I really didn't think very highly of the original Battle for Middle Earth. Granted, it was based on a book and movie license that screamed for a big-budget real-time strategy game, but there were many things that the original just didn't do right. The base building was about two adjectives short of horrible, and the game, as a whole, just didn't seem like anything other than a blatant attempt to cash in on a popular IP. All that being said, somebody at EA thought it proper to polish those elements when it was time to create Battle for Middle Earth 2, which looks to be a much stronger game than the previous title on all fronts.
We recently got to check out a limited beta of Battle for Middle Earth 2 and gave the game a spin. For starters, there is definitely no check that went unsigned in the development of the title, as the interface and game look as close to phenomenal as one can take liberty to say about a preview title. The menu design is very cohesive and suits the material well, but what really steals the show is the in-game engine that, while it doesn't have the smallest details per se, features an absolute ton of special effects and subtleties. For example, the models of units in-game aren't of any higher quality than something you'd see in other RTS titles, but your eyes will have a herd time not noticing the fact that they all cast soft shadows and the environment has a deep enough atmosphere that a lifeguard should probably be on duty.
Of course, those are the graphics, but what about the gameplay? Battle for Middle Earth 2 is a title that follows many of the same conventions RTS fans have come to expect, with a few notable deviations. For instance, while players must build mines and farms to gather resources, the twist is that they must be built in good areas. A farm built on grassland away from anything else, or other farms, will yield a lot of food, while a farm neighboring a bunch of buildings and rocks will yield next to nothing. The same sort of mechanic goes for mines, making resource "gathering" strategic in itself. To help protect your farms, mines, and other important buildings, the player can now build wherever they want within reason, which is in stark contrast to the original title. Additionally, the player can now create walls, towers, and defensive stations along them to help repel invaders. The new goblin race can scale walls, but that's neither here nor there.
Combat in Battle for Middle Earth 2, however, is one thing that could really use just a bit more TLC before release. For the most part, the combat is exciting to watch, strategic, and representative of the scale of the movies, but at some points, the artificial intelligence is a bit inadequate. Really, the only complaint so far is that behind the immediate frontlines, units on both sides of the battle will either sit in place, or sit in place and spin gently, and behind the monitor, the player is flailing wildly, begging the soldiers on the sides to just take a step over, rush around their friends, and join the fight. Other than that, though, the combat is well done, and there are plenty of nuances, such as battle stances and special abilities, to enable strategic players to flex their intellectual muscle. You can select multiple units and have them form a battle line, which is a logical formation (i.e., soldiers in front, archers in the rear) that the units will try and hold while both moving and fighting. Units that stay alive and perform well will gain experience and levels, meaning that the longer you keep an infantry unit alive and fighting, the better they'll perform. You can also equip units with better weapons and armor, which can give them the edge they need to win a battle. Of course, this is a LOTR game, so by "unit," one means about 20 soldiers; there are very few instances where ordering a unit to be trained produces a single soldier.
One of those occasions is the creation of hero units (named after those from the books and movies, naturally), which are ridiculously powerful and can really turn the tide of battle in your favor. Hero units can be killed just like any other, but it is tough to do so, although if your hero unit does finally fall in battle, you can always produce it again later on. What's rather intriguing, however, is that Battle for Middle Earth 2 promises the ability to create your own hero in the game, letting you choose not only the hero's name and looks but also, to some extent, their skills and special abilities. Sure, it's a real-time strategy game, but the ability to create your own avatar and use it as a unit in-game really seems like a fresh idea for the genre.
The multiplayer in Battle for Middle Earth 2, at least from the beta's perspective, doesn't seem a whole lot different than what you would expect. Both sides of the conflict must manage their resources, craft an army, and strategically attack the enemy. The battle stances, battle lines, heroes, and other special abilities add a layer of depth to the combat, making it not quite a simple matter of which units perform better against others, and definitely deeper than a sheer numbers game. The biggest aspect of the multiplayer is the War of the Ring mode, which unfortunately was locked, but it's essentially a campaign-style mode that spans multiple players across multiple maps. Call me crazy, but the idea of a multiplayer campaign mode where both sides of the conflict are actual players is an idea whose implementation has been long overdue.
Even as a person who didn't like the original title, I found the limited beta of Battle for Middle Earth 2 to be a rather interesting title. The most ambitious modes were unavailable such as the War of the Rings and hero creation modes, but the available gameplay content was both enjoyable and a far cry from being a sheer cashing in of a popular license. Most of the problems in the original title have been remedied, as have been a couple of the conventions that have been plaguing RTS titles for some time now. Past that, the game is an effective use of the license in a genre that is almost tailor-made for it. The title also has enough depth to make both fans of the genre and fans of the stories sit up and take notice. Look for more on Battle for Middle Earth 2 as it nears its upcoming ship date in early March.
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