With the November release of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King fast approaching, we clocked in some more time exploring the offline and online co-op modes in the PlayStation 2 game. As revealed last month PlayStation 2 owners will be in for an added treat, thanks to the PS2 version of the game's exclusive online functionality. While we experienced a brief taste of what the mode had to offer when we got our first look at it last month, we recently had the opportunity to have a proper sit-down with the game to go through both modes. Although the gameplay in both co-op modes is similar, each mode has its own unique feel.
The offline co-op game offers an experience that's much closer to the single-player game than its online counterpart. You come to the same level-select mural used in the single-player game. When playing the game you'll eventually work your way through all but one of the single-player levels. However, you'll take a distinctly different path through the game than you normally would. Whereas the single-player game gives you the option of choosing which path to take after the introductory Helm's Deep level--like Aragorn's path of the king, Gandalf's wizard's path, or Sam and Frodo's path of the hobbits--the co-op game puts you on a set path. You'll go through the path of the king levels first, then play the wizard's path levels, and then go through the hobbit levels before playing through the final levels of the game. You'll have the option of importing your character from the single-player game, which can come in handy if they're powered-up, or you can just start with a default character. Your selection of characters is affected by your progress in the single-player game. If you've finished the single-player game, you can use any character on any level. If you haven't, then you'll be limited to those characters who are specific to that path, with the exception of the wizard's path where you can use Aragorn, Legolas, or Gimli, in addition to Gandalf.
The online game is a bit different from the offline co-op in that it offers a more compartmentalized experience. Basically, once you log into the game you'll be given the option of an instant matchup, which pairs you with anyone looking for some quick slaying, or you can go to a matchup lobby. The matchup lobby is broken into four regions that feature Middle-earth monikers like Isengard, Gondor, and Rohan. You're able to chat in the lobbies via a soft keyboard or any USB one. You or a friend can host a game and then invite a second player into your game. You then come to a character- and level-select screen. Inquisitive players will note that you're able to access all the playable characters in the game--even the three hidden ones--immediately. You're also able to access whatever levels you've opened in offline co-op. When you complete each level you're taken back to the lobby rather than transitioning to the next one, as you would in offline.
As far as the gameplay experience goes, both modes play roughly the same. The biggest structural difference is in the lack of transition between levels in online and voice chat support. As far as mechanics go, the online game feels a bit different from the offline co-op game due to a slight difference in combo timing as you play. The only tricky aspect of playing with a friend is in collecting health pickups. The game tends to let whoever is nearest the item get it, which can be a problem when a player with considerably lower health than his buddy is attempting to heal. Players will have to learn some etiquette to ensure they don't lose their teammate. This is especially important as you have to share one respawn during a level. (This should keep players on their toes.) The additional body also helps you deal with some of the more brutal single-player levels that throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at you.
We're pretty pleased with our experience with both modes of the game. The gameplay is solid, and the options to transfer character experience points and level-ups or to import your existing characters are definitely cool. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is slated to ship this November for the PlayStation 2, GameCube, PC, and Xbox. The PS2 will be the only console version of the game to offer online co-op play.