The Lord of The Rings: The Battle For Middle-Earth II
How Did It all go so wrong? Just 15 months ago we were extolling the virtues of The Lord Of The Rings; The Battle For Middle-Earth, one of the most entertaining and accessible RTS games we'd seen for years, a strategy game that tried something a little different and succeeded admirably in almost every department.
A sequel was of course, inevitable, welcomed, highly anticipated, an opportunity to take this bold new RTS franchise to even greater heights. Tragically though, that hasn't happened, as TBFME2 not only lacks the original's charm, but also fails to live up to its potential on virtually every level.
Before its release, we were promised that TBFME2 would have two big selling points: the unification of the book and movie rights under one banner (both of which are utterly under-used), and the ability to build your base anywhere on the map, a feature that manages to strip this follow-up of its predecessor's uniqueness. Not the best of starts, then. Still, it's early days yet.
Elves And Dwarves
The two story-driven campaigns (good and evil) take place in the north of Middle-earth, where dwarves and elves battle the forces of Sauron. Aided by heroes - most of which you won't recognise - you lead your forces through eight piss-easy missions that feel so scripted they make WWE seem spontaneous.
Here's the thing. The beauty of the original was its freeform nature and strategic depth, two attributes that this follow-up is utterly bereft of. More often than not, missions lead you by the hand from point A to point B, where you have a scrap with some enemies, before moving you on to point C for a slightly bigger ruck. And that's about the size of it.
Sure, there are some tactical subtleties to employ, such as flanking and height bonuses, but with battles often proving to be utterly one-sided affairs (in your favour), most missions just end up feeling like strolls across a map with a few fights thrown in for good measure.
So how about the new enemies - of which there are plenty - surely these guys should spice things up a bit? Well, not really. As visually impressive as they are - in particular Sauron's new servants which include spiders and dragons - they're all still pretty easy to beat and often display the tactical awareness of an under five's football team. And don't even get me started on the naval battles. There isn't a word in Elvish, Entisli or the tongue of man that could do justice to how just bad they are.
In The Battle For Middle-Earth II's defence, there's still plenty to enjoy despite the shortfalls. The game sparkles with EA's usual veneer, with some impressive visuals and truly gargantuan battles adding real beauty and bite to the proceedings. The story - what there is of it - is fairly entertaining, while heroes have an excellent array of visually spectacular skills that can be used to turn the tide of battle.
There's Still Hope
What's more, you can also harness the power of the One Ring or the Evenstar (depending on your allegiances), with a multitude of defensive and offensive spells available to you, including meteor showers that turn enemy units into paste and humorous yet deadly appearances from Tom Bombadil.
Perhaps The Battle For Middle-Earth II's biggest problem is that it feels rushed. The two story-driven campaigns seem hollow and overly scripted, and at around five hours each, are far too short. Battles seldom feel like desperate struggles or brutal skirmishes and rarely require much strategy. You also can't help but feel that the game's been somewhat dumbed down, as though attempting to appeal to a mass-market audience with its sheer simplicity.
What's more, the dual licences feel utterly under-used, the voice-acting is a shadow of the original's and the build-anywhere feature just makes the game feel like a myriad of other mildly entertaining yet eminently forgettable RTS games that have come and gone over the last few years.
The Battle For Middle-Earth II may look impressive, and its basic, by-the-numbers RTS approach is fun in a mindless sort of way. However, in no way is it anywhere near the game we hoped for. What a waste.
Everyone else is doing it, maybe we should too
With Rome: Total War and Star Wars: Empire At War proving just how effective a marriage between turn-based campaign and real-time battles can be, EA LA obviously thought it'd better try its hand at doing something similar.
So, it set about dividing Middle-earth into some 40 provinces, and you must conquer them all (or just a specific few if you're pushed for time) and become the supreme ruler of Middle-earth. Sounds great in principle, but once you start playing, you quickly realise just how unwieldy and ugly the campaign map actually is. In fact, it's so clumsy that it feels more like an afterthought than a well-planned feature. Quite frankly, EA LA shouldn't have bothered.
