The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2002)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2002)

I revisited The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2002) after two decades for a thorough review in the Dutch Tolkien publication Lembas.

When EA Games’ The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was released in October 2002, two months before the release of the film, it was hailed as a huge success. As far as movie tie-in video games go, it is still one of the greatest examples of what a tie-in could, and should, be. 

The success of the first game paved the way for a second instalment. Described by the developers as a modern version of Gauntlet (Atari 1985), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is a hack and slash action game, played from a third-person perspective. It was developed by EA Redwood Shores and published by Electronic Arts. Originally, the game runs on PlayStation 2 and Windows PC, but it has been ported to the GameCube and Xbox (Hypnos Entertainment), to the Game Boy Advance (Griptonite Games), to mobile (JAMDAT) and to OS X (Beenox). Released in November 2003, this game brought a well-polished Lord of the Rings experience to consoles, using an iconic medley of cinematic live-action footage taken directly from the movies, and some in-game animation to create a faultless adaptation of the story-telling. Both worked in complete harmony to create an immersive experience that fans relished. 

While both games were developed to coincide with the releases of the second and third films in the LOTR trilogy, both games had proven to be hugely successful, and the Electronic Arts annual report of 2004 honoured both games, listing them as “platinum titles”. The Two Towers had sales surpassing 3 million copies, while the Return of the King had achieved a higher sales figure of more than 4 million copies. Twenty years on from the release of The Two Towers, the Lord of the Rings games are still widely considered to be classics in their own right. Members of the film’s cast – including Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood, and Christopher Lee – were also quite helpful here, as they provided their voices to the videogame, which allowed adding a degree of ‘realism’ to the experience (at least for me, immersion becomes a lot easier when Viggo Mortensen is chipping in with his voice for the Aragorn character).

Producer Glen Schofield said that the biggest challenge was “trying to match the breath-taking look and feel of the movies”, about which I think it turned out well. Comparing the two titles, the developers called the Return of the King “bigger and better” than The Two Towers. Chris Tremell, game designer, said: “In The Two Towers the player would occasionally run into 10 or 15 enemies. In The Return of the King there are areas where the player faces up to 40 orcs… Fans familiar with The Two Towers will find that the combat experience in The Return of the King feels familiar but much deeper.” Executive producer Neil Young explained how the team invested in graphical improvements: “We’ve developed some new lighting techniques to allow the characters to look richer. We are pushing 2x the number of polys and 2x the texture density. We also stream our geometry and textures from the disc so the game has a much higher density of imagery.”

Despite the success of both titles, the games’ development using actual film footage in the cutscenes, is owed in part to the financial misfortune of another company. Vivendi Universal Interactive originally held the licence to create video games based on the LOTR series, and went on to develop two titles, The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring. Despite launching two LOTR games, however, the sales figures were quite underwhelming in comparison to EA’s, and the company found itself in financial straits. Vivendi opted to publish no further games in the LOTR universe, but did go on to develop some more unique titles. 

Vivendi Universal Interactive found themselves in a fight for survival, and had to sell off 80% of Universal in 2003, creating what we know today as NBC/Universal. Aside from Vivendi deciding to discontinue the LOTR video game licence, New Line Cinema managed to purchase the movie rights. This enabled New Line Cinema to licence video games based on Peter Jackson’s interpretation of The Lord of the Rings, allowing them to bypass the book rights held by the Tolkien estate. As long as New Line created a game based on the movies, they had full legal rights to do so. 

New Line Cinema reached out to Electronic Arts, and the relationship blossomed. EA agreed to develop the video games for The Two Towers, and The Return of The King films. After their initial success, EA decided to build on the foundation set by the first two games, and release two more LOTR titles. Both games included elements from Peter Jackson’s films. These were The Battle for Middle Earth, a real-time strategy game, and The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, a highly acclaimed role-playing game released in 2004. 

Despite the additional titles, the video game The Return of the King is still the most well-known for its seamless transition between in-game renders and cinematic footage, which carved out a brilliant narration of the story. The relationship between New Line Cinema and Electronic Arts allowed for a more complex design process. New Line sent EA movie props, reference photos, sketches, models and motion capture data taken from the movie creators themselves. They even went as far as hiring the same stunt doubles used in the movies, all as part of a lengthy process to transition from theatres to game consoles. As part of EA’s design diary, Nina Dobner, Partner Relations Director, worked with both EA and the film-makers during the development on the RotK game, and wrote: “We are constantly using these authentic assets because we want the game to not just look like the films but to be exactly like the films.”

