The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth II

The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth was very well received by series fans and real-time strategy gamers and is arguably the best RTS representation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy yet produced.  When Electronic Arts announced the upcoming release of The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth II fans were energized not so much with the prospect of new campaign content by with a newer and more expanded chance to enjoy the Lord of the Rings mythology.  Its release in 2006 garnered a great deal of praise and sold very well but its failure to continue the Battle for Middle Earth series hints at some unfortunate shortcomings in the design.
Battle for Middle Earth II changed a great deal of the gameplay mechanics that its predecessor introduced.  Bases are no longer static locations but are now made up of individual buildings constructed by workers.  Base size was also indeterminate as resource buildings need a certain amount of free space around them to generate resources efficiently.  A central fortress building constructs workers, trains heroes, and functions as a command center for the player.
Unit production and composition also received an overhaul.  Buildings still need to reach higher levels to produce more advanced units but instead of leveling as units are produced the player must purchase building tier upgrades.  The units themselves increase in squad size with most units now holding ten units and some evil faction squads holding twenty.
There are six factions in BFME II but only two from the first title make an unaltered appearance.  The forces of Good have been merged into the Men of the West, essentially the Gondor faction with Rohan cavalry.  Elves and Dwarves round out the forces of good and are ranged against Isengard, Mordor, and the new Goblin faction.  Each faction features its own unit and building roster and many of the heroes from the previous game have been divided up among their respective races; new heroes were also introduced to round out the new factions.
The single player elements include good and evil campaigns, a War of the Ring mode, and of course skirmish mode.  The campaigns focus on each side’s perspective of the War in the North, a parallel conflict to the battles in the south during the War of the Ring that were mentioned but not covered in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books.  Some battles like Mordor’s attack on Dale and Erebor come from the original work while other missions like the goblin attack on the Grey Havens were developed specifically for the game.
The War of the Ring mode is perhaps BFME II’s most intriguing feature.  The entirety of Middle Earth is divided into a regional world map similar to the mission map from the first game.  Players take on the role of one of the six factions in a battle for supremacy over all of Middle Earth against other factions, which can be of any race regardless of alignment.  Two regional buildings can be constructed in each region and are also present in real time battles that take place in the region. For example the Fortress forces a battle whenever the territory is invaded when normally only strongholds like Helm’s Deep or Minas Tirith provoke a confrontation with invading armies.
Each faction has three armies, led by the faction’s three main heroes, that can move one region per turn and re-spawn in the player’s home territory if defeated.  Other armies without a leader can be raised by regional production buildings for defense or reinforcement but cannot invade hostile territories.  Resource buildings on the global map generate resources that are used to purchase buildings in other regions or train units for armies.  A global population cap limits the number of units on the regional map.  Armies always gain a worker unit when engaged in real time combat and can produce any unit or building during the battle regardless of the units the army actually contains.
Another innovation that generated a lot of excitement was the hero creator system.  Utilizing several templates for appearance, race, faction, and class players could create heroes that would utilize certain abilities of various tiers and take on roles similar to those filled by the standard faction heroes.  These created heroes could not be used in the campaign but were available in skirmish, War of the Ring, and multiplayer.  During creation the players adjusted bars that related to stats like health, damage, and special abilities to determine the focus and balance of the hero.  In general these created heroes were not especially comparable to faction heroes but still provided very unique flavor.
These changes made BFME II its own fully enclosed game and EA did a very fine job balancing the different races (except the Elves whose unbalanced archer upgrades had to be fixed through patches).  That is both a strength and a weakness of the game as players who enjoyed the first Battle for Middle Earth because of its gameplay will find little to endear them to the sequel.  At the same time many of the mechanics EA introduced would not have functioned properly in the first game’s style.
In fact that is possibly BFME II’s greatest failing.  Any attempt it made to directly improve upon the original was a failure.  EA advertised larger units and bigger battles and, while squads were bigger, population readjustment ensured that there actually wasn’t a difference in models or numbers of units on the field.  Dynamic base building and the standardization of lower tier unit rosters (every faction has an infantry, archer, pikeman, and cavalry unit) caused the factions to lose a great deal of their unique flavor and feel.  Special powers, which increased in number dramatically in BFME II, also become standardized even at higher tiers among the factions causing a lockstep of strategies regardless of which faction was played.
The campaign also failed to deliver the same feel of epic struggle that the first game provided.  Most of the missions play like the great siege battles from the first Battle for Middle Earth but lack a sense of scale and also restrict gameplay due to map and objective limitations preventing players from exploring the races and mechanics they are using.  Special powers also fell flat as the players are mechanically prevented from generating enough power points to unlock the full tree of powers available and if they finish the missions too quickly may not unlock higher tier powers at all.
The War of the Ring goes a long way to redressing these issues through increased re-playability and greater freedom for the player, but brings its own shortcomings as well.  Movement is far too limited in relation to the player’s ability to defend home territories.  Armies move too slowly and marauding enemies can conquer any region that lacks an army or defending fortress with impunity.  Also aside from annoying and petty tactics the AI is for the most part incompetent, attacking the same territories repeatedly and following little rhyme or reason in its utilization of units and heroes.
By itself BFME II is a decent game with numerous options to explore and a great deal of good old fashioned RTS combat to enjoy.  At higher tiers factions gain a great deal of unique abilities and high level battles can be very entertaining.  The hero creation system is nothing like an RPG but is a fun way to mix up traditional skirmish battles.  Yet anytime BFME II tries to assert itself into the Battle for Middle Earth series as a sequel or improvement it fails to measure up to expectations in almost every way.  Another major point that does little to affect gameplay but is worth mentioning on behalf of Lord of the Rings franchise fans is that the units and heroes EA made up to fill in racial gaps feel downright alien.  They are balanced and they can be fun but in no way would they ever feel natural in the original trilogy’s books or films.
Fans of Lord of the Rings will have to temper their genre love with appreciation for innovation to enjoy this game, but there is still a lot of Middle Earth to experience with the new single player modes.  Most RTS fans will at least find BFME II a familiar addition to the genre and a far better title than many modern RTS games.  Hard core gamers are ironically the most likely to enjoy BFME II as its gameplay panders to fast battles and micro-management.  In all situations the game would be welcome in any RTS library but probably shouldn’t be purchased outside of a sale.