My Review- The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth 2 (PC)
The original Battle for Middle-earth is easily one of my favorite strategy games, and it’s still probably the best of the games based on the Lord of the Rings films. The original game already covered the majority of the film’s material, though, so I don’t think anybody really expected a sequel. However, EA managed to secure a LOTR book license in addition to the original movie license, opening a wide range of content from Tolkien’s masterwork. Do the added content and tweaked mechanics make BFME2 a better game than the original?
The original BFME featured a watered-down version of the film’s plot, putting the player in control of the major battles from the films. BFME2, being based more on the books, instead focuses on The War in the North, a separate campaign of the War of the Ring that was mentioned in the appendices of The Return of the King. The idea is that, while Gondor and Rohan were fighting Sauron’s main army at Minas Tirith in the south, there was another huge war going on with the Goblins of the Misty Mountains and Sauron’s other army from Dol Goldur, fighting against the Elves of Rivendell and Lothlorian and the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain. BFME2 makes the most of it’s dual licenses, combining the look and feel of the films with several locations and characters from the books.
I have nothing against the creative licensing taken with Tolkien’s works- I’m no purist by any means, as I LOVE the films, but BFME2’s plot is pretty weak. The majority of the situations in the game are hinted at in the books, but largely made up, and honestly the events of the game seem less of an epic war and more of a showcase for B-list LOTR characters. In addition, the two new characters created for the game- Gorkil the Goblin King and Drogoth the Dragon Lord- are pretty stupid, only serving as one-shot bosses and adding nothing to an already threadbare story. Perhaps because of the weak story, the campaign itself it too short- both the Good Campaign and the Evil ‘What If’ scenario are a minimal 8 missions apiece. The linear, mission-based progression of BFME2’s campaigns is a far cry from the world map from the original, which could sustain dozens of hours of play.
Aside from the novelty of seeing locations from the books, BFME2’s campaign is somewhat disappointing.
The basic gameplay of the BFME games was already covered in my review of BFME, so go read that if you haven’t. Here, I’ll only be covering the changes made in the sequel.
The first and most obvious is the changed campaign structure mentioned earlier. BFME2’s 16 missions are traveled through linearly, although an autosave at the end of each mission allows the player to replay any mission they’ve completed. The campaign is serviceable, but disappointing when help up against the robust, Total War-esque nature of it’s predecessor. However, the developers didn’t completely scrap the World Map- a side mode called War of the Ring allows the player to select a faction and starting location, and play a game very similar to the campaign in BFME1, capturing territories and moving troops and supplies across the board. It’s fun, but it’d be better if this mode was part of the campaign.
BFME1’s previous four factions have been expanded to six in the sequel, with Gondor and Rohan being combined into one Men of the West faction, and the additions of the Goblins, Dwarves, and Elves. Each Good faction opposes another Evil one in terms of faction strengths and weaknesses- both Dwarves and Isengard are defense-oriented, while Elves and Goblins are speed-focused. The new factions, unfortunately, all seem to have one cheap mechanic that hurts the balance of the game. For example, the elves have Silverthorne Arrows, which explode on contact and do massive damage, whereas Goblin Warriors can climb over walls. Still, all the other factions have at least one element that stands out among the rest, ensuring that most matchups will be a relatively even fight.
The biggest change to gameplay was the omission of BFME1’s Foundation system, instead using the traditional Starcraft/Command and Conquer approach. You now use Builder units to build structures anywhere you please. Resource-gathering structures must be places a certain distance away from each other, as the closer they are to another resourse building the less they will produce. Instead of Citadels, Fortresses serve as the center of bases, and while they serve the same level of importance as Citadels did (destroy them, you win), they can be upgraded with defenses such as catapults and moats. Fortress walls are also much weaker than in BFME1, although Isengard can now build them, being the only Evil faction who can. While the ability to build anywhere is nice, it’s really the same system you’ll find in any generic RTS, and it takes away from one of the few unique features of the original BFME
BFME2 looks pretty much the same as the original did- which is odd, as I had to get a new graphics card to install it, when the original had worked fine. The many in-engine cinemas look nice, but during gameplay performance issues abounded at times, forcing me to turn down the settings (this is possibly the fault of my POS computer, not the game itself). Musically, once again the majority of tracks are borrowed from the LOTR films with a few remixes or variations on the familiar themes. Hugo Weaving’s narration of the campaign scenes is nice, too.
BFME2 isn’t really as solid a game as the original BFME was. While it adds a lot of fresh content and some cool new factions, the main game is rather lackluster and the gameplay seems to have taken a few steps back. It’s still a fun game, and RTS fans could certainly do worse, but BFME1 is still the highlight of the series.
NOTE- Trying to finish the campaign in Rise of the Witch-King, BFME2’s expansion pack, for review as well.