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Tolkien fans rejoice; Battle for Middle-Earth provides a deep and entertaining experience...
Lord of the Rings fans somewhat let-down by the sacrilegious release of The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age can draw a breath of relief; not only does The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth make amends and ensure EA has yet another hit on its hands for Christmas, but also creates a worthwhile experience in a fading genre and one that captures Tolkienâ??s work admirably. Spanning the entire duration of Peter Jacksonâ??s movie trilogy, the game allows you to rewrite the history books and the fateful War of the Ring, from either the perspective of the good or bad.
A turn-based mechanic encompasses the single-player campaign, which breaks down into a variety of real-time-strategy missions, providing the player with the opportunity to dictate the progress throughout the game. A living world map of Middle-Earth provides the backdrop for the majority of the game, divided into over 30 territories to conquer, each of which grants special bonuses to the player whenever you take control; certain provinces gain you additional resource, other grant you power points to invest in special abilities, and finally command points allowing you to command greater forces into battle. Fans of Lord of the Rings will spend hours adoring every aspect of the painstakingly crafted map, packed with microscopic details such as Nazgulâ??s and Great Eagles flying across the skies.
The game is split into good and evil, with four playable armies representing the four different factions within the movies. On the side of good, players can take control of the forces of Rohan, whose speciality is powerful cavalry units; whilst Gondor forces allow for the creation of powerful defensive constructions. Those who wish to play the game from the perspective of evil can choose between Mordor with its legions of Orcs, whilst the powers of Isengard are backed up with the support of the fearless Uruk-kai. Each faction has a wealth of units and constructions available to them, whilst thereâ??s a nice sense of balance between the forces ensuring that no particular group stands out unfairly.
Actually jumping into the RTS portions reveals a surprisingly light experience, although thatâ??s certainly not a bad thing. The various missions are primarily based around conquering territories, and as such thereâ??s precious little depth or variation to the tactics and strategy that youâ??ll have to employ. One particularly neat touch is the sense of continuity behind the campaign; the units left over from a particular mission, will be those that you start the next one with. As such not only will you want to protect these to ensure your numbers are healthy for the next mission, but also allow your units to gain experience and become more powerful.
Following on with RTS conventions, youâ??ll have to amass resources and build constructions; however the implementation of this throughout the game is handled a little differently to other titles in the genre. The game restricts where you can build buildings, so itâ??s not a case of amassing as many buildings as possible to generate larger and larger legions to send into battle. The game doesnâ??t feature resources as such, so you donâ??t have to worry about the finer touches of collecting and harvesting these; instead a universal resource is gathered by building constructions such as farms and slaughterhouses, but again these are limited to certain areas of the map. In keeping with the sense of continuity running throughout the game, the various buildings that you do construct will stay there for the duration of the game (provided you keep them safe), which ensures that by the end of the campaign youâ??ll be churning out resources and amassing powerful legions.
Players have control over both a wide variety of normal units along with heroes, namely the main characters from the books such as Aragorn, Gandalf, Eowyn, Gollum and the four hobbits. These characters naturally have more power then the traditional units, although not at a level that significantly upsets the balance. As you progress through the game and gain experience, youâ??ll have the opportunity to unlock new abilities for your heroes, such as Aragorn summoning the power of Elendil to scare the enemy into fleeing. As with many RTS, focussing on both your units and heroes can be a little cumbersome not to mention confusing; particularly in the heat of a frenzied battle, youâ??ll often loose trace of your heroes and suffer heavily if you loose any of these. This issue of micro-management is a contentious issue, one that fans of the genre will be accustomed to, however if youâ??re primarily interested in the subject material then itâ??s highly likely youâ??ll find one or two frustrating moments during the campaign.
Being able to re-write the rule-book suffers from the same issues we had with The Third Age somewhat. During certain missions youâ??ll gain control of the heroes such as Aragorn and Co, and have to ensure that they stay alive, whilst other missions provide the opportunity for characters such as Aragorn to die. The narrative need however for these types of characters to be alive at certain stages, ensures that certain characters will miraculously come back to life; completely destroying the wonderful sense of continuity and leaving us to question exactly why this is even an option. We can understand that taking control of the heroes provides a lot of the main attraction for Lord of the Rings fans, but surely it would have been better to restrict exactly how much influence the player has over these to ensure that the game doesnâ??t throw up a multiple of strange paradoxes that are hard to overlook.
Although the issue of heroes is a sticky issue, fans can have no qualms however with the way that the game ties in with the overall storylines presented by the books and films. Certain missions tie in perfectly with events that kick off within the films and then return later, so effectively youâ??ll playing the events that run in the background of Peter Jacksonâ??s trilogy.
Thankfully taking control of the normal units is far easier as these are grouped into battalions, allowing the player to easily take control of significantly large groups of units. Much like other RTS games, the game features a morale system of sorts, although its effectiveness within the game is minimal; troops will cower at the sight of a legion of Uruk-kai heading their way, but thatâ??s about it. It seems to be a visual effect that has very little influence on the actual game, as your troops will still rush in with no apparent detrimental effect if you so choose.
One feature that does have more prominence within the game is the special powers, which can be bought by amassing Power Points, granted by taking control of certain territories. These include the ability to summon an Elven army or a Balrog to the battlefield; itâ??s not a massively innovative feature, however it does help to induce a bit of variety to what is quite a routine technique used throughout the entire game.
Thankfully the game manages to replicate the â??epicâ? nature of the subject material, and contains a surprising amount of game to get your teeth stuck into. A single campaign can take anywhere between 20-30 hours depending on your knowledge of RTS titles, whilst itâ??s highly likely that youâ??ll want to go back and play out the other three sides just to see every angle that the game throws up. Naturally there are multiplayer and skirmish modes to sustain your interest once youâ??ve had enough of the lengthy single-player campaign, allowing players to indulge in some unlikely situations and enjoy the unpredictability of playing against a fellow human competitor.
As youâ??d expect from an EA title, the music and visuals throughout Battle for Middle-Earth are nothing short of stunning, faithfully capturing the style provided by the films along with its epic nature throughout the various battles. The game packs in a surprising amount of detail in both the gorgeous environments and character models, whilst the various animations capture the look of the film excellently.
Keeping the movie cast in employment, the game features voice acting from a number of the stars, most notably Sir Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee; although the lack of Orlando bloom and Viggo Mortenson is notable. Howard Shoreâ??s soundtrack furthers the sense of authenticity, whilst EAâ??s own tracks fit in with this aptly.
As with many RTS’s, there are one or two little niggles that occasionally cause frustration and the strange paradoxes are always going to be a source of contention, but if you’re looking for a solid strategy title that is packed full of depth the game won’t disappoint.