Fans of Peter Jackson and the “Lord of the Rings” movies bid a bittersweet farewell to the trilogy when the final extended DVD, “Return of the King,” released in December for the holidays. For the final time, hardcore fans walked into the store to buy their beloved film, knowing full well that the 4.5-hour final chapter would see much use in the years to come.
About that same time, Electronic Arts released a real-time strategy, called “Battle for Middle-earth,” based on the events in all three films. The game was overshadowed by the onslaught of holiday games, not to mention the conveniently timed release of the aforementioned DVD, so many PC owners might have missed it altogether. But regardless of your affinity for all things Tolkein, Battle for Middle-earth is an outstanding RTS, challenging enough for devout RTS players yet scaleable to make even an RTS freshman enjoy the pursuit (or destruction) of the One Ring.
Battle for Middle-earth provides two campaigns, one with the Fellowship and its supporting cast, the other dominated by Orcs and Uruk-Hai. Each campaign follows its respective side through Middle-earth, with every battle from the films included in the mix. At Helm’s Deep you can command your troops to defend the keep (good campaign) or bring down the walls and break into it (evil campaign). At Minas Tirith, you can valiantly try to defend your stronghold (good campaign) or use catapults and oliphants to try and bring it down (evil campaign). At Mount Doom, you can engage the evil hordes while Sam and Frodo take the One Ring to the volcano (good campaign), or you can monitor your fiery homeland and wipe out all hope for humanity (evil campaign).
In between these well-known battles, Battle for Middle-earth lets players “fill in the blanks” in the fight for the territory of Middle-earth. The good campaign, for example, alternates between brief playable sequences with various members of the Fellowship and intense battles that cover larger regions of the countryside. Players start in Rohan, commanding its vast horse-riding armies in a series of user-selected battles with Saruman’s armies. After defending most of Rohan, players move on to Gondor, where the epic battles unfold again. Likewise, the evil campaign begins slowly, with players “graduating” from the successful defense of Isengard to full assaults on Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith.
Each of these battles is assigned a specific reward, be it an increase in the rate at which players collect resources, an increase in the number of troops players can command, or a few extra points to spend on special abilities. These special abilities are different for each campaign, but they’re essentially correlate to one another. In the good campaign, powers include calling Elven archers, Rohirrim and Ents, while in the evil campaign the powers are more along the lines of spying with Sauron’s eye and calling upon creatures like the flying Fellbeast. More-powerful abilities require more points, naturally, so players need to decide which powers most intrigue them and spend their points accordingly.
The actual battles play out as you’d expect in a real-time strategy. Players begin each “level” with a small amount of resources, which they “spend” to build various structures such as resource-gathering farms, Orc-producing pits, knight-training stables and training grounds for bowmen. Resources are crucial, so the first few buildings almost always end up being resource gatherers to accrue funding for additional building. As players defeat enemies’ camps and explore the maps, additional building areas become available — for a price. Units can also be upgraded for a price, both in their armor and their strength, and battalions (good) and hordes (evil) gain veterancy with each successful battle, making for some very powerful armies indeed, especially on the game’s Easy setting.
Clearly Battle for Middle-earth is a “normal” RTS with a LOTR skin, but it’s amazing what that skin can do. For starters, EA nailed the production values right on the head, both in terms of video and audio. Detailed environments seem as though they’re pulled directly from the movies, while characters move and look just as they did (albeit slightly more pixelized) in the films. Likewise, the audio, all of which uses the actual actors and sound effects from the films, is overwhelming in an oh-so-good way. If you’ve ever wanted to re-create Tolkein’s massive battles and listen to the clang of metal or the thunder of an army of horses, Battle for Middle-earth is the game for you. Key sequences in battle and key areas on the world map even launch video snippits from the films, a dab of panache that makes all the production difference in the world.
The one hang-up with the presentation of all this is relatively common among real-time strategies: the camera. Battle for Middle-earth has two basic views: a 20,000-foot world view as players decide which territory to defend or attack next, and a close-in camera that used during battle. The world view is fine; as expansive as Middle-earth may seem, it’s really divided into four key areas, none of which requires out-of-sequence monitoring. The battle camera, on the other hand, only allows players to zoom in, making it difficult to monitor every battle on the battlefield. The game does include a “bookmark” option, allowing players to press a hotkey and be taken to an area on the map that they bookmarked, but it doesn’t quite make up for the fact that moving the camera between nearby areas can be a bit harrowing. Players can also manually click an area on the in-game mini-map, but that can prove jarring at times as you try to follow a battalion into battle.
Camera snafu aside, Battle for Middle-earth is an incredible game. Movie-based titles have a reputation for stinking it up, and taking The Lord of the Rings in the real-time strategy direction could have proved a risky venture. Sure, Tolkein’s battles seemed destined for the genre, but delivering a game that lived up to those expectations could’ve been too much to handle. Battle for Middle-earth not only fulfills expectations and realizes its potential, but it makes for an amazing experience that no RTS fan should miss. If you’ve ever wanted to check out a real-time strategy but been scared away by the incessant WWII games, Battle for Middle-earth is just the mainstream excuse you’ve been looking for.
- Gameplay: 9
- Classic RTS goodness with LOTR flair.
- Graphics: 9.3
- Stunning. Absolutely stunning. The camera is the only occasional snafu.
- Sound: 8.9
- Great music and effects, but occasionally repetitive voice work.
- Replay: 9.3
- Two long campaigns, a map-editor online multiplayer. Enough said.
- Overall: 9.3
- The production and sheer addiction make it easy to overlook the occasional camera problem.
— Jonas Allen