Though The Lord of the Rings trilogy has concluded, Electronics Arts have continued to release console games inspired by the wildly successful films. The Third Age hit consoles in late 2004, delivering a solid turn-based role-playing-game that was very similar to Final Fantasy X. However, when EA announced that The Battle for Middle-Earth II would grace the Xbox 360 this year, I was shocked. Real-time strategy games are rarely released on console systems, and I think most would consider it a dead genre on anything other than the PC platform. Still, EA seemed determined to make it happen, and the result is The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth II.
So you’re a fan of the films – you can tell your Gimli from Legolas, and you can certainly name all of the major Hobbits… but what about Glóin and Glorfindel? EA was able to secure the license to the literary works of J.R.R. Tolkien, in addition to their already held license to the films. Not only does this create a unified license (and a lack of confusion), but it allowed EA Los Angeles to craft a game that draws equally from the films and the novels, essentially expanding the story for those who have only seen the films. However, the true test of any game based on existing works is if it is able to transcend its license. Despite the rich world of content that the narrative was culled from, The Battle for Middle-Earth II stands on its own as an excellent game that is epic, ambitious, and highly rewarding.
RTS titles are often held back due to the limiting nature of console controller schemes. The Xbox 360 controller has just eight action buttons, with two analog sticks and a d-pad; compare that to a PC keyboard and mouse setup. I have not played the PC version of The Battle for Middle-Earth II, so I cannot make a direct comparison. However, I can say this with much certainty: the console release controls with ease, and does not feel like a dumbed-down port by any means. EA Los Angeles was somehow able to make a complex strategy game feel completely natural on Microsoft’s glorious white controller, and the game rarely uses more than four of the buttons on a regular basis.
In fact, my thumb rarely left the A button. As the action button, it is used (in combination with the triggers) to select single or multiple units, choose where the selected units should go, pick who/what to attack, create new buildings or units, and arrange your units in a formation. I could go on and on, but here is my point: the game largely relies on the A button, and it works wonderfully. As noted, you will use the trigger buttons in conjunction with the A button. The right trigger brings up the menu, which contains a heap of available options. You can select builders, powers, heroes, and even create shortcuts for your own use. When a unit is selected, the right trigger will bring up the options associated with that selection (creating units, building structures, etc.).
Other than that, you will use the analog sticks for movement and controlling the camera, and the d-pad for navigating the menus. The other face buttons are used sparingly to cancel selections, deselect units, and move the camera swiftly across the battlefield. Two tutorial missions are accessible from the main menu screen, and are highly recommended, even for PC RTS buffs. As an almost-exclusive console gamer, I do not have a lot of experience with the genre, so I headed to the tutorials before doing anything else. They are absolutely necessary, and will provide you with all of the skills you need to start protecting (or destroying) the lands of Middle-Earth.
Protect or destroy; you do have a choice in the matter. The Battle for Middle-Earth II features both Good and Evil Campaigns, each featuring eight missions that take you through the lands and seas of Middle-Earth. While some environments are familiar from the films (Rivendell, The Shire), many others were constructed from descriptions from the original texts. With the duality of the narrative, some areas (Erebor, Rivendell) are seen from both sides of the battle, either as the attackers or defenders. While I found the Good Campaign to be slightly more interesting, I cannot deny the great thrill of taking down Hobbits en masse.
In many missions, you will start with very little: a handful of units, a couple of builders, and some land. The onus is on you: create your army and decide your destiny! Start with a fortress; from there, the options are wide-open. Certainly, you should build several structures to mine resources from the area. After that, assemble your army from a varied selection of units (warriors, archers, trolls, etc.) and devise a battle plan. Sixteen missions may not seem like a ton of content, but these missions can be quite long – up to an hour apiece, sometimes more. Finishing a mission is a highly rewarding experience, as you have weathered the storm and won a huge battle, having made all of the decisions in the process. I am not even a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings, but I found myself glued to The Battle for Middle-Earth II.
The high-definition graphics of The Battle for Middle-Earth II for the Xbox 360 have been highly touted, and with good reason. The environments are extremely large and surprisingly detailed. Each level has its own distinct flair, meaning no two environments will look the same. However, it is worth noting that the characters have low polygon counts. Luckily, you will likely spend most of the game from the zoomed-out, overhead view, in which everything looks excellent. Zooming in will reveal the rigid-looking polygonal freak-shows for what they are. The between-mission cinematics use a combination of in-game graphics and hand-drawn slides, and do well to set the stage for the impending battle.
One thing I do have to take umbrage with is the inconsistent frame rate. Now, there are two ways of looking at this. Some might claim it to be excusable because of the grand scale of game, and the fact that there will be hundreds of active units on the screen at times. Still, it seems out-of-place on the Xbox 360, a system that features several other visually striking games that run at a much better clip. I would suspect that The Battle for Middle-Earth II is simply missing a coat of polish, something that a couple extra weeks of development would have solved. The choppiness and slowdown do not affect the gameplay; they just annoy and bewilder. Also worth noting is the quality sound work in the game, especially the voice-overs by Hugo Weaving, who portrayed Elrond in the films. The in-game battle cries from the characters add a lot to the atmosphere of the game.
With so many Xbox 360 owners on Xbox Live, it was absolutely necessary for EA Los Angeles to provide a compelling online multiplayer experience with The Battle for Middle-Earth II. Not only have they ported over the gameplay modes of the PC version, but additional modes have been included. The standard versus mode pits two to four gamers against each other in an all-out war, while the King of the Hill and Capture and Hold modes provide similar, largely self-explanatory experiences. Resource Race challenges each player to become the first to create a specified amount of resources. Finally, the Hero vs. Hero gametype simplifies things, giving each player just four heroes and a fortress to deal with. The player with the remaining fortress or the highest-level characters at the end wins. EA Los Angeles certainly went above and beyond with the online play, resulting in long-lasting investment for Xbox Live addicts.
The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth II for Xbox 360 is one of those rare licensed games that actually transcends its license to provide a great gaming experience for anyone willing to give it a shot. I am neither a big fan of the license or RTS games in general, but I got a kick out of this game, and think it to be one of the best games released for the Xbox 360 so far in 2006. Any worries about gameplay functionality are quickly dispelled once you wrap your hands around the controller. One can only hope that the success of this game will spur the development of future RTS titles for consoles (listen up, Blizzard!).
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