Once one of the dominant genres on computers, real-time strategy games have slowly, gradually fallen out of favor with publishers and consumers alike. One reason is the lack of ingenuity, with a glut of games aspiring to do little more than deliver a Command & Conquer or an Age of Empires with different units and maps. At first blush, Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II seems to continue this disappointing trend, offering few surprises with its interface or basic play mechanics. Yet its production values are so high, its exuberance for the source material so obvious, it might very well be as close to "precious" as fans will likely see from Tolkien's works -- at least until Middle-earth III.
The success of Battle for Middle-earth II lies not in its design, but its attention to detail. The animation makes it feel like Tolkien's world is living, cheering, and hissing on your desktop. Goblins scamper across the terrain and scale walls like spiders, archers carefully pick off their prey from behind trees, and cave trolls heave boulders that send bodies flying. It's a game filled with emotion, as troops heroically sprint toward combat and raise their arms up in elation after a hard-fought battle. Each faction offers deliciously satisfying special techniques that can cause cataclysmic damage with a mere click of a button, from volleys of arrows raining down from the sky to an instantaneous appearance of eagles, Ents, or hobbits to wreak havoc on an enemy's plans. "Hero" units such as Treebeard or Sauron have their own set of special powers as they gain experience, giving the game's otherwise familiar trappings a swift kick in the greaves.
While the presentation and production values are close to the top of the genre, the game has some frustrating moments. The pathfinding AI is a problem and friendly fire can be devastating if you aren't actively babysitting your army. Siege units are largely unnecessary due to the power of hero and basic infantry units, and the computer's lust for destroying harmless structures can be exploited. On the plus side, the PC version features an enjoyable War of the Ring mode inspired by the board game Risk. Factor in an addictive skirmish mode, custom hero characters, and strong online support, and the AI faults can be forgiven. Battle for Middle-earth II is not quite the strategy game to rule them all, but fans of the books and film series will find the game's pull too strong, too compelling -- like the One Ring itself -- to resist.
Graphics: Extremely well-animated characters, impressive fire effects, and memorable locales make for a thrilling experience.
Sound: Howard Shore's impressive score gives gravitas to the battles, and the film-quality sound effects crackle.
Enjoyment: The campaign is too short, the AI can be irritating, and the character balancing needs work. Yet the game is still extremely fun to play, especially for fans of the series.
Replay Value: The War of the Ring, skirmish, and multiplayer options will keep players glued to the screen. The solo campaign is disappointing, however, as it's too brief.
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