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Platform

Xbox 360

 

Genre

Real-Time Strategy

 

Publisher

Electronic Arts

 

Developer

EA LA

 

ESRB

T (Teen)

 

Released

July 2006

 

 

- Uncompromised Real-Time Strategy gameplay in the comfort of your living room

- Great multiplayer and Xbox Live options, even when the action feels more accelerated than a standard PC RTS

- Very well designed maps and campaign missions

- Excellent variety of units and special powers for different races

 

 

- Despite an exceptional, well planned control scheme, youíre still dealing with a keyboard and mouse crammed into a control pad

 

 

Review: Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth II (PC)

Review: Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth (PC)

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Review: Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes (XB)

 

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Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth II

Score: 8.5 / 10

 

Fans of J.R.R. Tolkeinís world of Middle Earth certainly havenít lacked video game options during the past few years. Electronic Arts, in particular, has mined its licensing agreement with New Line Cinema to produce a slew of action and turn-based strategy titles such as The Return of the King and Lord of the Rings: The Third Age.

 

battle for middle earth ii          battle for middle earth ii

 

With Lord of the Rings, Battle For Middle Earth II for the Xbox 360, though, EA has accomplished something a little unexpectedóa fleshed out, uncompromised real-time strategy experience on a console. Of course, console RTS games arenít entirely without precedent. Command & Conquer, for example, made a widely acclaimed appearance on the original Playstation, and itís no surprise to see Louis Castle, the co-founder of Westwood studios and developer of that seminal RTS title, on the credits here as Executive Producer. Whatís surprising is how well this game works when stripped of the standard keyboard and mouse interface that RTS fans are so familiar with.

 

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The Xbox 360 version mirrors the experience of the PC hit, imagining battles that were fought throughout Middle Earth around the time that the Frodo and Sam were heading for Mordor, and Sauronís primary forces were massing for the siege of Minas Tirith.

 

Things begin simply enough, with a mission/tutorial, where you must guide the 

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Elven hero Glorfindel and a battalion of Elves through the woods near Rivendell, fighting off goblins, joining up with other Elven fighters, and fighting off more goblins. Alternately, you can choose to play the gameís evil campaign, where your first mission is to sack and pillage the ancient Elven realm of Lothlorien. Terrible stuff.

 

The good campaign tutorial eases players in a little more slowly, demonstrating basic functions such as guiding battalions to attack and selecting special power-ups, while the evil campaign drops players straight into structure building, troop conscripting and resource gathering.

 

As usual, my strategy involved barreling through the tutorial and then yelling at my television when I couldnít figure out what was going on later. Thatís because, while the gameís designers have done an exceptional job of cramming a keyboard worth of controls into the 360ís game pad, there are still some unavoidable limitations. Even for experienced RTS fans, getting used to the 360ís controls will take a little time and experimentation, which is greatly assisted by skimming the manual and following the on-screen instructions early in the game.

 

Basically, all of the expected RTS features are here. To create an effective army, resources and building materials must be gathered, barracks, stables, archery ranges, guard towers and fortresses must be built. Troops must be trained and slowly upgraded with the best weaponry affordable. Thereís a great deal of variation for the different races here, with each featuring distinct architecture, units, weaponry, heroes and special powers. With the forces of Sauron, you can control Nazgul, mountain trolls, giant spiders, wargs, goblins, orcs and fire drakes, you name it. On the side of good are Elves, Men, Dwarves and Hobbits. Good players can also train Ents and Giant Eagles, or temporarily summon an army of undead oathbreakers. Even good old Tom Bombadil can be summoned, (although I will warn you from personal experience that sending him in alone against the dragon in the Blue Mountains will likely end in firey embarrassment). Other than a few alterations, such as the addition of new multiplayer modes including King of the Hill, Resource Race, Capture and Hold, and Hero versus Hero matches, the game will look very familiar to fans of the PC version.

 

battle for middle earth ii          battle for middle earth ii

 

On the Xbox 360, though, functions such as building menus, hero summoning, and the use of special powers such as unit healing and magical fortifications are buried within a network of menus accessible by pulling the right trigger and scrolling around with the D-pad. The system actually works fairly smoothly once players get used to it. But, even then, it can be a challenge to navigate effectively in the heat of battle, particularly when your home turf is in the process of getting sacked, and enemies are destroying your infrastructure faster than you can train new troops or rebuild.

 

Partly as a result, early, sustained aggression pays off in spades in the gameís skirmish and multiplayer modes. This seems to be the default method of operation for the systemís AI in these matches as well. As someone that generally prefers a slower buildup in RTS games Ė allowing a clash of more fully developed armies with better defenses in place Ė I found this a little frustrating. To me, at least, RTS as a genre is about how smart or ill-conceived planning culminates in climactic success or failure. When your opponent comes at you guns blazing minutes into a new match, youíve got little choice but to respond in kind.

Fortunately, the campaign modes Ė which allow you to play 8 good or 8 evil missions Ė unfold at a more measured pace. Large, well-designed maps exhibit widely varied terrain, allowing players to establish strong defensive positions where they can build armies, and requiring them to employ a range of strategic techniques to accomplish tasks like slaying dragons or breaching the defenses of fortified cities and citadels Ė even fighting sea battles in a couple of instances. In between missions, a series of cut scenes Ė enhanced by beautiful stills and brief animations Ė explain why the upcoming fight is critical in the larger war.

 

The control scheme does neatly work around several of the challenges inherent in not having a mouse handy for this type of game. Highlighting a barracks or archery range, for example, will allow you to summon all troops created there to a single rallying point anywhere accessible on the map. Several units or battalions can also be grouped into formations using a simple set of controls, and a bookmark function makes units easier to recall from far flung areas. One regular annoyance, though, is that unlike PC RTS games, itís not possible to make a sweep of the mouse to cluster together groups of disparate fighters and beat a hasty retreat or make a last ditch attack. I also found that, since units can be difficult to mash together in this way, I often left useful individual units like heroes and siege weapons stranded behind as my battalions forged ahead, often doing an unnecessary amount of heavy lifting in the process.

 

To date, most of the hype surrounding the 360 and now the PS3 has focused on enhanced graphics and HD capability, but the processing power of this generation of consoles also allows a lot more fluid action to take place on the screen. This has definitely opened up the potential for more games like this, but EA should be given due credit for figuring out a workable way to fit such a complex experience into such a basic set of controls. Itís not without minor flaws, but overall, itís a really satisfying experience that broadens the horizons of console gaming.

 

- M. Enis

(September 17, 2006)

 

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