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

We get an exclusive look at the newly announced online component of Electronic Arts' highly anticipated action game.

It's doubtful that any recent game based on a movie has been as eagerly anticipated as Electronic Arts' upcoming The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The game covers the final film in Peter Jackson's stunning adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien classic and comes hot on the heels of last year's excellent The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers game, which covered the first two entries in the trilogy. This year's game reflects several changes, both in development and gameplay, that improve on the solid foundation provided by The Two Towers. In terms of behind-the-scenes changes, EA has moved development to an internal studio. Last year's game was developed by Stormfront Studios, which is making use of an all-new graphics engine. As far as what this means for the game, you'll notice improved graphics, gameplay, and, most significantly, features. EA has confirmed that the PlayStation 2 version of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King will offer an online mode that will let you play online with a friend. We recently had the opportunity to get a closer look at both the single-player and online co-op modes, which served to drive our anticipation for the game to new heights.

Gandalf is pretty spry for having been recently deceased.

As mentioned, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King will cover the final installment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The game will feature a slightly different structure from the first game. You will now have three routes through the game: the wizard's path, the king's path, and the path of the hobbits. Each will focus on one set of the game's playable characters. This time out you'll be able to play as Gandalf, Sam, Frodo, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. The first time you go through the various levels in each path, you'll have to play through as the characters that are specific to each level. However, as you clear levels you'll be able to go back and play through with the other characters. In addition, you'll be able to open up three additional characters and hidden playable levels as you go through the game. (An interesting side note: You'll be able to unlock features a bit more quickly in the online co-op mode than you will in the single-player game.) You'll also find the same assortment of DVD-style extra features such as cast interviews and art galleries to unlock. The game's narrative has been shaped to focus on Gandalf's role in the events from the films, positioning him as the architect of many key incidents to ensure that Sauron is kept too busy to realize that Frodo and Sam are on their way to destroy the ring.

The game does a fine job of re-creating the insane battle environments.

The gameplay has probably seen the most tweaks, thanks to an improved fighting system that benefits from a deeper use of the existing moves, more animation, new moves, and a refined upgrade system. The game uses the same button layout as its predecessor, but the control feels a bit more responsive, due in part to the addition of more animation. Each character will have unique special abilities that you'll trigger by holding down all the shoulders buttons. Gandalf will have a temporary shield that protects him from harm and damages enemies that come in contact with it. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli will gain a momentum boost that will let them fill up their momentum meter more quickly, allowing them to perform one-hit perfect kills when it's full. Finally, Sam and Frodo will be able to use their elven cloaks for temporary invisibility. The roster of available moves has increased significantly as well. You'll gain most moves via an upgrade system that lets you use the experience points earned during a level to buy moves and other enhancements for your character, whose maximum level is 20. This time you'll find two sets of available upgrades, one set that will enhance the character you're currently using and another that applies the enhancements to the entire fellowship. The only catch is that the other members of the group will only benefit from the upgrade once they visit the appropriate level. The system has been tweaked to award extra points based on your score at the end of a level as well as to show you how many points until your next level via a counter above the health meter.

During our hands-on time with the game we were able to get a sample of the early single-player paths and to try the online co-op feature, which was a blast. The game's opening starts in much the same way as The Two Towers did. A long cinematic sequence--which plays only if there's no game saved on your memory card--blending footage from the films and narrated by Cate Blanchett, sets the tone for the first level, which starts with Gandalf's arrival at Helm's Deep just in the nick of time. You'll play as Gandalf in this fast-paced level that offers quick samples of the different types of gameplay elements as you race around the battlefield aiding Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. In addition to getting accustomed to combat, the level gets you acquainted with the interactive elements in the levels--such as spears you can throw--and the context-sensitive points that let you trigger different actions or objects such as ballistas. Following the end of that level we were able to move on to the start of the three separate paths through the game. The level select screen is a gorgeously lit wall with the assorted levels spread on it like a giant fresco. We tried out the first part of the single-player paths in the game to get a feel for the distinctly different gameplay being offered by the various characters.

You can just tell by the look in their eyes that it’s on now.

