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Aug 29, 2011

Relive Tolkien's vision in The Battle for Middle Earth

LOTR: The Battle for Middle Earth
Game Category: Strategy - Real Time
Developer / Distributor: EA Los Angeles / EA Games
Release Date: 6 Dec 2004 
Rating: ESRB - Teen

J.R.R. Tolkien would never have thought that his stories would live on in movies, music, board games, apparel, and even live-sized weapons. If he were alive today, I am pretty sure Tolkien would endorse this vision of his incredible world of high fantasy that features goblins, orcs, uruks, ents, elves, dwarves, humans, and (last but not least) the hobbits.

The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth (BfME), is truly a wonderful piece of gaming development from Electronic Arts Los Angeles. It is a rich and realistically inviting real time strategy gaming experience that should be played by all gamers out there to experience some of the key events from the movie first hand. You will get to control all the main characters from the world of Middle Earth and also witness how some of the huge impressive (often computer generated) sets seen in Peter Jackson's movies have been translated into a real time strategy game.

If you are a fan of Lord of the Rings (both the movie and the book versions), then come along on this wonderful immersive journey. And as Tolkien buffs would say: The Road goes ever on and on, Out from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, Let others follow it who can!

Beware! The Lidless Eye sees everything
Game Play
Upon entering the main menu proper, you are greeted by an impressive movie in the background showing the impregnable fortress of Barad-dûr in all its glory. It's not everyday that you get to see Sauron's abode so close up.

After being mesmerized by The Lidless Eye, you will realize there are three key buttons you should be aware of. Solo Play brings you into another sub-menu where you can select to play the Good Campaign or the Evil Campaign or try your hand at a battle in Skirmish mode. Each campaign feature three difficulty levels, while the Skirmish mode comes with 40 official maps that allow from one to seven AI players. Multiplayer only allows you to play across a local area network; the Internet online service from Electronic Arts were terminated on 31 Dec 2010.

Skirmish fun
The last important part of the main menu brings you to Battle School. This is essentially a series of non interactive tutorials. You get to sit through six movies:
  • World Map - learn how to navigate the world map of Middle Earth, 
  • Moves and Attacks - how to move and attack, 
  • Bases and Units - how bases and units are built, 
  • Heroes - using your heroes and their abilities, 
  • Veterancy - learn about unit, hero, and building veterancy. Verterancy is also known as experience and leveling up in other vanilla real time strategy games, and
  • Special Powers - learn how to use the special powers of the One Ring (evil) and the Evenstar (good).
The tutorial movies are well done
In the Good Campaign, you get to follow the Fellowship of the Ring on their desperate quest to bring the One Ring to Mount Doom and destroy it by casting the One Ring into the Cracks of Doom. You will play through roughly 18 Acts in this campaign before you get to try your hand at the finale - an exciting and frantic battle between good and evil. There are quite a number of heroes you get to control here including Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Boromir, Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Faramir, Éomer, Éowyn, Théoden, and Treebeard.

The Evil Campaign leads you through 16 Acts as the evil forces led by Saruman and Sauron. They attempt to ferret out the Ring-bearer and retrieve the One Ring. There are fewer evil heroes, only two for Isengard - Saruman and Lurtz, and a group of evil nasties from Mordor known as Nazgûls (including their leader called the Witch King) and a surprise character. Because of this, winning the Evil Campaign can be a challenge since you most often need to rely on building huge armies to vanquish your enemies.

Trouble soon at Balin's Tomb
The Living World Map is only accessible from the two campaigns. This huge map allows you to select which act you wish to play. There are two kinds of acts - scripted and general maps. Scripted acts are mandatory maps you must play through; these typically advance the story in The Lord of the Rings. Take for example:
  • In the Good Campaign, the first scripted act will take you through the breathtaking level of the Mines of Moria, while the third act calls for the defense of the elven domain of Lothlorien.
  • In the Evil Campaign, the first act introduces you to the forces of Isengard and the powers of Saruman, while the second act brings you through a frustrating battle against ents, elves and Treebeard. 
Other acts are generic battles that give you a breather from the scripted acts. When an act is completed, you will be rewarded with bonuses that will make future battles easier.

