There are some things in gaming that remain certain, one of which is the belief that RTS games will never work on consoles. Perhaps excluding the more puzzle-based Pikmin, this has held true for years; controlling vast amounts of units in the midst of frenzied skirmishes is something console pads just aren’t cut out for.
Despite this, EA have released Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth 2 on Xbox 360 and inevitably this title is affected by the same pitfalls as so many before it. From the outset, the limitations of the 360’s pad are obvious; slowing down gameplay (despite the use of ‘hotkeys’) and making selections and commands needlessly difficult. In short, this is an unnecessary port of an unnecessary sequel.
The original Battle for Middle-Earth successfully married the RTS genre with Tolkiens fantasy world, creating an engrossing title that managed to recreate the spectacular and exhilarating battles from the books and films. While it couldn’t compete with the genre heavyweights like Rome: Total War and Warcraft III in terms of features, the locales and recognisable missions and characters propelled it above the average fare available at the time. Sadly the sequel doesn’t have this to fall back on, and no amount of supposed gameplay enhancements can make up for this loss. Without Aragorn, Gandalf and Orlando Bloom, this game is left exposed as a shallow Command & Conquer clone.
This game obviously lacks the structure afforded by the film’s timeline and the missions suffer as a result. There is very little variety beyond the usual search & destroy and siege missions that are synonymous with the genre, and without a Helm’s Deep or Minas Tirith the designers have been forced to use some of the more obscure locales from Tolkien’s world such as Mirkwood and Dale which contain neither the grandeur or familiarity to make up for the generic campaigns available. It seems EA have raided Tolkein lore for appropriate locations and any hint of possible battles from the book’s lengthy appendices have been seized upon and turned into fully-fledged missions. Only Tolkein knows whether Rivendell came under attack while the Fellowship went about their business but EA certainly seems to believe so.
Without the heroes from the films, EA have focused the storyline on the possible battles that took place around the Northern areas of Middle-Earth, with Rivendell an early target for Sauron’s wrath. Locations name-checked in the books (including some from The Hobbit) provide the backdrop for most of the skirmishes between Good & Evil, and are shoe-horned to fit the story, in much the same way as Factor 5 managed to squeeze every conceivable battle out of the original Star Wars trilogy for their Rogue Squadron series.
The gameplay has seen more than a few changes from the original, most of which only make it harder to distinguish this title from the crowd. Structures no longer upgrade according to usage, instead you must order a builder unit to complete the upgrade manually in the time honoured fashion. The single player mode is structured more like a C&C game, with individual missions rather than the collection of battles in the original. It’s far too linear and there is very little scope or opportunity for players to utilise their own tactics. The only changes that benefit this title are the inclusion of Naval battles and more flexible structure placement (the original forced players to build on predetermined plots).
There are very few points that make this game worthy of your cash, the graphics aren’t up to scratch, with terrible slowdown in many places. Units and structures may look quite nice from a distance but upon closer inspection they look pretty basic. The presentation for the story elements between missions is good though, with in game graphics transitioning to some impressive hand drawn artwork in a similar way to EA’s LOTR action games from a few years ago. This is accompanied by Voice-overs from Bernard Hill who played King Theodan in the movies and recognisable music from all three films.
If the sixteen or so missions in campaign mode aren’t enough to satisfy you there are some online Multiplayer modes that are more than worthy of your time. The modes aren’t much different from what’s been seen in other RTS titles but they are still fun against real opponents, particularly as the AI in the main game is suspect at best. In fact if it wasn’t for the control issues, it may have been enough to recommend this game but as with the rest of it, you can find better on the PC. Everything in this game has already been done to a better degree elsewhere and there isn’t enough content to keep you occupied for long.
As a result this Battle for Middle-Earth 2 feels more like an expansion pack than a fully-fledged sequel and smacks of desperation on EA’s part. While the LOTR franchise is undoubtedly one of the biggest across any media, its popularity peaked with the release of the films and this game feels like a tired attempt to squeeze some last few pennies from fickle mainstream fans before they flock to the next big thing.
If you really want this game, you’d be far better off buying it on PC. The keyboard/mouse combo makes the Campaign modes bearable and at least lets you take pleasure in the rather enjoyable Multiplayer Skirmishes.