Amid chaotic, constantly changing battles of swords and sorcery, players lead their forces in a desperate struggle to save Middle-Earth. Built on EA's Command & Conquer: Generals engine, The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth is a real-time strategy game set in the world of the Peter Jackson trilogy, based on the novels by J.R.R. Tolkien. It focuses on large-scale warfare instead of individual characters or the quest of the Fellowship, and is designed to re-create the epic battles featured in the three films. Familiar hero characters become available, however, and their powerful influences can turn the tide in a close battle. Four different factions are featured -- the riders of Rohan, the armies of Gondor, the forces of Saruman, and the legions of Sauron -- and each relies on a different type of resource to develop and replenish its forces. The game includes two separate single-player campaigns; one has fans leading the forces of good against the orcs and goblins of Mordor, and the other allows them to guide the forces of evil to claim Middle-Earth for their dark master.
Enter The Battle for Middle-earth, touched by the Tolkien license and Peter Jackson's films, and imbued with the personality of the team that created Red Alert 2 and C&C Generals. While veteran RTS players may have some nits to pick with the relatively solid gameplay, those same fans of The Lord of the Rings series should find that the game shines as a playable re-creation of Tolkien's work. The game is a perfect example of a license enhancing the final product.
The game was originally billed as a game where Tolkien fans could play without being overwhelmed by the traditional micromanagement or interface of a real-time strategy game. To that end, players can opt to go to Battle School, which is a non-playable tutorial on how to play the game. Veteran RTS players may not need it, but the presentation is user-friendly. If players choose to jump right in to the single-player campaign, they can opt for good or evil, with the good side focusing on Rohan and Gondor and the evil side drawing from Isengard and Mordor (along with their Rhun and Haradrim allies). The player can choose between easy, normal, and hard gameplay, with the only difference being the amount of damage units dole out: on easy, enemy units don't do as much damage, while on hard, they do more damage.
The good campaign pretty much follows the three movies, and this is one of the biggest strengths of the game for Tolkien fans (of which I am one). The battles and key plot points of the movie are so utterly compelling (and at times overwhelming) that the player really feels that they control the destiny of Middle-earth. Throw in the riveting music of Howard Shore and the key voice acting of Christopher Lee, Sir Ian McKellen, Sean Astin and others, and the game becomes as a fairly faithful adaptation of the movies, but with the player tasked with making sure the good side wins.
There are some slight deviations (all of which had to be approved through New Line Cinema), such as the part where Boromir dies. In one mission, you are told to save him, and he will be available as a hero unit throughout the game when Gondor is involved. However, if you do not save him, he still shows up later on. The same applies to heroes that die in battle during the campaign. They are still available for use in later missions. While keeping true to the movies, it does tend to take away from the urgency to protect them.
The evil campaign will easily appeal to those who really wanted to see Sauron conquer Middle-earth. Saruman is the key hero, with Lurtz (the Uruk-hai warrior with a penchant for well-placed arrow shots) also available. This portion of the game is a bit more freeform since there are few times in the movies where the evil side didn't get crushed. But Helms Deep and Minas Tirith take on a whole new appeal when playing here. I particularly enjoyed killing a few of those nasty Hobbitses.
The game mixes in live-action scenes from the movies in subtle places, not as cinematics, but more as highlights, such as on the tally screen after each mission, in the multiplayer window or in the round interface screen in the bottom left corner at key moments in missions. The cutscenes use the in-game engine and look extremely good.
The game is coordinated through a huge map of Middle-earth. This offers another good way for fans to immerse themselves in the game with recognizable landmarks such as Mount Doom, Minas Tirith, and Helms Deep. Players decide which armies they want to use to attack various locales in Middle-earth. While the player does have choices on areas to conquer, the game forces you to key plot points at particular times, be it Sam rescuing Frodo in Shelob's lair, or the Ents taking down the dam at Isengard.
Each area that the player conquers offers one or two special bonuses: an increase in power (which can be used to buy special abilities as simple as heal or as complex as the Army of the Dead or the Balrog), a percentage increase in resources gathered, or command points. Command points basically equate to a unit cap. The more points you have, the more units you can build up to a preset maximum.
