The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth Review
I must begin this review with a confession: I love The Lord of the Rings. I’ve read the books several times and have seen the movies in their full extended edition glory even more times. I think that Tolkien created a fascinating world and that Peter Jackson did an excellent job of the very difficult task of bring the story to film. This means that I approached The Battle for Middle-earth (BFME) with a somewhat more critical eye than for other games. When you build a game on a license with such weight as The Lord of the Rings, it comes with the territory that you have to both stay true enough to the source to please its fans while still providing gameplay compelling enough to entertain the gamer in everyone. For the most part, BFME succeeds in both cases and at times I found myself happily lost in the world of Middle-earth. However, I can see where the more demanding gamers in the The Lord of the Rings and RTS camps may find some fault with the game for reasons that I will explain shortly.
BFME scores very highly in the presentation category. Its integration of video, sound, and imagery from the movies into the game and its interfaces is masterful, and it sets a high standard for future licensed games to strive to meet. The game also includes voice talent from several of the movies’ original cast including Ian McKellan, Christopher Lee, and Sean Astin, which adds a lot to the game’s atmosphere and immersion. It’s one thing to have the set-up for a mission narrated by an anonymous voice actor and quite another to hear the narration done by the voice you’ve come to associate with Gandalf. Playing the game will make you excited to watch the films again, which is something that all movie-licensed games really should be doing.
Middle-earth can be yours.
As for the game itself, it can be played in campaign, skirmish, and multiplayer modes, but it runs counter to the RTS norm in that it is the campaign game that is at the heart of BFME. The game includes both a “good” campaign and an “evil” campaign that put you in charge of the Fellowship, Rohan, and Gondor, and the forces of Sauron and Saruman respectively. The campaign is played out on a strategic map of all of Middle-earth which is divided into a number of smaller territories and key locations and cities. The map is not a static wall map, but instead a 3D animated aerial view of Middle-earth that looks so good you’ll spend a little time just looking at it the first time you begin a campaign. Each territory will award you with a certain bonus if captured, such as additional resources, command points to allow you to control more troops, or power points that allow you to purchase new bonuses or abilities. However, the strategic component of the game is not quite what you would expect it to be based on other RTS games that include a strategic map. The campaign is not a free flowing setting in which you can wage the War of the Ring to your liking. Instead, it really serves the purpose of choosing which of the available missions you’d like to play next. There’s no back and forth as you fight for control of the land with the enemy – if you lose a mission you can retry it until you win, and the missions progress you through the storyline laid out in the trilogy … although the game takes some necessary liberties with that storyline.
Can you imagine a The Lord of the Rings in which Gandalf defeats the Balrog in the halls of Moria and walks out the other side with the rest of the Fellowship? Or one in which Boromir survives and the orcs overrun Helmsdeep? Can you handle watching Aragorn fall in battle and accept his miraculous return in a later mission in which he plays a key role? If you answered no to any of these questions then you’re a The Lord of the Rings purist who would find the game’s campaign very unsettling. Otherwise you’ll have to just roll with the changes with the understanding that the developers need this sort of leeway in creating a game versus something that is simply a reenactment. Personally, I did not take much exception to the story changes as they all seemed to fit within the realm of enhancing the gameplay instead of ill-advised revisionism.
The game’s strategic component is more than an elaborate mission selection menu. It provides a degree of continuity between the missions that you do not find when progressing through a completely linear campaign. First of all, your units and heroes gain experience through battles that improve their abilities, and this experience carries over from one mission to the next. This adds another layer of strategy to the game as you must ensure that your veteran units survive their battles. In a pretty nice touch, you can even rename these surviving units after a mission and let them build their own little history. You’ll also need to exercise good judgment in selecting your next mission as you may need to pick up some valuable experience and additional bonuses before facing a major fight. It may be tempting to siege Minas Tirith as soon as you can, but it is more prudent to battle-harden your legions of orcs first.