Mastertronic's latest incarnation of the classic fantasy novel Lord of the Rings is a wargame with a difference. With Frodo and his mates wandering off to destroy the One Ring you just know that if left to his own devices he'd have that ring melted down in no time at all, and still get back home in time for tea and crumpets. Unfortunately you've got to control him and make sure the ring doesn't get to Sauron - an evil guy who's got no right to wear jewellery.
Long ago in the early years of the second age the Elven Smiths forged rings of power: three for the Elven Kings, nine for mortal men and seven for the Dwarf Lords. Sauron, the Dark Lord, forged a master ring, the One Ring, which would rule them all. With it he could control Middle Earth. When the One Ring was finished he put it on his finger and the wearers of the other rings were aware of Sauron's aim.
A great war was fought and many died, but eventually Sauron was defeated by the forces of elves and men. The Ring was taken from Sauron and should have been destroyed but was it was not. The One Ring fell into a river and there it lay for hundreds of years. The ring was eventually found by Bilbo Baggins, who passed it on to his nephew, Frodo. Meanwhile Gandalf the wizard had been wandering all over Middle Earth trying to find out more about the ring and not realising that it was the One Ring. As soon as he found out he returned to the Shire and told Frodo that it must be destroyed.
War in Middle Earth begins as Frodo leaves the Shire with his friends Sam and Pippin on their journey to end the ring's magical powers. Under your command his first problem is to reach the temporary safety of the House of Elrond in Rivendell. The action is played on two levels: the ring quest and a tactical wargame.
THE RING QUEST
The ring can only be unmade in the burning fires at the heart of Mount Doom's volcano. Frodo must be guided from his home in the Shire to the land of Mordor, realm of the Dark Lord.
The early stages of the game involve getting Frodo, Sam and Pippin to Rivendell in one piece. This is where the Fellowship of the Ring is formed - a sort of later day Freemason's without the lessons in sheep castration. On your way you'll join up with Merry and Aragorn and spend so much time avoiding Nazgul, the most powerful of Sauron's servants, that you'll start wondering whether you wouldn't prefer to slip the ring on and disappear altogether. On the tactical side you have to move the forces of men, elves and dwarves to stop all the evil dross that fight for Sauron and Saruman, a turncoat wizard. Initially you have only a few armies who obey your orders, but more begin to respond and war breaks out on a larger scale as Sauron shows his hand.
A large map of Middle Earth shows the disposition of your armies and those of Sauron. On the close-up map you can obtain detailed information about any army, whether they fight for good or evil and give orders to the good armies. Using the magnifying glass again will take you to a side view of the chosen characters as they walk or ride across Middle Earth. In this mode you receive detailed messages from other characters and can also pick up any objects lying on the ground, for example, an elven sword at Tom Bombadil's house.
When a battle takes place you have the option of 'going to it' or 'ignoring it'. Going to the battle allows you to decide tactics which can employed to a limited extent: charge, engage, withdraw or retreat are the available options - no chance to pull out a bottle of Lucozade though. Orcs are cannon fodder, but trolls take more killing and have a nasty tendency to inflict so many heavy casualties you can't help wishing they'd climb onto the end of a 150mm bazooka.
The game comes to an end very quickly if a Nazgul gets his grubby hands on the One Ring. He dashes to Mordor at the speed of light and you can either cross your fingers he'll get squashed by a lawnmower or alternatively make some attempt to stop him before he meets Sauron. Other things bring about defeat, such as if the Hornburg, an ancient and strategic tower, falls into Saruman's sticky mitts - not a popular conclusion.
GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics are in three different stages - world map, detailed map and the individual location. Armies on the scrolling world map are only indicated by flashing dots. When you zoom into the detailed map you're presented with small graphics to represent each army. There's no problem at all in working out when you've been killed - you flop on the ground and look thoroughly dead.
The main map is scrolled swiftly and smoothly by clicking on a pointer until you find an army. Zooming in again lets you see impressive detail and lots of colourful scenery. The sprites of the various characters are adequate, but more effort could have made them vaguely realistic. All text messages appear in yellow-edged scrolls which give the game an atmospheric feel.
There are plenty of tunes, but the Amiga is capable of performing more than you're actually given. Sound effects are average, but not in abundance, a few battle spot-effects and a liberal scattering of others are all on offer.
War in Middle Earth is one of a rare breed of wargames that looks as good as it plays. The computer forces moves logically so your enemies don't just wander around the map randomly obliterating you. It'll take you hours to play a game from start to finish so a Save Game option comes in pretty handy although a feature to play at hasty or very hasty speeds allows you to skip through any tedious battles. However, when it comes to a vital confrontation, such as the battle of the Hornburg, you can go there and modify your tactics. If you find you can't beat the hell out of your enemies - a common problem - then you'll be able to retreat and come back later life starts to get boring.
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