The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Available on PS2, Xbox, Gamecube, PC. 1-2 Players (EA Games)

With Return of the King, EA Games has taken a simplistic gameplay concept--frenetic button mashing--and honed it into a euphoric experience with levels of challenge and spectacle previously unseen in videogames.

Much of this is due to the close relationship the game shares with the recent film: The graphics and animation capture every detail of director Peter Jackson's trilogy, the actors contribute their voices, Howard Shore's score serves as the soundtrack, and excerpted scenes advance the story. More importantly, the game follows all three of the film's plots: Frodo, Sam, and Gollum sneak through Mordor, Gandalf kicks ass at Minas Tirith, and Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli hack through battles, leaving piles of Cuisinart-ed orcs in their wake.

The scope of it all is jaw-dropping. When you're not making your way through the entire besieged city of Osgiliath, you're fighting literally hundreds of orcs, shooting catapults, and dodging cave trolls. It's appropriately overwhelming, and from the first few minutes--when a clip from The Two Towers smoothly morphs into the actual game--you feel completely transported to Tolkien's (no, wait--Jackson's) Middle Earth.

That said, there are problems. For a mass-market game, Return of the King is surprisingly tough. For a while, this is cool--every opponent is a legit, game-ending threat, which suits the story's dark, urgent tone--but it gets annoying when you fail a level for the tenth time. Then there's the immovable camera, and the fact that it's occasionally a trial-and-error process just to find out what the objective of a level is. The game's adherence to the film's events also makes for rigid, linear plot progression, so forget about exploration and character customization--while new attacks are obtained as the game advances, ROTK is still a strictly "beat level, go to next level, rinse and repeat" experience.

But those flaws are middling compared to the addictive, intuitive gameplay, the stunning production values, and the option for cooperative play--as cool as it is to fight through the War of the Ring solo, it's infinitely cooler to do so with a friend and a few beers. Plus, once the game's beat, you get a ton of cast interviews, art galleries, two extra levels, and the ability to play as Faramir. Sweet! Faramir! ERIK HENRIKSEN