You may be in the middle of summer break, or you may be like us DailyGamers and see college as a far-off memory, but it’s time for a lesson either way. That lesson: strategy games have been done before on consoles. Kingdom Under Fire. The original Ghost Recon. Even Rainbow Six and the new Splinter Cell online modes, to a lesser extent. But what Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth 2 does, for the first time, is successfully deliver the real-time strategy genre to a console. And for the most part, it does a decent job.
Electronic Arts has ventured into the console RTS genre once before, with Aliens vs. Predator: Extinction, but that game delivered more of a “nice try, better luck next time” vibe. The controls weren’t quite right, the plot was sketchy, and the unit differences were just so-so. BFME2, however, translates nearly every aspect of the RTS genre to Xbox 360, from troop control to bookmarking map locations to creating multiple structures and issuing unit-creation commands.
Ironically, the game’s ambition and achievements also illustrate its shortcomings. For example, creating units and issuing commands is amazingly well done, with a simple system of trigger pulls and face buttons to “reveal” the commands at your disposal. This keeps the interface free from clutter while making every option available with a simple button press. Once those units are created and given an order, however, it’s impossible to group them as you would on a PC, making division of duties decidedly clunky. For instance, after you assemble the ideal, multifaceted platoon comprised of several different unit types, there’s no way to highlight that group and assign it to a hotkey (say, the number 1), because there’s simply no keyboard. It is possible to select all of a single unit type, or all the units on screen, or all the units in your army (even boats), but if you’d like to assign different duties to various groups of multiple units, you’ll have to manually select them and issue orders one at a time. By the end of the eight-hour good campaign (or evil campaign, if you start that one first) you get used to this control scheme, but you never get to the point where you actually enjoy it.
The campaigns, too, seem a bit clunky, with dismissible plots and forced variety as you wade through repetitive levels that vary only insofar as you’re controlling a new species of unit. It’s easy to think the good and evil plots seem weak simply because we’re a few years removed from the films (the game takes place during the same time period), but they actually are that boring. In addition, the Good campaign’s alternating between Elves and Dwarves happens far too quickly, leaving you never quite at ease with the powers of each unit. And, in the campaign’s climactic last levels, when you control an army of both Elves and Dwarves, that level of uneasiness is exacerbated by your inability to group distinct platoons, making the entire experience a frantic, map-scanning mess.
As a result (and since there’s no way to replay a level without starting the campagin over or not saving your progress), the online multiplayer games and user-created skirmishes are really where BFME2 shines. In these modes, players decide their faction, the map, the initial resources/money, even whether they want to play with one or three other people (yes, the game supports four players online). Nothing beats talking to your opponents as you build your armies, either to talk trash, compliment them on a good raid or just to catch up and shoot the breeze, if playing with friends. And, since the game doesn’t seem to suffer from any lag, it all happens seamlessly. That is, if you consider a bad framerate seamless. For better or worse, BFME2 suffers from the same awful framerate online as it does in the single-player game, which is either a testament to the reliance of the EA servers or a commentary on just how bad the framerate chugs along.
The irony in all this is that Electronic Arts managed to create a real-time strategy game on a console, porting almost all the genre’s controls and options, yet the company’s amazing re-creation of the genre exposes the few places where it didn’t quite succeed. EA nailed every bit of the controls, save for being able to hotkey-group different platoons, and that’s no small feat using a console controller. However, with all the attention paid to controls, it seems as though the plot and framerate/graphics took a bit of a hit. If EA treats BFME2 as a launch pad for future games in the genre, much like it treated Aliens vs. Predator a few years back, the RTS genre holds great promise on home consoles. EA made some great strides with its latest console Lord of the Rings game, and it did some great things control-wise as well, but it’s still at least one game away from being able to decidedly say “yes, real-time strategy games can be done flawlessly on console.”
- Gameplay: 7.7
- Amazing to see RTS controls on a console, but it somehow needs a hotkey function for grouping troops. A bit more level / objective variety would’ve been nice, too.
- Graphics: 7.5
- Great units, light and special effects, but the framerate is too susceptible to massive battles–which is exactly what the game’s all about.
- Sound: 8
- Great music and a nice variety in unit voices and recorded lines / dialogue.
- Replay: 7.6
- With friends online the replay’s high, but offline it’s quite poor. There’s no way to replay levels, for crying out loud.
- Overall: 7.8
- Being able to (mostly) control an RTS on a console is great, but it still has a few control and graphics snafus to work through.
— Jonas Allen