Whenever your army and heroes are ready, simply select them and send them off in the direction of the enemy. You can micromanage control of each battalion if you want, or you can simply sit back and let them do their work with the occasional adjustment on your behalf. This is a process that you may have to repeat several times in each battle (and in some of the more drawn-out battles, a lot of times). When you win, it's off to the next battle in the campaign, and by the time you're done, you'll have the hang of everything and you'll be ready for a tougher challenge: multilpayer.
Where the Xbox 360 version improves on the PC version is in multiplayer, as there are five modes to play. There's the traditional skirmish mode, of course, which pits players in a free-for-all battle of survival. These games can end early, with a quick rush by one side to crush the other, or they can turn into siege slugfests as players attack and counterattack with huge armies. The capture-the-flag, capture-and-hold, and resource race modes are best if you want a fast game that doesn't drag on too long. The idea in these modes is that there's a victory condition that requires players to take risks quickly and early, so there's no real chance to turtle up and create elaborate bases and defenses. Finally, there's hero mode, which does away with the armies altogether and leaves you with just the hero units battling against one another. The multiplayer modes are engaging and cater to different play styles, so if you're looking for a quick game that's finished in 15 minutes or an epic game that can take upward of an hour, you'll be able to find one in multiplayer. And considering that The Battle for Middle-earth II is the only real-time strategy game on the Xbox 360, there's the potential for it to become a very popular game on Xbox Live.
The big question, of course, is how the control scheme holds up. For years, the criticism of real-time strategy games on consoles has been that they're much easier to play with a PC's keyboard and mouse. Well, conventional thinking can be thrown out the window, because The Battle for Middle-earth II is pretty easy to play with the Xbox 360's gamepad. When you get down to it, all you need to use to play the game are the two thumbsticks, the two triggers, and the A button. The thumbsticks control the cursor and the camera, and you can swing the view around or zoom in and out (though, like with many real-time strategy games, you can never zoom out far enough to get a really big view of the battlefield). The A button lets you select a unit, and if you move the context-sensitive cursor over an enemy, it changes to an attack symbol, so all you need to do is hit A again to issue an attack. Holding down the left trigger while hitting A selects all military units onscreen, which makes it quickly give orders to your army. Meanwhile, the right trigger calls up the order menu. If you want to construct a unit, just select a building, hold down the right trigger, call up the build menu, and then select what you want to build. While the other buttons on the gamepad have their uses and functions, you can get through the entire game knowing just those basic controls. It's that easy.
Multiplayer will let you pit your strategic skills against other players on Xbox Live in five different game modes.
On a high-definition screen, the visuals are pretty much identical to the PC version, which was a good-looking game. In fact, the graphics actually benefit a bit from a cleaner look, since much of the interface clutter required for the PC version has been removed. The environments are certainly pretty, and you'll explore the lushness of the Shire, the frozen wastes of the Misty Mountains, and the gloomy depths of the Mirkwood. Each faction has a unique look and feel to it, and you really can appreciate the detail in some of the bigger units, such as the mountain giants or the Ents. The downside is that frame rate issues that cropped up in the PC version are here as well, so things slow down quite a bit during large battles. Meanwhile, the game is playable on a standard-definition television, though the visuals turn into a muddled mess. The tiny units on the screen are hard to distinguish from one another, and everything blends together unless you zoom in tight to the screen. The audio is still top-notch, though. Actor Hugo Weaving lends his voice to Elrond in the game, though you'll also hear Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, and other familiar voices that were featured in the original Battle for Middle-earth, as well. And the music is appropriately epic, obviously inspired by the Academy Award-winning movie scores.
Put it all together and The Battle for Middle-earth II is a game that offers a lot for the strategy-inclined Xbox 360 gamer. There's a considerable amount of replayability thanks to the single-player campaign, skirmish, and multiplayer modes, a fact that is further aided by the points system. The game has a fair amount of points and achievements that you can unlock (though for some strange reason you can only earn 705 points overall), so you may find yourself playing missions over again so you can get the achievement. While the single-player game will appeal to fans of The Lord of the Rings, competitive players will undoubtedly be drawn to the cutthroat multiplayer mode, especially since there's nothing quite like it on the Xbox 360. And, yes, the big surprise is that here's a real-time strategy game that works on a console, and the world didn't come to an end.