Its inevitable that successful book, and to a greater degree film, franchise will spawn numerous titles in different media. The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth is not Electronic Arts’ first foray into J.R.R. Tokien’s Middle Earth but is certainly EA’s best. Following on the heels of Liquid Entertainment’s and Sierra Entertainment’s The Lord of the Rings: War of the Ring, The Battle for Middle Earth is the second real time strategy game to be set on Middle Earth during the War of the Ring and events of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Unlike many previous game titles The Battle for Middle Earth is based exclusively off the interpretation of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
The Battle for Middle Earth takes a new approach to RTS play. Bases are now constructed from pre-located build slots in circular base layouts of varying sizes, each categorized by the number of building slots it provides (i.e. a stronghold provides six build slots while a citadel provides eight). Units are unlocked as their production centers level up through increased use. Most troop units come in groups, with five being standard for cavalry and human units while ten is more common for orcs. Upgrades are applied to each individual unit for a price and remain fixed, even if the unit suffers losses. Special powers, familiar to players of EA’s Command & Conquer Generals, make a comeback as special or passive abilities acquired by purchasing them from a tree that unlocks more options as the player purchases more powers. Power points are acquired through destroying enemy units and structures.
The power trees are divided between good and evil teams. In the campaign these are shared by the two factions that make up each team, but the trees are split in multiplayer with the factions sharing some powers but keeping others for themselves. The four playable factions are the great participants in the War of the Ring: Gondor, Isengard, Mordor, and Rohan. Good and Evil aligned factions share similar traits, for example only Good aligned factions can build walls and only Evil aligned factions have powers that boost their economic ability. In keeping with the thematic presentations of the films each faction features its own artistic style and for the most part possess unique unit and building trees. The designs are very flavorful and surprisingly well balanced. Some factions lack the diverse build options of others (Isengard is pretty one-dimensional and Rohan can only choose from six units) but their unique designs leave few holes for enemy teams to exploit.
The heroes of Middle Earth make an appearance as well. Seven of the Fellowship can be trained between Gondor and Rohan (only Sam and Frodo are restricted to the campaign), and these are supplemented by the royals of Rohan and Boromir’s brother Faramir. Heroes are a lacking aspect for the Evil team, with Isengard offering two and Mordor deploying three aerial Nazgul. These are powerful heroes, but far less flashy and unique than their good counterparts. This is not a design error so much as a thematic choice; the Evil factions are able to field a far greater amount of troops and unit types than the Good factions, making the heroes more of a counterweight than an exploitation.
The story for the Battle for Middle Earth’s campaign is the story of the Lord of the Rings, primarily as told by Peter Jackson’s film trilogy. Players can come to this game and reasonably expect its story to be entertaining. Even knowing the ending is no spoiler since the outcome hinges on the player’s success in scripted mission such as the Siege of Minas Tirith or Sam’s liberation of Frodo at Cirith Ungol. While the game’s cinematic openings may promise a grander scale than the mission’s scripting and capacity can actually deliver players trekking through the Good campaign can expect massive battles and sieges where their hero units can shine against overwhelming numbers of orcs, Uruk-hai, and trolls. The Evil campaign is even more exciting to experience as the player challenges the established outcomes of the trilogy. EA admittedly had to take some creative licensing with missions like Mordor’s subjugation of Harad or Isengard’s assault on Edoras, but since the Evil campaign boils down to the forces of darkness winning the War of the Ring scenarios like these are logical conclusions.
All of the fantastic elements of Middle Earth make an appearance including Ents, giant eagles, the Army of the Dead, and even the Balrog. Battles between scripted missions generally play like skirmish battles which can lead to some repetitive experiences depending on how long the player wants to continue the campaign (the player can finish the campaign before all of Middle Earth is conquered). However each mission has a minor bonus objective unique to that region; they don’t need to be completed to win the region but completing the objective eases the player’s fight against their opponent. Once the player finishes a capstone scripted mission (Minas Tirith for Good and Osgiliath for Evil) towards the later half of the campaign all of southern Middle Earth is available for conquest by any of the armies the player previously used in earlier missions.
For its time Battle for Middle Earth was a graphically advanced game. There are few flashy explosions but the minutiae of the game is very well detailed. This does the story of the War of the Ring the service its due, but can lead to massive performance issues on a machine which runs closer to the minimum system requirements. Little of the gameplay experience is lost on lower graphics settings, but having to play in fear of a game ending crash is a worry that can always be done away with. As with most EA RTS games the multiplayer connection can be finicky during launch; dropping players for no apparent reason. Thankfully this is not a crippling side effect; it has no long lasting effects and is a fairly rare occurrence.
Playing through the campaigns for the Good and Evil teams pretty much encompasses the full single player experience. Eighteen scripted missions and over thirty regions to conquer make for hours upon hours of gameplay. Each faction’s full tech tree is available as the campaign progresses, with the power point special powers taking the longest to unlock. Available skirmish maps include all of the non-scripted missions (sadly, the Siege of Minas Tirith can only be replayed through saves and new campaigns). Supporting two to eight players with several different types player setups (some regions only have outposts for starting locations where others offer citadels).
The game’s AI is competent but not spectacular. It follows logical paths for the deployment of infantry, cavalry, siege units and such. However its use of powers is quite predictable and on anything below the hardest difficulty the AI’s penchant for expansion is little to none. As a flip side however this one of the few EA RTS games were the learning curve is more stable. Casual players may find even the normal AI to pose little challenge but the more relaxed pace allows players to level their heroes and unlock powers before the end game.
The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth is by far the most flavorful and thematic Lord of the Rings RTS to date with immaculate attention to detail and a very immersive and entertaining single player campaign. Fans of the trilogy, especially the movies, will enjoy the movie references and familiar scenes. RTS gamers may find the unique game elements confusing and perhaps boring, but like any good RTS game the heart of the experience is combat and here Battle for Middle Earth does not disappoint. For whatever reason the Battle for Middle Earth is not available for online download through any store; but even at full price this game is worth the purchase for any player, casual or skilled, who wants to run the battles of the War of the Ring.