Gandalf didn't "die" in Moria. In fact, the old wizard slapped down the Balrog and marched out of the mountain with the rest of the fellowship. Meanwhile, King Theoden of Rohan managed to get cut down at Helm's Deep and, oh yeah, Boromir lives. Is this revisionist fantasy history at work? No, it's just a campaign as the good guys in The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth, EA's real-time strategy game that spans the entire saga of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movies. The Battle for Middle-earth has a lot going for it: This is a big game packed with beautiful graphics and two huge campaigns. And while it doesn't achieve the same epic sense of scale as Jackson's movies, it's still an engrossing and well-made real-time strategy game that captures the essence of J.R.R. Tolkien's wondrous world.
The Battle for Middle-earth may not rival the scale of the movies, but it's still an impressive-looking game.
While some might have expected that The Battle for Middle-earth would rival the size and scope of a certain other major real-time strategy game released this year, the truth is that it's more on the scale of traditional real-time strategy games, though its battles are still quite big. What makes The Battle for Middle-earth work is the fact that it allows you to rewrite the history of the War of the Ring as either the forces of good or the forces of evil. The game does this by combining an overarching turn-based campaign that's stitched together with real-time strategy missions, allowing you to decide where to take the fight to next. This way, you can control the armies of good or evil as you march across the world of Middle-earth, conquering province after province along the way.
At the heart of the campaign game is the living world map, which is exactly what it sounds like. This is a 3D view of a living, breathing Middle-earth, divided into more than 30 provinces, each of which has special properties that you earn when you control it. One province may give you bonus resources, another will give you power points that you can use to invest in powerful abilities, and yet another will give you extra command points, allowing you to lead more troops in battle. And as you gaze upon the living world, with its little details like the NazgÃ»l flying through overcast skies, the sonorous tones of Ian McKellen or Christopher Lee (both reprising their roles from the movies) will guide you.
Admittedly, the strategic layer of the campaign is a bit thin. You have only two or three armies at your disposal, and the goal isn't so much to crush the opposing army as it is to simply conquer as many provinces at possible. When you select an army, the game will highlight any adjacent hostile provinces, and you'll select which one you want to attack next. You'll then drop down into the real-time portion of the game to resolve the battle. Once that's done, you'll switch back to the campaign map to do it all over again. There doesn't appear to be any hurry to get anywhere, either, as the final battle for both sides can wait until you're ready to proceed. That means you can spend time mopping up isolated provinces and building up your forces.
The living world map lets you dispatch your armies to various regions, so choose the ones with the most bonuses.
The strategic map does incorporate some welcome features, such as continuity between missions. In other words, the army that you have at the end of one battle is the same army you'll have at the beginning of the next. This not only gives you an added incentive to preserve your units, but, more importantly, it also allows both your heroes and your regular units to rise in experience level, making them even more powerful than before. And, in a nice touch, you can rename your regular units to give them some personality. It's easy to turn a noted cavalry unit into the Light Brigade, for instance. This also makes it easier to recognize which units on the battlefield you want to preserve.
Like in other conventional real-time strategy games, there are some missions in Battle for Middle-earth that require you to navigate through a level with a handful of units, usually heroes, without building anything. These can be some of the more-annoying missions in the game, mainly due to the fact that the game is at times wildly inconsistent when it comes to handling hero death. For example, while controlling the fellowship through Moria, none of the fellowship may die. If someone does, you'll fail the mission and have to reload the battle. But in other battles, heroes can and will fall. In fact, one of the most shocking moments in our testing came when Aragorn fell in an early battle and the game went on, accepting Aragorn as a casualty of war. Another surprise came when Boromir was saved from the Uruk-hai, thus veering away from The Fellowship of the Ring storyline. Alas, what seemed to be a bold move on the part of EA faded as Aragorn and other characters that were killed in battle simply reappeared in other battles later on. Though this seems necessary from a narrative point of view (after all, someone has to summon the Army of the Dead to fight at Minas Tirith), it makes parts of the campaign's storyline a little hard to swallow.
Sam and a group of Gondor soldiers take on Shelob, the spider queen. As you can probably tell, the game takes some liberties with the story for gameplay's sake.
Part of the problem with the heroes is that they walk the line between usefulness and inconvenience. The major characters from the movies, such as Aragorn, the four hobbits, Gollum, and Eowyn, are available as heroes in the game. They're fairly powerful, but not powerful enough to overwhelm and unbalance the game. And, as they gain experience, they unlock more-powerful abilities. Gandalf has a wicked magic blast that hurls enemy battalions into the air, while Aragorn can summon the power of Elendil to cause enemies to flee. But these special characters are still vulnerable, and in the sheer chaos of battle, it's difficult to manage regular units alongside multiple heroes and their powers. It's easy to lose track of heroes, and often they can get cut down in battle. Thus, you'll feel it's easier simply to put them in the rear, where they can stay safe and out of the way. Unfortunately, they also won't accrue experience sitting in the back, and late in the campaign you may find yourself in a tight spot if your heroes aren't strong enough. In fact, there are some late-campaign battles where a high-level hero can be the difference between success and failure.
The real-time battles of The Battle for Middle-earth are the heart of the game, and while they may not provide the same epic sense of scale as the battles in the movies, they're still quite well done. The game captures the many different moments from the movies very well, from the way cavalry can slice through enemy infantry like a hot knife through butter, to the sheer numbers of the forces of evil.
What's really interesting is how The Battle for Middle-earth fits so effectively into the existing storylines of the movies. For instance, near the beginning of The Two Towers, we see Eomer leading a company of horsemen. By the end of that movie, he arrives at Helm's Deep with an army of horsemen behind him to save the day. In The Battle for Middle-earth, you can lead Eomer throughout his campaign in Rohan, building up a larger and larger army behind him. Then, when you must fight the battle of Helm's Deep, you must hold out long enough for Gandalf and Eomer to arrive, at which point the army that you built up with Eomer arrives with him. It's a nice sense of continuity that helps fill out the background of the movies, and it's also an example of the way the game rewards you for playing wisely and preserving your force.
Saruman unleashes his mighty blast. Heroes are powerful units, but it's easier to manage them one at a time, rather than in groups.