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Game ReviewsThe Lord of the Rings: The War of the Ring by Eonwe-Valar)

The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Ring

System: PC
Developer: Liquid Entertainment
Publisher: Sierra Entertainment

War of the Ring is a Real-Time Strategy game based on J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books, not the movies which are also based on the books. This one is made by Sierra and predates the RTS Battle for Middle-Earth, brought out by Electronic Arts, by about a year.

While it's the third option in the Campaign menu, the first selection anyone should make is the Tutorial. For Tolkien fans especially, receiving instruction from these tutors will almost be worth the price of admission (only $20 for this game now, if you can find it).

The soundtrack to the game is rather pleasant, varying from soft to epic, and the voice acting is quite good as well. The voices for the heroes, units, and the narration for the most part are very fitting (Galadriel's voice in particular is quite fitting). Anime fans as well will be interested in learning that such notable voice actors (in the anime community) as Crispan Freeman and Lex Lang have loaned their voices to this game. The soundtrack can be downloaded for free at the War of the Ring Official Site.

The campaign mode offers two campaigns: good and evil. The story jumps around via strings of scenarios forming sub-campaigns. For example, in the Good campaign, you will spend some time assisting Boromir and Faramir in securing Osgiliath, and some time aiding Legolas in the attempt to recapture Gollum. The evil campaign puts you in the position of one of Sauron's commanders, building his forces for the conquering of Middle-Earth. The scenarios consist of a mix of stuff only touched on in the books and stuff apparently from the minds of the level designers with only loose connections if any to the story in the books, so it's not exactly canon. The scenario selection screen is a map of Middle-Earth, the Free People's scenarios designated by a tree, and the Minions of Sauron's by a red eye. Each time you complete a scenario, you come back to this map.

Leading the armies of both sides into battle are heroes, some of which Tolkien fans will recognize from the books. Among the heroes for the Free Peoples are Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli (these are the only ones usable in the Skirmish mode, but others appear in Campaign mode), and Saruman and the Witch King are among those on the side of evil. Each of these heroes has a unique set of abilities to aid their forces in battle.

A nice innovation shared by heroes and units alike is that no unit with a special ability has a mana bar. Instead, special abilities are governed only by the cooldown timer on that ability. This not only holds truer to the books, but makes battles more fluid as you do not have to worry about whether you have mana, only whether the ability is ready.

There are also places on the map of strategic importance called "places of power," which will offer your forces different buffs, from making heroes cost less to boosting hp and defense.

Besides food and minerals, there is a third resource you must gather: fate. Gathering fate is as simple as battling your enemy, however, so this resource is quite easy to come by. Fate plays an important role in War of the Ring, as it is used to summon heroes, purchase hero abilities, and use Fate Powers, which have the potential to turn the tide of a battle.

The gameplay holds true to the standard RTS formula: you gather resources, build buildings, create units, and try to outmaneuver or overwhelm your enemy. Making the job easier is the fact that you can speed build with no more of an investment than the cost of the building itself. You can even select multiple workers, tell them to construct something you want built, and they will all go to build that building. Go Teamwork! The heroes, while useful and powerful, are not the end-all-be-all of your forces, and while they may be able to turn the tide of a battle, they will not decide the battle. ("I've got a hero! There's no way I can lose!")

Making the job a tad tougher, however, is that the in-game interface does not show you what hot-key commands will build units (though you can view them in the options from the main menu), and many of the shortcut keys are not intuitive. (Hit "R" to build a Stronghold? Hit F1 to summon a Rider of Rohan?) The saving grace, however, is that the worker's building selection interface is pretty straightforward, and if you wish, you can change the key bindings right in the options.

Sierra does not offer its own Multiplayer service, and there is no connection option for modem or TCP/IP, so your only choices for multiplayer capability are using LAN or Gamespy. The program to play on Gamespy comes as part of the package. On top of this, your DVD drivers may need to be updated for this game due to some issues many players have had running War of the Ring in a DVD Drive.

The graphics and detail in War of the Ring are quite good. For instance, after your Gondor Swordsman have fought, you can see the blood on their blades (assuming you have the setting so you can see the blood), and walking through tall grass, or just watching the wind blowing it, is great. However, the so-called "World Editor" is quite limited, so much in fact that it reaches way back to Warcraft 2 when looking for a map editor of similar functionality. You can't set up triggers, events, or anything fancy like that, and have only very basic editing abilities of units, so making custom campaigns using just the provided editor seems to be out of the question. Custom scenarios, are of course, easy enough.

Overall, this game is quite beautiful, and the gameplay experience is good. It's about as good as I would expect a Real-Time Strategy game based on Lord of the Rings to be, despite the slightly unfriendly user interface in-game and the unintuitive hot-keys on top of that. However, the lack of even a Starcraft-level map editor out of the box is a drawback for an otherwise good game with great graphics, voices, and music.

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