Publisher: EA Games
Developer: EA LA
N Amer - 02/28/2006
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The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth II Review
Sauron’s armies – seemingly vast, powerful and ready to throw numbers at the combined forces of the free world without regard for loss of life – are once again on the march. Arwyn, Aragorn, Legolas, Gandalf, and all the rest of the heroes of Middle-earth stand ready to meet them. The history of the world is at stake, and you have a major role in determining which side will win.
The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth II is a real-time strategy game from Electronic Arts that is rife with the personality of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy world, melded into the image that Peter Jackson gave us with his movie trilogy.
A few minor problems with the camera and scroll rates notwithstanding, this is a title that offers real-time strategy, some turn-based options, solid online play, some story-driven directed play and an entertaining (and challenging) time.
Honestly, fans of RTS titles, or gaming fans of the Tolkien series would do well to pick this title up.
Battle for Middle-earth II adds three new races to the series, new locations (there are in excess of 40 maps available for gamers to play on) and new enemy AI that is aggressive and relentless – not to mention smart, as in attacking weak flanks or isolated structures. (In one scenario, the enemy brought three units into the battle; two engaged the central defensive force while the third went right through and began attacking resource structures that added to command points.)
Game modes include solo play (with skirmish, war of the ring, the evil campaign and a good campaign), multiplayer (replays, network and online play) as well as options (you may wish to initially lower the scroll speed) and the ability to create your own hero and add him or her to the legacy of the tale within the framework of skirmishes or the War of the Rings turn-based experience.
The evil campaign means you take on the role of Sauron’s forces. The good campaign focuses the soon-to-be allied races combating Sauron. Both the campaigns are directed experiences in that you are given a number of quests that must be accomplished as you march along a timeline within the structure the era of Middle-earth.
For the good campaign, you begin by taking Glorfindel and a group of elves to Rivendell to meet with Elrond and inform him of the approach of goblin hordes. In the evil campaign you begin with goblins raising an army to raid the elven city, Caras Galadhon.
The War of the Ring mode is more freeform with approximately 43 scenarios, some for multiple players. The cornerstone of this is the actual War of the Ring in which you build up your forces, build structures to summon heroes, select your hero(es) and begin to conquer the enemy and its capitals as you march across Middle-earth. Not only can you select the maps, but you can also manipulate the rules of the game, as in installing a tactical phase timer, auto-resolving battles and give priority to battle types and auto-resolve displays. This, though, is turn based in phases that follow a familiar pattern (building and movement followed by combat resolution) with the battles either being auto-resolved or played out in real time. This generally lacks the dynamic and urgency of the campaign modes and feels more like Risk with recognizable Tolkien characters. The auto resolve feature is less satisfying by a long shot and does not factor in anomalies, tending to play it straight out, whereas you can accomplish more in the real-time fights.
The real-time battles can play out for a long time, depending on how aggressive you are in conquering the mapboard. You do have time, though, to create barracks, a fortress and more units, but let the builders die and structures be destroyed and you will quickly run out of units or the ability to train up.
In the create-a-hero palette, you can choose male or female, and from six classes – hero of the west (human free people of the western lands), elf, wizard, dwarf, servant of Sauron, or corrupted man (think assassins, greedy for gold and power). You can customize armor and colors, though these have little to do with what you have going on other than appearance aesthetics. It is in the attributes that you can allocate, initially 30, points in five categories – armor, power, health, heal rate and vision. These should fall in line with your character class, and should you not have an idea how to allocate points, the game will recommend settings. After you allocate attribute points, the game will give you the opportunity to select hero powers. There are passive abilities and activated abilities attached to the user interface, which in this case is called the Palantir. You can slot five abilities to begin with and more abilities become available as you level your hero.
The Palantir contains all the vital information you will need to work through the game, including – aside from unit and hero information – a mini-map, objectives and the like.
There are two types of objectives, main and bonus. The bonus objectives are optional.
The gameplay is excellent, for the most part. While you can fly over areas touched by the fog of war, units will not move directly through it – it seems – until you actually move to it and uncover it.
Fortresses can be built. They can allow you to create more builders and a lord (in the tutorial, the particular lord mentioned was Boromir – but is he trustworthy? We all know how that turned out).
Command point limit is essentially the number of units you can have. With enough farms to produce sustainable resources to support an army, and a barracks, you can build up your army. You can build a variety of units from warriors to cavalry to archers. Build an archery range and you can create even more skilled archers and Ithilien rangers.
What you build and where you build can be limited by terrain and enemy units may target objects build too far beyond the immediate reach of your units. Speaking of the latter, they are bolstered by decent AI that will allow them to auto-engage the enemy, without having to have each movement directed by the controlling player.
(Be prepared to surrender a healthy chunk of hard-drive space. This game eats up about five gigs for the typical install. This includes a lot of CGI. Load times are long-ish.)
The graphics have strong ties to the film series, using the actors’ images for the heroes’ images, and the general look of the game mirrors the film’s territories, and characterizations of races, monsters and combat styles. Unfortunately the camera angles are too close during the real-time combat, and while you can rotate it left or right, getting enough distance to see much of the battleground can prove difficult. Learning to rotate the camera is essential because you will have builders go behind the buildings and unless you are very familiar with the hotkeys, you may lose track of where they are.
The sound is underscored by snippets of the music from the films, and there are some voice-overs that border on silly, like the intonations of the Mouth of Sauron, but the narrative is generally very well done. There are the repetitious phrases from those taking commands that seem to be stock for RTS titles, but you can get past those easily enough.
The online requires some patches to begin playing, but these do not take long to acquire. And multiplayer games through the online mode include tournament play, open play (with your created hero) as well as the War of the Rings matchups. Even in the middle of the afternoon there were more than 900 users logged in with more than 500 games taking place.
As mentioned, there is a fair amount of CGI in this title, which is not bad, and it plays out well. Generally, this is a title that obviously had a lot of serious interest in not only the genre but the works of Tolkien. It sparkles with the flavor of both the books and the films. Some liberties have been taken to make for better gameplay, but that is to be expected.
The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth II is a joy to play. There are so many options to create an experience that continues to evolve and challenge.
Review Scoring Details for The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth II
There are some generous load times and it is much easier to learn the hotkey layout so that you can get around the map quicker.
The landscape and environments are amazing. The game does have repetitive unit animations. Other video elements are somewhat stock for the genre. Of course, there is a fair amount of outstanding artwork.
Strong narrative, typical combat sounds (with repetitious battle cries – but that is par for RTS titles it seems) and the wonderful musical score, featuring some familiar selections from the films, make this an audio treat.
You stand a much better chance of winning a battle in solo play (War of the Ring mode) if you play it out rather than allow the computer to auto resolve the issue. There are three difficulty settings.
There are so many options in this game, so many maps, and the game play is, for the most part, intuitive. Well designed, a bit of a challenge with no quarter given or asked for.
This is a really solid element, with players who know what they are doing, for the most part. You have to think fast and move quicker to win here.
What self-respecting Tolkien fan can be without this title? While the game does have a few stumbling points, this is a well-done RTS that enables players to experience the turmoil of the fantasy world, or just to create their own legacy within this fantastic realm. EA has done a very good job with this game. It’s love for the world is obvious in the look, sound and feel.
GameZone Review Detail
The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth II has a few small inconveniences but is generally a wonderful RTS experience
Reviewer: Michael Lafferty
Review Date: 03/10/2006