Explore Middle Earth up close
There are four factions in MfBE - Rohan, Gondor, Isengard, and Mordor. The Good guys are Rohan and Gondor, while the bad guys are Isengard and Mordor. Here's a rough breakdown of the forces you will control in the game:
  • The Rohirrim feature men fighting on horseback. These mounted troops are pretty strong in that they can trample smaller enemies. You also have control of archers who make short work of your enemies.
  • Gondor units include soldiers, archers, knights, and rangers. They also include the incredible trebuchet that hurls huge stones at enemies.
  • Isengard units feature evil orcs, uruks, warg riders and siege weapons like battering rams, ballista, and siege ladders (like those you might remember seeing in the Battle of Helm's Deep).
  • Mordor units feature orcs, lumbering trolls, huge mumakils (these are huge tusked elephant-like beasts). Siege weapons include siege towers and catapults.
Building an Archery Range on the Plains of Rohan
Scattered across every map in MfBE are sites. There are four types of sites: Castle, Camp, Outposts, and Settlements. Castles allow you to build the largest type of base - a citadel (shown in the screenshot below), while settlements are the smallest. Here's the lowdown on each site:
  • A Castle typically provides you strong walls with six foundation slots for main buildings and a number of smaller slots for towers. 
  • Camps are quite similar to Castles, but more importantly - you have weaker (or no) walls at all.
  • Outposts only have three foundation slots with no walls or gates to protect them.
  • According to manual, settlements allow only a single building - a resource collector, to be built.
It is advisable that you go around the entire map trying to capture as many as sites early on in the game. You will have a hard time if your enemy captures too many of these sites.

Building my base up carefully
The graphics in MfBE is absolutely wonderful. Most of what you see in the game is drawn from sights you have seen in the The Lord the Rings trilogy by Peter Jackson. I like how the artists took the liberty to make each faction look unique but yet stay true to the idea of the original material. Some of the units like the ents, siege machines, and mamukils look incredibly fluid in their animation.

The game cutscenes brings back fond memories of exciting moments from the movie. Take for example, the attack atop Amon Hen where Boromir's character is killed.

What if Boromir lives after the attack on Amon Hen?
Christopher Lee (Saruman) and Ian McKellen (Gandalf) have both lent their voices for their characters in the game. The rest of the acting is quite convincing although there were one or two misses. The music features works from Howard Shore as well as additional pieces from Bill Brown and Jamie Christopherson - both veterans in composing compelling game music.

This scene looks familiar
  • An excellent real time strategy game that takes you through the entire story of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
  • Two excellent campaigns with lots of missions to play.
  • A huge map of Middle Earth for you to explore.  
  • Four unique factions with interesting units and build options to investigate.
  • Heroes get pretty impressive powers with greater veterancy. I just love the way Gandalf throws his enemies off their feet with a blast of magic.
  • The game play is absolutely fun and the AI can be quite a challenge to defeat at the highest level. 
  • Additional special powers can be activated through a special button found at the bottom left circle of the main game. Incidentally, the bottom left circle is called a palantír. That's the funky magical orb used by Saruman in the movie. The special power icon is featured at the top center of the palantír.
  • A map editor (known as World Builder) is also included, but it's not easy to use.
Pick a land, any land... is it New Zealand?
  • Some of the battles take a long time to complete, although the inclusion of heroes tend to move things along a bit faster.
  • The AI tends to follow your units blindly. This sometimes lead to spectacular ambushes that will easily wipe out your enemies. That tends to cheapen the value of the game a bit.
  • Don't be disappointed if the game's story diverges from what you see in the movie. 
  • Forget trying to group all your units on the screen. Remember the hotkey "Q" instead. 
  • In my opinion, the movie cutscenes tend to be slightly blurry.
Maybe just too many troops to control
BfME is an incredible real time strategy game that still rocks even though multiplayer servers have been terminated by Electronic Arts. I have taken off half a point because of the inability to play on the Internet.

Nevertheless, you should also know Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth makes use of a heavily modified SAGE engine (of Command and Conquer: Generals fame). With it, Electronic Arts LA have created an exciting strategic game of high fantasy featuring elves, dwarves, hobbits, and men in their epic battle against evil.

If you have not explored the world of Tolkien before, than this serves as an excellent introduction. If you are familiar with the Academy Award winning trilogy by Peter Jackson, then I believe this game should already belong on your shelf right next to your collection of the Extended Version of the movie DVDs.

Relive the fantasy
Daily PC Game Review Score: 8 / 10
Review Date: 29 Aug 2011


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