers in place of the buttons. The biggest changes can be seen in the enhanced combo system and in the addition of a context-sensitive "interact" button that lets you do everything from trigger traps to lower bridges.

The graphics in the game are looking quite sharp and improve on the previous game's impressive visuals. You'll find greater variety in the environments in terms of lighting, color, and texture detail. The game's character models are considerably more detailed than those of The Two Towers--playable characters and their foes look very sharp and wear ornate clothing. The game's playable characters look even closer to their real-life counterparts than they did in the previous game, while their enemies have some impressive detail enhancements, such as armor that you can break off in pieces. As far as the different versions go, all the games are comparable, though some versions are farther along than others. The PC version is hands-down the most visually impressive of the four versions, but the game looks great across all four platforms.

The audio seems as solid as the visuals, thanks to liberal use of the movie soundtrack and voice acting from the cast. The assorted sound effects, such as weapons clashing and enemy cries, also seem quite good and contribute to the game's atmosphere.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is scheduled to ship this fall, prior to the film's release. In addition to the console and PC versions of the game, a Game Boy Advance game will ship at the same time.

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