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The Battle for Middle-earth II

Platform(s): PC, Xbox 360
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA
Release Date: March 2, 2006


PC Review - 'The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II'

by Angus Cormack on April 17, 2006 @ 2:29 a.m. PDT

BFME 2 takes part in the North where a battle is raging between Sauron's forces vs. elves and dwarves. It will be possible to create/customize your own hero, apart from known figures such as Arwin, and become more powerful as you progress in the game. While BFME was all land based, the sequel will also take the action on the sea, naval battles included.

Games, books, and movies are quickly becoming one medium – games are being made from movies, books expand upon movies, and movies are based on video game characters. More and more frequently these days, we've seen movie-based games and often come away less than impressed. Battle for Middle Earth 2 has a heritage far beyond the movies, hearkening back to the days when entertainment was referred to as "books." For anyone living under a rock for the last few decades, The Lord of the Rings was created by J.R.R. Tolkien and is the story of the one ring forged by the Dark Lord Sauron, and the quest of the fellowship (a group of hobbits with a dwarf, elf, and warrior king) to destroy it in the volcanic fires of its creation. It ranges across the mythical world of Middle-earth and includes huge battles of vast armies as well as the personal intensity of the main characters' quest. There have been many variations on the story of our beloved hobbits, elves, and dwarves; BFME2 tells the story of what the books and movies mostly skipped over, that of the battles of armies of both light and dark.

BFME2 is a basic real-time strategy, a time-tested and well-refined genre; structures are built, resources are created, and units are produced. The two single-player campaigns – good and evil – allow you to select your allegiance in the great battles to ensue. The six playable factions are: Men of the West, Elves, Goblins, Dwarves, Mordor, and Isengard. Within each faction are various units – hero, soldier, archers, cavalry, etc. The player can also customize a hero character; give it unique skills, appearance, and abilities; and it will then appear as a hero unit. Custom heroes can also be summoned when playing in skirmish, multiplayer, or War of the Ring campaigns.

Many units come in groups instead of as singular units, which lend a much more epic scale to the visual experience of BFME2. All units gain experience and level up as they progress, becoming better fighters in the process. Heroes gain new abilities or improve upon their existing ones. As is common these days, the heroes and units have specific abilities, some which need to be activated, while others are passive. All heroes have unique abilities such as fireballs, lighting bolts, terror-inducing screams, or passively improving the abilities of those around them.
Heroes often have "morale boosting" abilities, as well as a devastating attack or two. Other units, such as mountain giants, can be switched from throwing rocks to close-range attacks. Upgrading units with armor or better weapons typically requires research at the base that produces the unit, or at another building, such as the tavern or treasure trove, for some upgrades.

The large list of factions and their associated units and buildings hides one of BFME2's weaknesses. There is a wide variety in the overall available units, but each race has relatively few. This basically adds up to one or two infantry types (guardians/dwarves, goblins), at least one ranged attack group (archers, axe throwers), most have a cavalry (goblin spider riders, dwarven battle wagons), and artillery/siege weapons (catapults, mountain giants). Each unit is visually distinct, although I'll admit that dwarves all look the same to me. It's the beards.
BFME2 introduces naval battles to Middle-earth; there is an assortment of boats ranging from the standard transports to the Elvin suicide stormships, which cause a whirlpool that will destroy any watercraft on both sides.

Depending on the faction you're playing as, your resources could be produced by mines, trees, tunnels, slaughterhouses, farms, or furnaces. All of these locations act passively, without requiring units to work at the locations or carry around the gold. Unlike the original BFME, which dictated locations upon which structures could be built, BFME2 allows you to build anywhere. You select the desired resource building, drag it around over the map, and a percentage indicator shows you the structure's mining efficiency. Placement then becomes a strategic decision: Do you place the building in the middle of a hotspot and attain full efficiency, or do you create two buildings which may gather fewer resources individually, but achieve greater combined results?