This format can get a bit frustrating as the good side tries to build up its army to defend against the evil onslaught. You will have plenty of resources, but can't build units because you are at your command cap. In this respect the game does well in keeping with the spirit of the Tolkien universe in that the good side will always be seriously overwhelmed and the strategy will play more heavily than the swarm mentality of the evil side. But in the late game, if you advance plenty of squads with you from the previous mission, you may find yourself gathering a ton of money with little you can spend it on. This also will affect your buildings because you cannot upgrade certain buildings without building units. At least on the evil side, you can destroy your own units in the slaughterhouses (or have your units kill each other for experience) and build more.
The game plays as a solid RTS with all the flair that the EALA team put into Generals. The sides are fairly distinctive in terms of the buildings they create. Resources are relegated to collecting gold from destroyed neutral structures (such as goblin lairs, warg habitats, or troll homes) or by using farms (on the good side) or lumber mills and slaughterhouses (on the evil side). As for units, Rohan and Gondor have variations on infantry, archers, cavalry and siege units, while the Mordor and Isengard have a much more varied selection, from trolls to battering rams to the huge Mumakill.
The level design and 3D art is great, especially on the recognizable levels from the movie. However, there are some missions where the map was obviously designed for multiplayer map and thrust into the campaign as filler.
The game view is true 3D with the capability to zoom in closer to the battlefield. You don't get the first-person view of being in the battle, but it is pretty darn close. It can be neat to zoom in close on the heroes while they are using some of their special abilities or as Saruman or Gandalf are casting spells.
As with any RTS, players start building up their bases and gathering resources, but when the combat begins, literally all hell breaks loose. The evil side has the ability to send wave after wave of units to assault the good side, with literally hundreds of units on the screen at any one time. Units are created and grouped in squads of five (for the good side) or 10 (for the evil side), except for siege units, trolls, and Mumakill, which are created individually. The unit animations are extremely well done and the emotion system that was created really adds to the game. It is really satisfying to hear your units cheer when they win a skirmish or see them run in fear at the site of Aragorn wielding his sword.
The hero units can be built to a maximum of level 10 and can take an amazing amount of damage. The special abilities and spells are well thought out and extremely well animated and rendered. I did find out the hard way that they do have a penchant for battle and will try to involve themselves in any nearby fray, even when they are low on health.
The evil A.I. can be pretty relentless as all it is really required to do is build, expand, and throw wave after wave of units at you. The good A.I., though, can be a bit dumber. When I was rushing toward the castles or keeps, sometimes it failed to close the gates. It also tends not to focus on the units that can do it the most damage, such as trolls, Mumakill, and siege weapons.
There were a few other noticeable combat quirks that, while they did not detract from the overall enjoyment of the game, did cause a bit of head scratching or frustration. Some units will stand around while units near them (or their base structures) are being attacked. This, however, is an infrequent problem. There are also times when you will catch units "moonwalking" or gliding across the ground, as if the movement animation had not been activated.
Finally, in the Minas Tirith level, there were some height and camera issues. The city is very tall and the camera will try to follow up each level. If an aerial battle is going on with a Nazgul and an eagle over the city, it is very hard to be able to click on the unit and give it a command, as the unit will actually be above the camera angle. You can see the shadows of the battle, but can do nothing to save your unit if it is getting battered. I lost two Nazgul that way. However, this is the only level where this is a problem.
The multiplayer aspect of the game offers several different opportunities for players to test their skills against others. Skirmish mode is available to test against an easy, normal, or hard A.I. Reminiscent of Generals is a system to keep track of wins and losses and other statistics. There are 37 multiplayer maps to choose from, which can support anywhere from 2 to 8 players. If you were familiar with the Generals multiplayer, you will notice some similarities.
We were able to test the LAN portion of the game and found it to be a pretty intense slugfest that can last for hours, depending on the quality of the participants. The Middle-earth aura tends to get lost a bit here, though, as it isn't uncommon to have Gandalf preparing a spell, only to run into his mirror image from the opponent's side ready to cast a similar spell. But having Nazgul, Mumakill, a Balrog, and a small Army of the Dead on the screen at the same time, while Saruman, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas battle in a free-for-all, will provide an intensity that you probably won't see in too many other multiplayer RTS games.
This game was extremely ambitious and carried the burden of an immense license that could have crushed a lesser development team or game. The game has some flaws, but still provides a good solid RTS experience. Throwing in the well-done execution of the Tolkien license makes the game all the more enjoyable for RTS fans who love Tolkien as well. If you like the games that EALA has done in the past, you will really like this one. If not, it is still worth trying to get the epic experience of saving or destroying Middle-earth.
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