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I can't be sure I'm remembering this right, but I think the penultimate level in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, where you're holed up in a hilltop ruin outside the Black Gate of Mordor trying to buy Frodo some time, is one of those levels where the waves of enemies will go on forever unless you do something to trigger the next stage.
Right or wrong, that's how I remember it, and it's great. Return of the King was one of those games you could more or less break if you played enough of it. I remember unlocking Mithril Arrows - a ridiculous concept if you ask any Tolkein nerd but then, why would you do that? - and they had the added bonus of passing through enemies and making them explode. Arrows that pass through enemies! And make them explode! Cue hours upon hours of Legolas standing at the back of that little ruin, pelting Uruk-hai with magic pink arrows and chuckling to himself - I'd imagine - about how endlessly, stupidly fun it is just to do that over and over again.
Much of Return of the King's magic lives in that moment, and the various ways in which it's repeated over the course of the game. There's a very base, intuitive part of the mind that those types of pseudo-horde-mode battles seem to tap into. The same thing that makes me love bridges in RTS games, because they make for the perfect choke points to put turrets or spearmen or archers and walls in front of. Or the same thing that makes all the ridiculous multi-stage traps you can make in Minecraft so popular. Or the likes of Plants vs Zombies far more compelling than they've any right to be. Return of the King was pure hack and slash - very pure hack and slash; there's almost nothing else to it really - and mix that in with the perfect setting in Peter Jackson's action-y, siege-heavey vision for Middle Earth and its just pure, slightly infantile heaven.
There are other nice little things it did, in fairness. The sheer closeness to the films, given their own sort of video gameyness, is an obvious one. There are some shots the game recreated almost exactly, albeit with all the jagged unsubtlety of the PS2's visuals added on top. And more than that there was a proper fleshing out of all the bits you wished they fleshed out when you were that dorky pre-teen playing Aragorn in the playground: more time on the fringes of the world - always the best bits, to me - with the army of the dead (don't ask how you can hit them in the games; it doesn't matter), or at the Southern Gate. That in itself seems like a genuine achievement, seeing as EA's rights were limited to just the stuff explicitly referenced in the films themselves. Then there was a decent little sprinkling of RPG elements in there too, which seems oddly prescient now, given the ubiquity of the three-path skill tree today.
Still, from Helm's Deep (all-time banger) to Minas Tirith's courtyard (underappreciated gem), Return of the King was always about the siege. At the risk of sounding all "back in my day", there are few if any games now that do what Return of the King did then - because it is a bit repetitive. It is a bit basic. A bit rubbish. In a literal sense, by all modern standards, it is arguably just straight-up bad - but let that be cause for a lesson, I say: that the literal sense is often the worst one. (I appreciate I sound like Gandalf right now.) Anything with a system you can game into breaking point - like grinding for those Mithril Arrows, for instance, or just sitting at a chokepoint forever - is now a game that has too much cheese, that's too imbalanced. Too simple and unrefined.
In 2003 it seemed to just work. Perhaps that's just 2003. But as much as it was a case of perfect timing with Return of the King, right after the massive success of Jackson's films, and as much as it bottled the feel of their extraordinary world and nailed the exact tastes of the time, I do think part of it is down to us. Sometimes the quest for complexity can get in the way of the quest for fun.
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