Download The Lord of The Rings: The Battle For Middle-Earth II
In the war to find/get rid of that shiny preciousss thing, you can pick up a sword/bow/ax in your typical Lord of the Rings videogames--or you can pick up entire armies. Battle tor Middle-earth II lets you create throngs of elven archers, dwarven axmen, rock-throwing cave trolls, human cavalry, Uruk warriors, and more to dash on ancient battlefields. It's a tad more epic than the whole scooping-water-out-of-the-ocean-with-a-spoon thing when you're sticking your blade in one goblin at a time.... But, as in any real-time strategy game, before you get your troops, you first have to collect resources and construct production buildings. It's not a complicated process, although BFME2seems to assume its players have seen some RTS action in the past Within the first few missions, you're already managing multiple menus, heroes, units, buildings, and powers, and you can't slow down the game to think or breathe. The tutorials, as helpful as they are, don't really prepare newbies property for army-commander duties in Middle-earth. Veterans, however won't have any problems with the campaign. When everything starts kicking in--the controller shortcuts, unit abilities and weaknesses, what buildings produce what, etc.--you can start appreciating all that's gone into this game. The battles don't take place on generic tiled landscapes. Rather, each campaign mission plays out in wonderfully designed stages created specifically to capture your imagination: Cities shine with waterfalls and statues, docks bum from naval bombardment, and the fortress of Dol Guldur intimidates with its skyscraping towers and obsidian walls. The different factions (Isengard, elves, goblins, etc.) offer variety in units, buildings, and heroes, but not so much that it overcomplicates gameplay. And the corpses should be piling up plenty on Xbox Live: Multiplayer offers lots of maps, a couple of first-person shooter-influenced modes (see sidebar), and generally smooth play fit only crashed on us once during our playtesting), though the four-player cap and inability to team up against CPU opponents kinda stinks of dwarf breath.
Though Patrick may feel otherwise, I gotta say I think EA did a commendable job adapting the complicated controls of this keyboard-first game to the tight quarters of the 360 controller. In mere minutes I was managing resources and calling out orders with ease. So it wasn't the controls that made this game hard to play--it was the resolution. Icons, percentage numbers, and other onscreen displays are tiny, which leads to big frustration when you're trying to set up your base. This also has an effect on your ability to distinguish who's who among your units--expect a lot of zooming in to make sure you've selected the archers, not the swordsmen, and zooming out to issue the attack or new position command. But I do love that, instead of pushing you through the narrative of the books and movies (again), the campaign parallels those events by focusing on the obscure War to the North, explaining why the elves and dwarves were missing in action--a treat for any Tolkien nerd.
For years it's been said that console controllers can't handle PC-friendly RTS games all that well. With BFME2, EA makes a noble effort to buck this trend with the 360 controller, but the game has way too much to do and not enough buttons to work with (sony, Jay). BFME2's Xbox-level graphics also hurt, and the entertaining, Risk-esque War of the Ring mode from the PC version is gone, so single-player just isn't as fulfilling (though I can't say I miss that mode's dull multiplayer variant). But while the solo campaigns offer familiar RTS missions, the game presents them with a very solid eye for the Tolkien feel--what can I say, it's fun to crush Rivendell. Also, multiplayer features a nice slew of achievement-friendly Live modes, which play into the best reason to get this version: to have an achievement list that reads like Gandalfs resume.
The Lord of the Rings is one of those franchises that you can't help but think of in videogame terms. Thus, I am compelled to say: Lord of the Rings + RTS = Awesome
Unfortunately, Battle for Middle-earth, the first Lord of the Rings RTS game, was not so awesome. Fun to a degree? Sure, but it left many fans disappointed in the midst of the flourishing movie franchise.
But, hey, that's what sequels are for.
Battle for Middle-earth II, unlike its predecessor, does most everything right. It takes a beloved franchise rife with potentially great videogames moments and transforms it into a fleshed out, fully formed RTS experience. Half of what makes for a solid RTS, for example, is a rich world to draw upon, and that's something Battle for Middle-earth II certainly doesn't want for. The missions are well crafted both objective-wise and setting-wise, utilizing the vast lore of The Lord of the Rings books to make more some really memorable experiences.
The logistics of the game are all pretty sharp, too. Battles feel truly epic, with hundreds of characters on screen at once, and better yet, the chaos feels controlled though always intense. The emphasis is squarely on the action, with a plethora of units and heroes (similar to the Warcraft series) at your command. But, with such an emphasis on action, the strategic element of the game runs in the shallow end. For RTS purists, that can be a bit of a downer, but for the more mainstream audience that doesn't usually delve into heavy strategic games, this is a pretty big boon.
Strategy enthusiasts aren't left completely in the dark, however. Included in Battle for Middle-earth II is a Risk-like turn-based strategy game called War of the Ring. It's a bit rough around the edges, but if you prefer a little bit more depth mingled with your action, it's definitely a fun diversion from the main game.
And, if nothing else, Battle for Middle-earth II sure does look nice. The scope of the game is pretty huge, and with battles fielding a huge number of units, it'll induce a few moments of nerdish awe. But, like most RTS titles, it looks really nice far away, but when you start zooming in, all the flaws shine through. This would be a negligible if it weren't for the fact that a majority of the cinematic use in-game graphics, highlighting many of the game's imperfections.
Like, love, or loathe Lord of the Rings, there's simply no denying that Battle for Middle-earth II is a solid RTS. It helps all the more if you can recognize the subtle genius in zerging an enemy base with a battalion of LothlA?rien elves, but even if you can't, it's still worth a long look.