Precious, Precious Movie License Slogs to Mordor, Torpor

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
For GameCube, PC, PS2 (review copy), Xbox
Developer EA Games
Publisher EA Games
Rating 7 (out of10)

Those who fear this companion game will spoil Hollywood’s final LOTR installment, due mid December, beware. Finer points of the story’s plot—the unending, overwhelming Pelennor Fields battle scene, unending, overwhelming Black Gate battle scene, and unending, overwhelming siege of Minis Tirith—specifically provide the title’s thrust and parry. EA spared no expense to bring the cinema experience home, but gamers bear the cost. The unskippable cutscenes (copped from the same marathon session in which Peter Jackson shot the entire trilogy), finely detailed mega-scale combat, and opening credits fully simulate the silver screen. Those who can’t stand to have Ian McKellen intoning some quotable "given away," however, needn’t worry—the movie scenes don’t amount to much. It’s the digital spectacle of teeming hordes that’s sure to seem familiar come Christmas.

Which is not to say you shouldn’t stuff this in a Tolkien-Jackson fan’s stocking. If they liked EA’s The Two Towers, they’ll like this new-and-improved diversion even better. Complaints have been addressed: You and a friend can now fight cooperatively (friend not included) and, in a nod to the Fellowship, play Wiz Gandalf, would-be-king Aragorn, loverboy Legolas, bighearted Dwarf Gimli, ring monkey Frodo, or loyal dimwit Sam. Switch between the game’s three passages—the Paths of the King, Wizard, and Hobbit—to hack levels tailored to each character’s quirks. Or better yet, stick with one and build up his abilities—cutting through the Orc-etc. legions calls for far greater strength, not to mention spice, than you’re initially bestowed. Remember, the King is coming—look busy!


DDRMAX2: DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION
(Konami—PS2) 8

Unlike bukkake, this Japanese pastime makes perfect sense. We must, per Billy Idol, dance alone on a big cushy pad sometimes. This game insures that even without a partner, we score or get rejected. Only the fleet-footed will hack “Heavy” mode—not to be confused with “Workout” mode, which counts the calories you burn. The series’ most extensive music library yet includes Kylie, Dirty Vegas, obscure J-pop, and a host of fun, anonymous techno crap.


DISGAEA: HOUR OF DARKNESS
(Atlus—PS2) 8

A single-player strategy RPG that’s funny in a translated-from-Japanese way, this Netherworld fantasia paints you into a series of corners with more trapdoors tucked away than you’ll find in a full workweek’s worth of play. In a world gone wrong yada yada yada, Hour of Darkness offers a not-so-alternate reality as far-ranging as The Sims or any war game fought over Xbox Live.


ESPN NHL HOCKEY
(Sega—PS2, Xbox) 8

Branding: Cows don’t like it, but corporations sure do. When the gloves come off, this ESPN tie-in is really just a manicured version of last year’s game. The complex controls have been refined, and the team-management franchise mode now allows you to import new characters. (You pick which teeth he’s missing!) Most notably, Sega tightened online play, closing easy-goal loopholes and adding a surprisingly fun single-skill competition mode. Stick handling, anyone?


FREEDOM FIGHTERS
(EA Games—GameCube, PS2, Xbox) 7

Enemy submarines sit in New York Harbor, tanks roll down Broadway, and femme fatale Tatiana Kempinski ha-ha delivers propaganda over the airwaves: It’s up to Brooklyn plumber Christopher Stone to flush the Soviet army from NYC. By passing medic kits to wounded rebels, bombing the enemy, or raising the Stars ’n’ Stripes, you win the loyalty of up to 12 citizen soldiers, who accompany you through large, nonlinear levels. Don’t let your freedom go down the toilet!


IKARUGA
(Atari—GameCube) 8

The I Ching: "When the way comes to an end, then change—having changed, you pass through." In this arcade-style shooter, you speed through a downward-scrolling gauntlet of black- or white-bullet-firing enemies and obstacles, either dodging those of the opposite color or reversing your polarity to absorb them. Try it at half-speed. As Confucius said, "It does not matter how slow you go, as long as you do not stop." Just don’t forget to use the bathroom!


MARIO KART: DOUBLE DASH!!
(Nintendo—GameCube) 9

Speedier, sillier, and even more psychedelic, the first new Mario Kart in five years is reason enough to buy a GameCube. The Technicolor franchise’s slapstick battle aspect, best summed up by the ability to drop a banana peel on the track, evokes the cartoon violence we all know and love while continually obliterating rankings. Between opponents’ backseat bombers, traps, and other natural threats (breaking waves, thunderbolts), you’ll need much more than a good drift technique to finish first. So turn on, tune in, and drop out!


NCAA FOOTBALL 2004
(Electronic Arts—GameCube, PS2, Xbox) 8

It’s time again to toss around the ol’ pigskin, and I don’t mean Anna Nicole Smith. This year’s model effectively tweaks 2003’s brutal ballet and careful play planning and the boot-and-recruit student-turnover drama central to "Dynasty" mode. Skill can’t make up for the irritating flaws in short passing, but if you’ve perfected your game, try re-creating classic moments like Doug Flutie’s 1984 Hail Mary against Miami or go against fanatics online with the PS2 version.

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