Battle for Middle-Earth is the second Real-Time Strategy game based on J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings to be brought out. This one is based on the recently released movies rather than the books, and was published by Electronic Arts (EA). It was released in both CD and DVD format.
The first and most annoying thing you'll notice about this game is the intro,… all of them, and you can't skip them until about 4 in (when it's almost done anyway). The fact that I even paid money for this should grant me the ability to skip every one of those stupid and pointless ads and get straight to the game. I sat through them the first time because it was a new game. I shouldn't have to sit through them every subsequent loading, especially EA's "Challenge Everything."
Once again we are given the choice between commanding the forces of the Free People or the forces of Sauron. The story line stays pretty much with that of the movies, which, considering what EA's designers have done when given freer rein over the creative direction of a game (The Third Age, anyone?), is probably Battle for Middle-Earth's greatest strength. The movies, of course hold to at least the larger chain of events in Lord of the Rings, and thus the game does as well. For the good campaign we enter the picture at Moria, which is fairly reasonable since the number of battle scenes before that part in the books is quite small. For the scenario selection screen, we are treated to a beautifully done map of Middle-Earth, stretching from just west of the Shire to a large chunk of Mordor in the east (including, surprisingly enough, the inland Sea of Nurn, the only sizeable body of water in Mordor). Scenarios are marked off by territory, with each territory being a scenario in itself. For example, Rohan is divided up into Eastfold, Westfold, Dunharrow, and about 7 other territories (actually named in the books, not just pulled out of the air), and you will deal with battles in each of them.
Of course, Battle for Middle-Earth also has heroes to lead your forces into battle. The good side has the standard list of characters: everyone in the Fellowship, plus Eomer, Theoden, Faramir, and Eowyn. Heroes gain access to new abilities "simply" by leveling, and EA got it right like Sierra by making these abilities use a cooldown timer rather than mana. However, the heroes are quite powerful, and it's not long before you don't even have to bother sending out your troops any more. You just send out your small group of heroes and decimate the enemy, pulling your army out of your main base only so you don't feel so bad about totally bashing the computer into the ground with only a handful of heroes. This formula holds for most maps, only deviating in Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith, where the enemy forces will do their darndest to overwhelm you before you can click that button to gain access to the army you built up on previous maps, and in the showdown at the Black Gate where everything just gets decimated no matter what kind of unit it is.
Battle for Middle-Earth has many choices for units, some whose use overlaps with others, but it has taken the chance to simplify the concept of base-building, deviating slightly from the standard RTS fare. Yes, you still build buildings, you still have a unit number cap, you still need resources, and you still have to upgrade. You even get stuck constructing your buildings near each other. However, there are no resource nodes. Instead, you have a general resource (aptly dubbed "resources") that you get simply by building (and keeping) certain structures. You then use this to build your structures, create your units, upgrade, etc. Fans of Starcraft may find this reminiscent of many UMS maps.
EA changes the formula up a bit, however, in limiting the number of buildings you can put in a base location. This is further determined by the type of base you have set up, and the type of base set up is determined by where you set it up. You'll find markers with flags upon which to build your bases. They range from simple outposts where you can put 3 buildings, or full castles with walls where you can put about 8 buildings, not including defensive structures on the walls. These areas are hardly ever in a convenient location to be defended from another nearby location. This makes decisions on which buildings you want inside your castle walls all the more important, as you must post troops to defend any outposts outside your walls.
Other interesting features include the upgrading system. Buildings upgrade through use. Resource providers will automatically upgrade, while unit producing buildings gain "experience" the more units you build with them. Units are also produced in groups. For instance, creating "Gondor Solders" actually creates a squad of 4 Soldiers. You also have to pay twice for upgrades. The first time is a purchase to be able to upgrade units. Then you pay to individually upgrade a squad. The cost isn't cheap for either, so it pays to retreat if the odds are against you.
The interface is another strength of the game. It's quite simple: everything you need is in the lower left hand of the screen around the Palantir. The Palantir shows you the game map, and in the campaigns shows you clips from the movies from time to time. Next to the Palantir is a smaller circle that shows you images of the units or building you select, and surrounding that are smaller circles with commands you can issue and upgrades you can use/have used. Shortcuts are given in the tooltip as well. Overall, it's a very efficient interface.
Battle for Middle-Earth also has abilities the player can call on in an attempt to turn the tide of battle should they find themselves in a desperate situation. Ranging from simple upgrades to certain units (Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White) to summoning Eagles or even the dead men of Dunharrow, they are not unlike War of the Ring's Fate Powers in purpose and method of attainment. You purchase these powers (called Power of the Evenstar for the Good side and Power of the One Ring for the Bad side) by earning power points. You get these either as rewards from campaigns or by killing enough of your enemy's troops.
The graphics are quite good, even though the highest resolution supported is "only" 1152 x 864. The soundtrack and voices are the same as the movie, which should come as no surprise. Don't expect anything groundbreaking in the voice of music department. That the game can sport a few clips from the movie in the Palantir and the clips look good is a positive. The detail on the landscapes and water is nice as well. It's nice to see the troops cheer after a victory, and the animation when heroes use abilities (like Boromir using his horn) rather than just throwing out the effect is a nice touch.
Multiplayer options in Battle for Middle-Earth are limited to network and online play. It seems most companies these days are loathe to throw their customers a bone and give them modem or TCP/IP play so they can get with friends or family without being in the same room or connecting to some large game match-making service. However, it's a nice touch that the game keeps count of your wins/losses and your streaks with your nickname, even in single-player skirmish mode.
The world editor seems to be quite detailed. It offers the chance to edit scripts, create events, design terrain, place units and buildings and edit their stats. However, the World Editor is not very user friendly. Someone just starting would not be able to jump into any aspect of map design, but rather would have to spend time familiarizing themselves with the entire editor before beginning something as basic as designing terrain.
Overall, the game is fun, when you finally get past all the opening ads. There are a few glitches, such as the game locking up if you pause the game when the map is about to end. The army-like strength of the heroes can be forgiven, if only because it's the campaign and not multiplayer where the enemy is more likely to have a group of heroes. The interface is easy to use and read. The world editor is also fairly extensive, which is good, even though it takes a college course to use.