It's not often we find ourselves actually looking forward to licence-based games, but EA Redwood Shores surpassed itself with The Two Towers and its immensely slick and enjoyable take on the hack and slash genre.
Unsurprisingly, the franchise meisters at EA have their fingers hovering over the launch button for the all format autumn release of The Return Of The King, and on the evidence of its sterling showing at Camp EA it's another Christmas Top 5 certainty.
Available across five formats, three of the game's 14 levels were playable at the event; Cirith Ungol, Minas Tirath Courtyard, and Paths of the Dead, with a total of eight playable characters selectable at different stages of the game; Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli (all previously playable in The Two Towers), Frodo and Sam, along with three secret characters.
In keeping with the authenticity running throughout the game, each character is voiced by the film's actors, who also make an appearance via the excellent cut-scene/gameplay transition that incorporates key chunks of the movie prior to each level. And before you ask, no we didn't get a sneak preview of the movie, thanks to the level of secrecy such a huge movie commands.
The game follows largely the same gameplay formula as The Two Towers, again with the emphasis on relentless third person swordplay action, insane numbers of enemies on screen, and scripted events based upon authentic set-pieces from the forthcoming Peter Jackson movie epic.
The difference this time around, most interestingly, is the co-operative multiplayer mode, allowing gamers to "form their own Fellowships", and making the inevitable Golden Axe comparisons even more relevant. Meanwhile the new context sensitive control system enables players to interact with the environment, with the ability to jump and swing from ropes, fire catapults, and kick boulders.
In addition, EA has also promised an enhanced combo system that allows players to pull off multidirectional attacks for both melee and ranged combat with the right stick. The almost totally linear gameplay of The Two Towers has also been improved, mercifully, with the promise of multiple paths for different character - hopefully increasing the temptation to play through again and unlock the three secret characters.
The already exceptionally rich backgrounds, busier-than-Oxford Circus levels and superb animation make an enhanced return, with EA taking care to faithfully reproduce twelve of the film's environments, including the Paths of the Dead, Minas Tirith, and the Pelennor Fields before players must battle the evil Haemorrhoid forces in the Crack of Doom. At least that's what our notes said.
As previously, the inevitable boss encounters will punctuate key moments in The Return Of The King, including the mighty Shelob, the Witch King, and the final showdown with the Dark Lord Sauron.
The game itself is already looking pretty solid, despite EA's protestations that it's pre-Alpha (yeah, right!). The typically dark and moody Cirith Ungol level tasks you with infiltrating a fortress with Sam, who couldn't fight his way out of a wet paper bag but can stealthily use his elven cloak to duck past the masses of Orcs and Uruk-Hais who are busy hacking seven shades out of one another. Trouble is, the cloak's 'charge' depletes pretty quickly, so you have to tiptoe your way to a safe area in order to use the cloak again. Luckily, your cloak isnt your only means of progression, and the occasional use of interactive areas, such as flaming pots, helps you take out groups of enemies.
Hack, slash and hack again
Next up, the Minas Tirath Courtyard level reprises the intense hack and slash chaos of The Two Towers with the goal of saving 200 women from the attention of assorted slavering evil, including the menacing rock trolls which appear towards the end of the level, before you can finally make your escape. Most impressively there was no hint of slowdown despite masses of enemy on screen at once, although to be honest this made things fairly confusing at times.
Finally, the beautiful Paths of the Dead level was a great demonstration of the enhancements to the graphics engine, with the Xbox version in particular capable of displaying some excellent background mist effects, while the character detail and animation appears to have improved significantly.
From what we've seen so far EA Redwood Shores has done a fine job of tweaking and enhancing the foundations of last year's solid effort, and as long as it maintains a degree of gameplay variety this could well be the best licensed effort of the year.