We got some hands-on time with the PlayStation 2 version of EA's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. As the sequel to last year's The Two Towers, The Return of the King retains the Two Towers' fast-paced beat-'em-up gameplay mechanics, which was the strength of that game. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli make appearances, with Gandalf, Sam, and Frodo rounding out the cast of playable characters.
Return of the King's level designs appear to be much improved over last year's game, with interactive objects like catapults and much larger areas to explore. At the show we were able to play as Gandalf in the Siege at Minas Tirith level, which plays out in similar fashion to the Helm's Deep level from the Two Towers. Like Helm's Deep, Minas Tirith features a walled fortress that you must protect from a rush of hundreds of orcs and uru'khai. Unlike last year's level, there's a lot more area to explore on the walls of Minas Tirith. Running up to the higher towers, we found a couple of usable catapults that we could interact with to attack the orcs running up to the walls. However, as you're up there, you'll be attacked not only by the orcs and uru'khai already on the walls, but also by a ringwraith mounted on a flying fell beast. We had to fire at the beast using Gandalf's wand to fight it off, until it finally died, landing on a portion of the fortress and collapsing part of the structure.
Later on in the Minas Tirith level, we had to fight our way down the stairs to try to bolster the gates, which were being pounded on by orcs using a battering ram. One of Gandalf's special moves, a spell where he pounds the ground with the butt of his staff, came in quite handy for this part; it knocks down any enemies within a short radius around him.
The combo moves in Return of the King have been adjusted a bit, to give each character a slightly more unique feel. While the three playable characters in last year's version had their own animations for the combos, they still served the same basic purpose and felt the same from one character to another. The sameness between the combos will reportedly be remedied in the Return of the King, so each character will feel more unique. The developers also noted that there will be branching mission paths in The Return of the King. For example, Sam and Frodo's missions will rely less on standard combat and more on finding interactive parts of the environment to take out large numbers of enemies. In all there will be more than 13 missions in the game, not counting the hidden missions that can be unlocked. You'll also be able to unlock four hidden characters to play as you earn points in the game's story mode.
The most exciting new feature in Return of the King is a two-player cooperative multiplayer mode. It won't be split screen; both players will share the same viewpoint, so if you want to move from one part of the map to another, you'll need to coordinate your movements. At the show we were able to play a level as Aragorn, with a human partner playing as Gimli. The cooperative mode worked smoothly and will likely turn out to be one of the game's big selling points.
The Return of the King is scheduled for release on the PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube in early November, ahead of the movie's launch date. This will give you the chance to get sneak peeks of the movie by watching cutscenes from within the game. We'll have more information on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King as it becomes available.