New `Lord of Rings' nears film potential

Game: `The Return of the King' is fun to play and makes good use of footage from the movie, but the series ought to inspire a better game.

November 27, 2003|By Victor Godinez | Victor Godinez,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

You know you're a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies if:

You hum the theme music in the shower, whistling and humming to a dramatic crescendo.

You own Nazgul figurines, and put them on your desk at work, facing off against a miniature Gandalf.

You're conflicted about playing the Rings games from Electronic Arts because while you can't wait to see the movie footage that's seamlessly blended into the play, you don't want to spoil the upcoming movie by watching too much of the video.

Check, check and check.

I got the chance to play the Xbox version of EA's new Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King ($49; suitable for ages 13 and up).

Although it's a delight to play a game so cleverly interwoven with the movie franchise, the play is a little thin.

Familiar feel

If you've played EA's Two Towers game, you'll feel instantly at home.

This time around, the environments are bigger, you can play as every character in the fellowship, and the graphics are prettier. But basically, it's the same concept.

There are three paths you can play through: the first, with Gandalf the wizard; the second, with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli; and the third, with Frodo, Sam and Gollum.

You don't have to play the missions consecutively. If you're stuck on one mission, you can hop to another and keep playing.

The game uses a three-dimensional, third-person perspective for the action, which looks great.

The battle at the south gate of Gondor, for example, is a masterpiece.

Multiple weapons

You can get by with constantly swinging your sword in the early levels, but you'll need to parry, string together combos and fire your bow, daggers and magic missiles to survive later on.

Another bonus is the two-player cooperative mode, where you team with a friend. The PlayStation 2 version offers two-player cooperative game play online, but the Xbox version's is off-line only.

While the action is fast and furious - and satisfying, especially when the severed orc heads whiz through the air - there are limitations.

First, the camera angles are controlled by the computer. Yes, that's one less thing to worry about during the game, but it's frustrating for action veterans who want to explore while they slay.

Also, the environments, while pretty, are rarely interactive. You can smash the occasional barrel, but most of the time you can't wander off a set path.

Finally, you die in lame ways.

In one level, after defeating the King of the Dead in the Aragorn path, you must escape from the collapsing cavern. But the rocks fall so haphazardly that you can die at any moment, no matter where you run.

Likewise, in one of Gandalf's levels, you defend the walls of Minas Tirith against Sauron's horde by pushing their ladders down before the orcs can climb up them. But it's not clear what you have to do to finish the level, and you'll waste time as the invasion meter at the top of the screen pushes into the red.

The Return of the King should please most fans of the movie. Heck, I loved it.

But there's a far more in-depth, LOTR game waiting to be made that will truly let gamers immerse themselves in Middle Earth.

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