Unit building work much the same, but without the placement issue; once placed, you can start pumping out units, or you can upgrade the building. For example, upgrading fissures – the source of trolls and mountain giants – will unlock better troll units and giants. Additionally, at most unit buildings, there are upgrade options for the units they produce, such as flaming arrows or armor upgrades. One special unit-generating building is the fortress, which is the place to summon and revive heroes in addition to creating new builders. It also is the center of all defensive encampments from which walls, catapults, stationary giants, stationary Ents, spider lairs, and towers can be built. It is tempting to continue to list the buildings and give a breakdown of what they do, but given the number of factions, it's not reasonable to do so.

There are also powers, which are purchased with what amounts to another set of experience. You gain points during play through combat, and when you gain enough, you can purchase reusable spells, or ring powers, in the game's parlance. Everyone gets a summons or two, or area attacks, and unit buffs. The good campaign gets to summon Tom Bombadil, everyone's favorite character who was cruelly cut from the movies. Powers add a nice facet to the game, and save the difficulty of having to select a specific hero to activate his/her special abilities.

Gameplay in BFME2 follows the accepted norms of standard RTSes. Select a unit or group, right-click on the enemies to attack – or the location to move to – and your army will do as asked. Units can be set to be aggressive, defensive, or "battle stance," which will determine bonuses; aggressive means your units hit harder, while defensive means they get an armor bonus. There is also a mechanism for planning complex maneuvers involving one or more groups of units. This system is accessed by pressing Z and works very intuitively. The game fades to a sepia tone while continuing in the background; selected units are then given the paths they should follow, which show up as lines across the map. To have them patrol continuously, just put the last point on their trail on the beginning point, and it will automatically "snap to," and your units will begin to patrol.

Graphics are quite nice – the maps are rich with forests, fields, and lakes, and are thoughtfully laid out in well-reasoned playing fields. Spell effects and other events are well animated, with unit behavior having been created through motion capture and flawlessly translated to the creatures of Middle-earth. That is certainly one of the impressive aspects of the game. Units are distinct when seen from the furthest zoom, but when you zoom in on them, they are well-rendered, and individual units stand out well. Explosion effects and other animations also contribute to the game's rich visual appearance. Cut scenes are all run from the in-game engine and are of oustanding quality. They are breathtaking and leave one with the feeling of impending delight, and the game does live up to them.

The audio is of excellent quality as well, with musical themes that come from the movie soundtracks. Ambient sounds fill the game and give it an excellent immersive feel. Elrond makes his presence known and is voiced by Hugo Weaving, who played the intense elf in the movies and who provides narration throughout the game.

I find it difficult to speak of the multiplayer in BFME2; in my day, when someone zerged you, they used real zerg (I'm a Starcraft junkie from WAY back). For those who don't know what that means, to be "zerged" is to be overwhelmed by low-end units that get to you before you have your base built and your defenses in place. The multiplayer appeared to work decently, and during my short survival times, I did not notice any significant lag jumps. Finding a multiplayer game online is easy – you have to register with EA and create a free account, after which you will be presented with a list of existing matches that you can join, or you have the option to create one of your own. You can choose the map, faction, where your army will start, and what hero you will be using, in addition to implementing custom rules. Once in the game, it plays exactly like the regular, single-player version, only with the chat function enabled.

There is yet another available gameplay variation, the "War of the Ring," in which the world of Middle-earth is laid out like a Risk board, and gameplay is mostly similar. This scenario allows control over the battles in a less linear manner; you can move your armies about, claim territory and fight for the contested areas. In most territories, there are two build spots which allow a resource, barracks, fortress, or upgrade building to be added. Each serves to be a starting asset in any battles that take place in that territory. The barracks and resource buildings also serve additional uses; the barracks let you build units to move about the map and garrison wherever they are needed. Placing resource buildings grants command points which again limit the number of units you can field on the big map. Claiming territory and initiating battles is done by the armies of the heroes only. Battles can either be resolved through real-time games or through an automatic resolution system that takes no time at all.

While it does not bring anything significantly new to the genre, Battle for Middle Earth 2 is a solid RTS. If you have ever considered learning Elvish, you already own this title. Otherwise, if you enjoy a good RTS with excellent replayability through online and solo play, you might want to pick up this one. From sound to storyline, graphics to control, BFME2 is worth the investment.

Score: 8.0/10

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