Overall Rating: 8.5
Last year's "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" from EA was mildly disappointing. Granted, I have a Lord of the Rings bias, so to call something LotR based slightly disappointing means if the LotR title weren't stuck to it, I would have kicked it to the curb and called it names on its way there. "LotR: The Two Towers" was way too short, graphics were poor, and it felt like nothing more than a side scrolling button masher. It seems EA listened to the many complaints gamers and LotR fanatics made as they cleaned up their act, and their game, for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King".
"The Return of the King", at its core of gameplay, remains the same as "The Two Towers". It's still a button masher and a side scroller (in that your path is chosen for you), but the button mashing requires a little more skill and strategy than before, and, while your path is chosen for you, there's a little more freedom and exploration than previously allowed.
Like "The Two Towers", "The Return of the King" blends scenes from the film with gameplay. One moment you're watching Gadalf prepare for the attack of the wall at Minas Tirith, the next moment you are Gandalf protecting the wall from orc occupation. It's beautiful.
"RotK" also offers more playable characters than did "TT". You will be able to play as Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas (plus you'll have three secret characters that will be unlocked upon defeating the last level). As you play through the first time you will be forced to play with certain characters or only have a choice of a select few as you have to choose among The Path of the Wizard, The Path of the Hobbits and The Path of the King. Along the Path of the Wizard you are Gandalf, the first time you play through the Path of the Hobbits you're Sam, and along the Path of the King you choose from Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli (we stuck with Aragorn here). You must play all three paths to make it to the final two levels. This wasn't a necessity in "TT".
"Return of the King" remains a short game, but I feel the replay value is much greater than that of "Two Towers". "Two Towers" was a fairly simple game which concluded with two of the most difficult levels known to man. That's one of my pet peeves. If game makers are going to put me in tough situations, they darn well better train me for them. "Return of the King" does just that. The levels are, overall, more difficult than those in "TT". Strategy and combo attacks are necessary to make it through. There are points on the Path of the King where there are crazy numbers of enemies around you. No one would survive such an attack, but, perhaps, the King. The game makes you feel worthy of your title. Only Aragorn and his mad sword skills could take on this many orcs and warriors. It's tough. You must train him well.
Graphics are much improved as details are just better. Faces actually look like the actors. Sam is so good it's almost creepy. Also, during a Fierce Attack, helmets can be knocked off warriors. Good times.
Obviously the sound and soundtrack are awesome, it's LotR, after all, and it shares sound with the movie. Voice acting was also much improved over the last version.
If you want to play through the levels with a partner, the Co-op mode is rather slick. I wish I could tell you from experience, but Jer's been so wrapped up in "True Crime: Streets of LA", he hasn't been able to play with me. I've plugged both controllers in and given it a go by myself, but it's just not the same. My impression of the Co-op mode comes from other reviews I've read and reports on various message boards. Everyone loves the co-op mode.
"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" absolutely did its job. I had a wonderful time playing through the game several times (I did write the walkthorugh, after all), and it worked it's LotR magic on me. I am now fully prepared and psyched for the movie release next month. If only the story weren't coming to an end.
I give "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" an 8.5. It would be higher, but I know I'm biased AND it was a little on the short side.