My Review- The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth (PC)
The Battle for Middle-earth is a real-time strategy game based on the LOTR films. Like The Third Age, it is a well-done game despite being a licensed product. The Lord of the Rings films are really a perfect for a strategy game, and BFME succeeds both as a LOTR game and as a quality RTS.
BFME’s story is split into two campaigns- the Good campaign, which more or less follows the events of the films, and the Evil campaign, which is an alternate scenario in which Middle-earth is conquered by Sauron. The story is conveyed through movie clips and short in-engine cutscenes before important battles, but otherwise, it’s pretty simplistic. The game assumes that you are familiar with the LOTR world and provides little background save the opening sequence, which is narrated by none other than Sir Ian McKellon. You progress through the story is a slightly nonlinear way- occasional story missions occasionally must be played to progress further, but you are otherwise able to choose which territories to conquer across Middle-earth and which of your armies to do it with. The game also takes a few creative liberties with the story, such as Boromir surviving the battle of Amon Hen and Gandalf successfully slaying the Balrog without dying. This doesn’t really bother me because the game is fun, and doesn’t sacrifice this fun in order to be more true to a story we already know.
As mentioned above, BFME’s campaign structure hints at nonlinearity, although it never truly branches out. The ‘Living World Map’ is where you will choose which battles to fight, and different territories offer different bonuses. When in battle, your troops are limited by ‘command points’, which are expanded by winning battles. Units travel in squads, with the exception of very powerful units such as Trolls, so a low CP limit can still muster a sizeable force.
The game has four factions- Gondor and Rohan on the good side, Isengard and Mordor on the evil. Each faction has distinctive strengths and weaknesses- Rohan has the best cavalry, Isengard the best defences, Mordor the best siege weapons, etc. Each faction also has a number of powerful ‘Hero’ units, which are characters from the films. Each Hero can level up and gain new skills, and are invaluable in battle. Unfortunately, the Evil side has far fewer heroes than good- Isengard and Mordor only have two or three heroes, respectively, while Rohan and Gondor have the entire Fellowship at their disposal.
Battles are decided by capturing strategic points on the map, which come in the form of Settlements, Outposts, Camps, and Castles. When you have destroyed and captured all enemy encampments or killed every enemy unit, you win the battle. This adds some strategy as defending your precious bases is just as important as tracking down enemy ones, as the enemy could launch an attack against you if you focus on just one of their encampments. Buildings can only be placed on special ‘foundations’, and each type of encampment has a certain number- Outposts only have three, Castles usually have a dozen or more, and Settlements act as a single foundation themselves. Good Castles have walls around them, but Evil cannot build walls- to compensate, Evil has more siege weapons such as ladders, bombs, and battering rams to gain entry to these fortresses. Destroying the citadel at the center of each base is crucial, and will often cripple your enemy’s war effort. Also, with the exception of one Isengard unit, there is no ‘gathering’ unit- all resources are automatically accumulated by special buildings. You can also upgrade units with powerful armor and weapons made in special Armories you can build.
The final aspects of BFME’s gameplay are the Powers. Both Good and Evil have a tree of powers that can be bought in battle with ‘power points’, which are earned by winning battles or by killing a certain number of enemy troops. Powers can be used any number of times in battle after a brief cooldown period as they recharge. The powers range from using a Palantir to spy on the enemy, calling for reinforcements, giving a strength bonus to your troops, or summoning a Balrog to your side. It usually takes a few battles to buy the best powers, but they become invaluable later on. All in all, the gameplay in BFME is solid, and the few flaws will rarely hinder your enjoyment of it.
BFME features some truly stunning environments. The many fortresses and cities are recreated from the films, and the maps are truly massive and diverse. Units look slightly ugly from up close, but you will rarely be close enough to notice. The catch is that the fixed camera doesn’t allow you to look around the map from anything other than the usual top-down perspective, which kind of sucks considering how beautiful Middle-earth is even when my Uruk-hai are ravaging it. The scale of the game is impressive for an RTS as well- while not as large as a Total War game or as the actual movie battles, the sight of hundreds of troops clashing is great. The orchestral music from the films perfectly accompanies the massive battles.
It seems like EA did a great job with most of the LOTR movie games, as BFME is a solid RTS that does quite a bit to stand out in the crowded genre, coming off as neither a Starcraft clone nor a cheap LOTR knock-off. A lot of love clearly went into this game, and it has paid off. It would be foolish for you to cast this game into the fires of Mt. Doom. Play it, my precious.