The Road to Isengard was the next level in the wizard's path and featured Gandalf as he made his way through Fangorn Forest amid an orc and ent rampage. The level has a nice flow as you make your way through to the ultimate goal, which is defending an ent who is hell-bent on bringing down the dam so Saruman can be flushed away. Along the way the level mixed things up quite nicely. In addition to the standard hacking and slashing, there were segments where we had to kill off a set number of orcs before we could move on. The catch is that a group of surly ents are stomping around the area and are heedless of your helpful presence. As a result, you'll be killing orcs while trying to avoid being creamed by the tromping trees. In the first level of the hobbits' path, Escape From Osgiliath, you'll play as Sam as he tries to escape the city with Frodo and Gollum, because the city is under siege by orcs and ringwraiths riding fell beasts. While you'll still be attacking orcs and such with Sam, the level features a

Sam: the unlikely action hero.

new mechanic in the form of an onscreen meter that slowly fills when you are out in the open and the wraiths become aware of you. You'll find covered areas where you can hang out to let the meter decrease and buy yourself some more movement time. We also got a peek at part of Shelhoub's Lair, another hobbit level, which was a dank spider-filled area. The level is essentially a maze that you explore while trying to avoid orcs and a variety of different spiders. Some you'll have to defeat by overturning and stabbing; others are much smaller and cluster on the ground, forcing you to use torches to scatter them in order for you to pass. Torches will also come in handy for burning away obstacles such as spider webs and igniting elements in the environment that will take out enemies.

The last of our hands-on time with the game was spent playing two parts of the Paths of the Dead stage on the king's path as Aragorn, which we played online. The first segment was a boss fight against the king of dead, while the second was an escape from the level as it came down around our ears. In brief, the online mode is exclusive to the PlayStation 2 and is broadband only. You'll access the mode by going into different lobbies to look for someone to play with. Each lobby will hold 50 players and will allow you to chat via the keyboard. You can manually find a buddy by searching the lobbies; choose an instant matchup, which automatically partners you with someone; or choose someone on your buddy list. In addition, the game will support instant messaging and the aforementioned buddy lists, so you can contact friends quickly. After the game launches, EA plans to include leaderboards and tournaments so you can have the world marvel at your orc-killing skills. A benefit of playing co-op online is that you'll be able to level up your characters a bit quicker, which will serve you in the single-player game, since you can move your character between the single-player and co-op modes. You can also unlock one of the three playable characters a bit quicker by going through co-op which is an added bonus to playing online. When you're in the actual game you'll be able to talk to your partner via a USB headset, such as the one used for SOCOM. Another thing to note is that when you're playing online, you'll be able to access the levels opened up by the host, meaning that if you want to see parts of the game that you haven't yet opened, you can hop online, find someone who has opened up more of the game than you have, and then access those levels. The game's dynamics change quite a bit when you're playing with another person online, because the levels have no continue points and allow you only one respawn if you die during a level. As with the normal game, the difficulty will slowly ramp up beyond the setting you started at as you start playing. All told, we were quite impressed with the way the on- and offline game played. The addition of voice is a nice touch, and it helps in coordination during battle.

The graphics are pretty stunning.

The graphics in the game are stellar and offer a considerable improvement over the graphics in The Two Towers. The character models are all incredibly close to their movie counterparts, and they animate smoothly. The environments in the game are equally impressive--they are densely constructed and packed with detail. While the first thing that's likely to catch your eye will be the foreground detail, you'll want to keep an eye on the rich detail in the background. You'll notice everything from gorgeous vistas to orcs and other characters running around, going on about their business. In addition, you'll notice a great deal more interactivity within the levels. Like the first game, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King makes use of the slick fades between movie footage and the game engine. There will be roughly 20 minutes of movie footage culled from the Fellowship extended-edition DVD, the upcoming The Two Towers extended-edition DVD, and the upcoming Return of the King film.

The audio in the game is stellar as always, with authentic sound, music, and voice that definitely place you right in the thick of Middle-earth. Like its predecessor, Return of the King draws liberally on the soundtrack from the trilogy, although there's actually very little final music from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in the game, since the film's score is still being completed. Fortunately, you probably won't notice, given the wealth of tracks taken from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The other key component of the game's audio is the voice cast, which taps all the major players from the film to bring their virtual selves to life. Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd, Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan, John Rhys-Davies, Andy Serkis, and Christopher Lee are all on hand and in fine voice. This year's game also has a new perk that audiophiles should enjoy: THX certification.

The audio in the game helps make levels like this come alive.

Based on what we've played, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is more than living up to our expectations. Barring an unforeseen event in the game's development, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King should be the action game to get this fall. The improved gameplay, stunning visuals and presentation, and great sound add up to create an impressive package. The addition of online play should add to the game's already potent draw. Fans of the movie trilogy, or anyone looking for an addictive action game, will want to keep an eye out for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King when it ships this November.

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