Return Of The King Will Always Be The Best Lord Of The Rings Game

Licensed games aren’t what they used to be. They’re still in ample supply, but games have grown so expensive and complicated that movie adaptations for every major blockbuster under the sun simply don’t make much sense anymore. You won’t find scrappy beat ‘em-ups or mediocre platformers based on The Ant Bully or Over The Hedge littering digital storefronts. Those days are over, and the medium is far better for it. Yet such a farewell was also bittersweet.

This is because there are some gems worth remembering, diamonds in the rough that stood out because they tried something special with established franchises. The Lord of the Rings was one such property, with Electronic Arts producing a duo of fantastic games in the early noughties that remain beloved to this day. The Two Towers and Return of The King were excellent examples of adapting the cinematic brilliance Peter Jackson conjured up into fun, digestible action games that anyone could pick up and play.

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Sure, the dense lore was put aside in favour of grandiose battles, but that didn’t really matter. No prior knowledge was required to take control of Aragorn before twatting Orcs over the head like there’s no tomorrow. I love them, and played a silly amount of both titles as a kid. Return of the King shines above its predecessor, both because of its visual representation and how beautifully it recreates events from the film. It’s not perfect by any means, but I can confidently say it’s one of the strongest movie tie-ins out there.

Developed by EA Redwood Shores, which would soon evolve into Visceral Games to work on the Dead Space franchise, the game is a fairly simplistic beat-‘em-up where you take control of various characters from across the three hour epic. You begin by selecting three different paths, independent campaigns that chronicle a number of events throughout the film. A direct retelling would be a bit of a nightmare, so this design decision is a stroke of genius.

The Paths consist of Wizard, King, and Hobbit, You can probably figure out which characters are the focus from the names alone, but a few other iconic figures are spliced in for good measure as you battle across locations ranging from Helm’s Deep to The Black Gate. It’s startlingly comprehensive, with the graphics doing a beautiful job of recreating each location given the limitations of the hardware.

A semi cel-shaded look as opposed to photorealism ensures that Return of the King stands the test of time, even if you’ll need to track down ancient consoles to play it. Teaming up with a friend to tackle the campaign in co-op remains a joy, with the rating system offering ample incentive to replay levels and master the finest of combos to rise above the competition. As an action game, it’s oddly refreshing in 2021, offering a level of simplicity that we rarely see in the genre nowadays. It’s also a licensed game that isn’t made of lego, which is nice.

I also love how the official wiki has noted all of the differences between the film and the game, noting which events can be considered canon and what liberties had to be made so certain sections would actually work in a video game. For example, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas never really do battle with the ghosts in the Paths of the Dead, but in the game, this has to be possible so you aren’t just waltzing through ruins to have a chat with some ghosts. It isn’t canon, but it sure is fun. The fact that fans care to document such things is awesome in itself, showcasing how much this fictional universe means to people, even if it’s just a tie-in.

Just like The Two Towers, you can also unlock a bunch of bonus materials that delve into how the game was made and how heavily the film’s cast was involved. The majority of actors reprise their roles, with some of their interviews being an utterly adorable insight into people who aren’t familiar with the medium, but are amazed by what it’s capable of. I can’t imagine sitting Sir Ian Mckellen in front of Astro’s Playroom – it would blow his damn mind.

While it can be argued that better games in the realm of Middle-earth have been created, I reckon this will always be my personal favourite. That is down to both nostalgia for the games and films, and how it represents an era of licensed games that has long since passed us by. It’s a time worth remembering, even if many of the games sucked. As far as LOTR is concerned, this is the one game to rule them all.

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Jade King is one of the Features Editors for TheGamer. Previously Gaming Editor over at Trusted Reviews, she can be found talking about games, anime and retweeting Catradora fanart @KonaYMA6.

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