Eleventh Day of Christmas – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Award – The Best use of $3 in 2014

239882-coverps2Middle-Earth is in peril, so I take up sword and bow to battle hordes of Orcs with precisely timed button mashing, All in anticipation of the final chapter of Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy film trilogy.

No, I’m not playing Shadow of Mordor. It’s Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King!

While I played this game with a friend in college when it was new, I never bought a copy until I found one at a local used video game store/comic shop a few months ago. I paid three dollars for it. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is my favorite book, and while I had a few issues with the movies, I liked them, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to play as my favorite characters from the books.

Movie games have a well-deserved bad reputation, but this is a rare exception. Released a month before the Oscar-winning film, it served as a promotion since it included exclusive footage from the movie as cutscenes. Gamers could get a “sneak peek” by playing.

But it’s more than a glorified trailer. The game has solid, if unoriginal, gameplay. Think Dynasty Warriors except not as ridiculous. One or two players select from nine characters (most of whom must be unlocked) and fight in the film’s many battles. Hordes of enemies assault you, which you defeat with numerous attacks by inputting certain button combinations. These include a quick horizontal attack, a strong vertical attack, a “physical” attack, a parry (your only defense), and a projectile attack. Different enemies are more easily defeated with different combos. For example, armored or shield-bearing enemies must have their defenses broken with a vertical attack before they can be damaged. Your kills are graded using a gauge that fills as you quickly score hits and avoid damage. Once it fills, you enter “perfect mode,” which lets you kill most enemies in one hit for a short time. Characters also have special abilities that help get them out of trouble, such as Gandalf’s magic shield. Combos shared by all characters still look and operate differently. All this keeps the combat from getting too repetitive.

The game adds RPG elements in that characters can level up to unlock more combos and special abilities that can be purchased with XP. In an interesting turn, the combos unlocked at higher levels aren’t necessarilly more powerful, but they are simpler (i.e. instead of alternating between two buttons, simply mash one button four times). The weird thing is no new abilities are listed beyond level 10, but the characters continue to level up. I’ve no idea what that gains you or what the level cap is. Considering this game is harder than I expected, leveling up is important. I normally start a game on the default “normal” difficulty, but this one all but demanded I play on easy. That’s one thing it does have in common with Dynasty Warriors. I had to swallow my gamer pride and wait until reaching level 10 before upping the difficulty.

"Stop kill-stealing, Mr. Frodo! I need more XP!"

“Stop kill-stealing, Mr. Frodo! I need more XP!”

What makes the game truly cool is once you beat the game, it not only unlocks several more characters, it allows you to play any level with any character. In other words, gamers get to play fanfiction. What if Frodo went to Paths of the Dead? Could Aragorn slay Shelob? This game answers that!

The graphics might look “ugly” by today’s standards, but the developers did an excellent job capturing the likenesses of the actors from the films. What helps is the top-notch voice acting by said actors themselves. It lends authenticity.

As I played through the game’s three paths with my brother Jarod, I realized that while Shadow of Mordor’s gameplay was influenced by the Batman: Arkham games, it still has shades of this forgotten gem.

Now that’s a movie game to rule them!