Basing the games on the films by Peter Jackson, rather than the books by Tolkien, created an easier passage for new players to delve into the lore. The games were not designed solely for the most ardent of Tolkien fans, but even those who had never read the books, or knew what The Lord of the Rings was. You didn’t need to be familiar with the lore of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King before heading into the game – it appealed to all gamers as a great complement to the hack-and-slash genre. If you had no idea who Gandalf was heading into the first level of the game, then you were simply a wizard squatting swarms of enemies with a staff, and it was just as enjoyable to play. 

The very first cutscene sets the stage for the battle of the Hornburg at Helm’s Deep, allowing players to step inside the movie, and become the hero. The cutscenes were well edited, building the story of Middle-earth, while carefully preserving our anticipation for the films. They never gave too much away, but carefully guided each player into the next stage of the video game while leaving us craving more. 

Aside from the setting, the game also ran impressively well, capable of having a large amount of enemies on screen at once, and this was no more evident than in the first level. As players controlled Gandalf in an attempt to hold off the onslaught of the Uruk-Hai on Helms Deep, arrows whizzed past, spells were cast and groups of enemies were on a hack-and-slash rampage in the foreground, but although at times the gameplay felt quite grandiose, it was never too chaotic. There was always a structure and rhythm throughout the levels, while keeping players on their toes by sending an endless number of enemies to attack until something was triggered that would allow players to advance to the next stage.

With so many enemies on screen, you would be forgiven for button smashing, but it wasn’t supposed to be the best way to play the game. There was also technique and finesse to the combat system. Opponents could be struck with melee weapons, hit from afar with arrows and spells, incoming attacks could be parried, and your overall style of finishing enemies would lead to your in-combat actions being graded, which would in turn help you to gain experience points at the end of each level. Similar grading systems are fairly common, and were also used in other popular games, such as the stylish rank in Devil May Cry.

Although The Return of the King was a short game by today’s standards, the grading system added an element of replayability to the story, allowing players to go back and replay levels to record higher scores using the more sophisticated techniques that were harnessed with experience. Battling through Middle-earth never felt so good, and the challenge of the grading system created more moments in each location to savour.

Fans of Tolkien will no doubt be familiar with the in-game locations. There are levels based on places such as Minas Tirith, Helm’s Deep, Shelob’s Lair and the Black Gate. The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers was a linear game, and that didn’t change a great deal when EA Redwood Shores developed The Return of the King, but they listened to fans, and created an overall progressive experience which included more characters and paths to choose from.

Depending on which of the three character paths you choose to take, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King brought a new roster of  characters. Beloved characters from the big screen could now be used to accomplish missions across Middle-earth, using each of their unique abilities. Characters such as Samwise Gamgee, Aragorn, Legolas, Gandalf, Frodo, Gimli, Faramir, Merry and Pippin were made available for hours of entertaining orc slaying.

Revolutionary in its design and scope, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King will surely go down as a classic, as one of the greatest on screen blockbusters to be translated into a stunning video game experience. The characters, combat, weapons, skills, cutscenes and familiar territories, all made for a great Lord of the Rings experience, masterfully topped off by featuring some of the original iconic film scores by Howard Shore. The soundtrack helped to build the atmosphere, sending shivers down many a spine and inspiring players in their role to defend Middle-earth from the scourge of Sauron, The Dark Lord of Mordor.

A screenshot of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2002) - Martine Mussies

More of my writing on Tolkien

If you like, you can read more of my writing for Lembas via my Academia:

The Why and How of the Soviet Version of The Lord of the Rings

Trolls and orcs – some observations on extreme right content in spheres of Tolkienesque fanfiction

Aragorn as the Ideal King

Revisiting Lord of the Rings Online

Shadow of War is as Tolkiean a Game as it Gets

LOTR board game

If you like LOTR themed games, you might also like this version of Labyrinth:

My name is Martine and I am writing my PhD about the Cyborg Mermaid. On this website, you’ll find blogs about autism, cyborgs, fan fiction, King Alfred of Wessex, mermaids, music & musicology, martial arts, (neuro)psychology, video games, and random nerdiness.

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