It’s Christmas morning, 7:45 a.m. I tear the wrapping from the gift, obviously a game from the box size and weight, and with trembling hands I open it only to have to force a smile onto my face when I see the title.
“Gee. Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth. Thanks, Dad. I love movie-license games, really I do,” I say, hoping my disappointment isn’t too obvious. After all, as all real gamers know, licensed titles are almost always steaming piles of suck, meant to put a few quick bucks into the pockets of some movie studio. They’re not actual games, right? And I still had the burning-feces taste from the squalling abomination that was The War for the Ring in my mouth (an earlier attempt to craft a game from the Lord of the Rings novels), so I wasn’t too thrilled to try out yet another Tolkien-based game.
So, imagine my surprise when, after loading up Battle for Middle Earth I find not just an acceptable Real-Time Strategy (RTS) title, but an actual living, breathing game, full of rich gameplay, stirring music, memorable battles and cool graphics.
The first thing any new player will be stuck by is the game’s graphics; the art design is absolutely stellar. I figured that the designers would simply get a bunch of screen captures from the Lord of the Rings films and would then slap a few buttons on them – I was wrong. The level of artistic craftsmanship in this title is top-notch, with lovely interfaces, menus, and in-game graphics.
This level of craftsmanship extends to every facet of the game, including the unit models, structures and environments. Rohan units display the zoomorphic animal forms from the movies, Gondor’s forces are suitably majestic in their silver plate armor, and nothing tops the sheer grandeur of the Dark Lord’s Oliphant or Balrog units, with their war paint, spikes and flames.
Navigation through the single-player campaign is handled via a “Living World” map of Middle Earth, complete with an ominously smoking Mount Doom, circling eagles and lush, crisply rendered forests and mountain ranges. The player chooses the regions on the map that he will conquer, launching the next battle map. It’s a great tool, and one that gives the player a good sense for the sheer size and scale of Middle Earth. As regions are conquered, the player is rewarded with Attack Power, Command Points (used to increase the size of your armies) and Resources.
Units gain veteran status through combat that carries over from mission to mission – a great feature that really makes you concerned for the units you build. The veteran status concept is something of a two-edged sword, however: some missions are complete walk-overs for experienced armies, while others are practically impossible unless you’ve carefully kept your units alive through previous battles. In one frustrating instance, I was actually forced to cheat my way through a siege mission because I had foolishly chosen to continue on to the next battle with green troops.
Strangely enough, your buildings (farms, archery ranges, armories, stables, etc.) also gain veteran status through pumping out a steady stream of new units. The developers chose this strategy to streamline the resource gathering aspect of the game (likely to keep things simple for newbie gamers drawn to Battle for Middle Earth from the movie license), and it is the only way that certain combat upgrades, such as Fire Arrows, become available. This slimmed-down resource model does make for exciting gameplay, as it forces the focus onto combat and not resource micro-management, but leads to difficult choices: Do I pump out waves of Knights and throw them into suicide charges so my stables level up, thereby letting me upgrade armor and weaponry, or do I carefully build my battalions so that they have more inherent HP and damage capability? It can be a real “chicken-and-egg” scenario, but it does offer an interesting alternative to the standard concept of the tech tree.
All this, however, is secondary to the game’s true strength: its combat engine. Based on the Command and Conquer: Generals engine, the Battle for Middle Earth interface is both easy to use and fairly comprehensive. Battles are epic affairs where hundreds of troops clash over the possession of fields, forests and even walled encampments and cities. Much like the recent Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, the basic troop unit is the Battalion rather than the individual soldier, which allows the AI to handle massive numbers of troops in any given battle. This gives the game the cinematic feel evident in the LotR movies, as an ocean of Orcs, Trolls, Oliphants, siege engines and Ringwraiths assault the heavily defended walls of Minas Tirath and Helm’s Deep.
Because of the often dark, earth-toned color palette, sometimes actually keeping track of all this chaos can be a challenge (the designers consciously moved away from the high-contrast, “cartoony” look of other RTS games such as Warcraft III in favor of a more “cinematic” presentation). Be advised: careful grouping of your units with control keys is an absolute must, lest you find yourself overwhelmed in the midst of combat, and your Veteran units (or worse, your Heroes) slain.
But, in the end, the small effort it takes to master the interface is well worth it. I can’t think of any in-game moment in recent memory that stirred my blood as much as hearing the thunder of my massed Rohirram cavalry battalions when I ordered them to charge through a horde of Urak-Hai foot soldiers. The resulting cries (sampled straight from the films) of “Rohirram!” and “Riders of the Mark!” as I gave the order to attack, the thunder of the galloping hooves, the crunch of metal and the screams of the orcs as I rode them down like ripe wheat is sweet, sweet music! I’d definitely recommend grabbing up a copy of this game. It’s well worth the investment.
Gameplay: This isn’t the RTS game to redefine the genre, certainly not, but the slimmed-down resource model ensures that the focus of Battle for Middle Earth remains squarely on combat – where it belongs. Players new to the concept of real-time strategy games will not be bogged down with micro-managing peasants and food, and can focus on playing General to an army. Battles are epic in scale and exhilarating, as hundreds of soldiers, cavalry, monster units, heroes and siege engines clash for domination of Middle Earth. Despite the large number of models involved in these battles, frame rates are consistently high, even on my aging AMD 2100+ system, although I did notice that load times between missions were very long.
Graphics: The art department over at EA Games really went to town on this puppy, creating something a cut above the usual movie license dross. The decision to make in-game units more low-resolution and cinematic was a good one, as it evokes the feel of the films quite well. It can be a challenge, however, to visually keep track of your units amidst the chaos of battle; be sure to master the technique of assigning your units to hot-keyed groups before going online in multiplayer mode, or your quest for the One Ring will be over before it’s even begun.
Audio: This is clearly the game’s strongest point. It’s just frickin’ amazing, really. Hundreds of audio clips, all taken directly from the film(s) really supply a sense of place. It’s all here, from the thunder of Rohan’s cavalry and the blood-chilling screech of the Nazgul, to the whistle of arrows as they fly, and the crunch of swords on armor. Lay down Howard Shore’s Academy Award-winning soundtrack on top of the battles and you have real aural gaming magic. Kudos to the team that put all this together.
Value: The addition of Evil mode (where you can play on Sauron’s side and try to halt the quest to destroy The Ring) is an admirable one, and certainly adds replay value. However, the forces of evil have much less in the way of heroes (only four compared to the good side’s thirteen or fourteen), and seem to lack the offensive punch that the forces of good have. This inequity carries over into the multi-player game. Hopefully balance issues will be addressed by a patch. The online community for this title is small, and the forums dedicated to Battle for Middle Earth are anemic. Barring some sort of gaming miracle, don’t expect this title to be going strong with user-made maps and units a year from now; buy it for the excellent single-player experience.
Curve: Battle for Middle Earth is a thoroughly enjoyable game, but it’s not going to turn the RTS genre on its ear. Everything about it says “new gamer friendly,” which is not a bad thing, to be sure, but the lack of an in-depth tech tree and the heavy dependence on heroes and events that directly link to the films hobble the game from being all that it could be. I’m assuming, however, that the developers were striving to make a thrilling, solid Lord of the Rings game (not to re-invent strategy gaming), and in that respect they succeed well beyond expectations.