The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth II
Aragorn has revealed himself to the Dark Lord Sauron as the rightful heir to the throne of Gondor, but a seemingly defeated Mordor thusly implements plans to conduct a complete conquest of Middle-Earth. The majority of the ensuing battles are to be fought in Minas Tirith, but Sauron also turns his evil eye on the northern strongholds attributed to the Elves and Dwarves. The Battle for Middle-Earth II is the retelling of those little-known clashes that bore witness to Sauron's advancing armies from Dol Guldur pitted against the Elven woods of Lothlorien and Milkwood, while his Goblin allies from the east descended from the Misty Mountains and battled the Men of Dale and the Dwarves of Erebor.
Regardless of the inspiration provided by Tolkien's timeless Lord of the Rings books and Peter Jackson's accompanying movies, real-time strategy titles generally don't perform especially well on videogame consoles, and, on the whole, the genre is much more at home on the PC - the obvious advantages of the mouse/keyboard combination need no explanation. Yet, a simple player-friendly game-pad interface can occasionally transcend the fiddly control systems inherent with RTS console conversions (although never truly matching the immediacy of the mouse), and that's where The Battle for Middle-Earth II manages to shine beyond its faithful narrative content and thoroughly impressive next-generation aesthetics.
Whereas most strategy games involve considerable amounts of resource gathering and the gradual evolution of forces, The Battle for Middle Earth II is much more focused on getting to the heart of battle rather than nurturing carefully constructed foundations. This is mainly because the single-player campaign (which can be played from both 'good' and 'evil' standpoints) is wisely built around separate 'quick-fix' related missions that play out in an action-oriented manner. While there is often a need for constructing a base of operations, which then automatically utilises environmental resources to produce necessary foot soldiers, archers, and lancers, as well as weaponry and armour upgrades, the true meat of the game exists beyond the hastily formed fortress walls, stables, and archery towers.
The control system in The Battle for Middle-Earth II is initially a little difficult to master, and confidently navigating through its on-screen Palantir (a HUD interface that links to all required squad and hero orders, as well as battle, strategy, and construction choices) can be somewhat tough on player dexterity until a handful of missions are completed and a gameplay rhythm begins to form. The assigning of orders and the swift execution of resource management needs to be absorbed before the game's frenetically charged battles can be truly enjoyed. And they certainly do provide ample enjoyment. Watching squads of sword-wielding Orcs and cave trolls clashing against majestic Elven archers and lancers is a fabulously enthralling abandonment of player tactics - which often leads to abrupt defeat as the A.I. asserts its position without any opposing strategic response. Indeed, zooming the game camera down onto the unfolding action reveals a wealth of detail, both character and environmental, that lends the game a definite next-gen standard.
In terms of presentation, The Battle for Middle-Earth II is yet another fine example of Electronic Arts' continuing aesthetic videogame quality. The breadth of faithful creation poured into the game is apparent from the outset, and sliding willingly into a lush and diverse isometric game version of Middle-Earth is always easy on the eye and never in conflict with the rich and diverse source material. Graphically, the screen positively shines and everything from individual character sprites and expansive level environments, to tarnished armour and accumulated fortress damage (which is automatically repaired by an attending stonemason) is beautifully rendered. Plus, there are also impressive battle powers to be gathered via gameplay experience, and these unleash devastating magical and elemental attacks on the opposition and are capable of inflicting impressive visual damage on entire squads of enemies, or even across a whole settlement of opposing structures. The only point of detraction concerning the graphics arises through instances of slight scroll stutter, which tends to happen a little too often and does compromise the game's overall level of visual quality.
The game's audio performance is similarly impressive, with its narrative voiceovers, intermittently guiding character voices, and thickly layered battle effects boosting an already engaging experience. Music is typically grandiose and closely matched to that of the movie iterations of The Lord of the Rings, offering up huge themes, swelling accompaniment, and subtle tones to complement on-screen events. The heavy reverb of locking blades, crashing axes, and screaming adversaries also helps to add a sense of battlefield authenticity to the action.
Gameplay, while accessible to all types of gamer thanks to the largely intuitive controls, is perhaps best suited to those established real-time strategy fans rather than the casual or curious player. The individual game missions begin after completion of two in-depth and helpful control/strategy tutorials, and initially the challenge level moves at a manageable pace. However, things quickly ramp up in terms of involvement, and a carefully considered tactical approach is soon required, which may alienate those not fully accustomed with the genre. That said, the investment of time isn't wasted on The Battle for Middle-Earth II and the overall experience certainly repays player effort. The only frustrating element of the gameplay, which crops up during more frantic clashes, is movement of the positional cursor in order to speedily issue geographic movement and attack orders. The cursor can be difficult to move accurately (again, the lack of a mouse is apparent as this juncture), and it can often lead to the player becoming momentarily lost on the Palantir's mini-map as well as the main environmental screen when attempting to locate dispatched troops.
Given its RTS nature, The Battle for Middle-Earth II is, predictably, a much more involving and rounded experience when connected to Xbox Live. Beyond the attraction of chatting online to fellow players, building a player profile card, and having access to downloadable content, the Xbox Live element of the game multiplies the immersion levels by quite some margin. There are various Live multiplayer modes to enjoy, which include: Versus: a two-player or team-based free-for-all where the last army standing is declared the winner; King of the Hill: where opposing teams battle to capture and hold either a fortress or signal fire for a specified number of minutes; Resource Race: which sees two players or teams compete to compile a specific number of resources; and Hero vs. Hero: in which players each receive four heroes and battle to destroy one another and their opponents' fortresses.
All-in-all, The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth II is as engrossing as it is pretty, while also offering up a rare control system that allows the game's core real-time strategy component to remain the right side of intuitively 'real-time' without ever lapsing into finger-breaking trials of game-pad frustration. An inaccurate positional cursor and occasional scroll stutters are the only minor quibbles amid a beautifully rendered and lovingly crafted action-oriented RTS package. Both offline and online, The Battle for Middle-Earth II is nothing short of a worthy addition to the Lord of the Rings videogame catalogue.