• The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth II, which originally showed up on the PC in February, recently made it’s debut on the Xbox 360. While EA has released a flood of titles since the 360 first launched, this is their first effort in the genre of next-gen RTS.

    Since EA acquired the licensing rights for the literary works of J.R.R. Tolkien (in addition to the rights they already had for the film series), they were able to focus on areas not touched on in the movie trilogy. While the movies focus on the War of the South, BFMEII gameplay instead unfolds during the attempt by Sauron to conquer the lands of the North. The game begins as the Fellowship heads south to destroy the source of Sauron’s power while those remaining prepare for his attack in the north. The elves, dwarfs and man must all stand united in the fight against evil. This unique storyline gives gamers a new and different view of the Middle-earth wars including new character classes, heroes and territories.
    Another interesting aspect of BFMEII is the ability to play the game from either the side of good or evil. While this option of play has become more commonplace in games as of late, it still helps add some variety to BFMEII.

    The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth 2

    The first question I had when I read about the game was “How are the controls going to work?” I mean, come on, anyone who has ever played an RTS game, even casually, knows how important a role the keyboard and mouse play when it comes to having any success in battle. My concerns about this were quickly dispatched once I began the game. Utilizing the tutorials, I came to realize just how easy it was to accomplish tasks at hand with the well thought out trigger and button combinations. Although the manual does go into some detail regarding the controls, I would strongly suggest going through the tutorials before beginning play in order to obtain a bit of real-world experience.

    You HUD consists only of a circular, somewhat large mini-map located in the lower left corner of the screen. The majority of decision making is made through an expanding Palantir attached to the mini-map. Select a builder and their face will appear in the window of the Palantir. Pull the right trigger and an extension of options appears allowing you to decide what type of structure the builder should begin work on. Use the directional pad to find the icon of the structure, move the left thumbstick to the area you wish the structure to appear and press the A button to begin the work. Although this may sound like a bit of work, it really moves quite smoothly. Because this is also the method used to move battalions and hordes around the battlefield (in addition to most of the actions in your control) the entire process quickly becomes second nature. Strategic moves such as choosing formations involve a few more button and thumbstick combinations, but again come easily with only a small amount of practice. EA had touted the “ease of controls” factor throughout their promotion of the game, and I would say that they were not exaggerating.

    One of the changes for BFMEII is there are very few limitations on where you can build. As opposed to being locked in to a designated area for structures, the game allows you to place them pretty much anywhere within reason. The Fortresses are also customizable with options such as walls and various defensive towers. I found that this was a really good feature since expanding your Fortress did not occupy a builder (select a build plot alongside the structure, choose the expansion and Fortress builders take care of the rest). Instead, my builders could focus on building resources while the Fortress took care of it’s own work.

    Through your Fortress, you can also summon heroes to help in battle. These heroes are strong fighters and can also utilize their own unique powers to help slay foes with much efficiency. Each faction has it’s own heroes such as Elrond (Elves), Gimli (Dwarves), Gandolf and Aragon (Men), Goblin King and Dragon Lord (Goblins), Sharku the Warg Rider (Isengard) and Mouth of Sauron (Mordor). These are only a few of the playable heroes available in the game, mind you and utilizing their individual strengths can really assist in completing a mission. Battles themselves take place not only on land, but also on sea. This new addition allows players to capture a shipwright and construct naval vessels. There are a total of eight different ships (four for good and four for evil of course) and add a good bit of depth to the fighting.

    Magic plays a big role in the game through what is referred to as Powers. Powers are obtained with experience points and can be purchased through the Book of Powers located in the Palantir. Once these Powers are acquired, they can be cast by any active battalion or hero. This is one area of the game that seemed a bit confusing to me. There’s very little explanation on what some of the Powers actually do and figuring out when they can be used can be a bit frustrating. However, no one’s ever accused me of being a genius either.

    If you chose to go with single player, you are offered two different modes including Campaign (Good or Evil), and Skirmish. In Skirmish, you face off against up to three computer controlled opponents in a battle for dominance. Effectively wipe out your opponent(s) while protecting your own territory and the victory is yours. This mode is actually a great tool for honing your skills in army building and strategy especially if you expect to have any success on Xbox Live.

    The game offers a number of different online modes including Versus (Skirmish), King of the Hill, Capture & Hold, Resource Race and Hero vs Hero. Obviously the first three are self explanatory. In Resource Race, two players or teams face off to try and collect a designated number of resources. A win is awarded when the target number of resources is attained or, if time runs out, the player who has collected the most. In Hero vs Hero, players are each given four heroes in a battle to destroy each others fortresses. If both fortresses remain standing, then a win is awarded for the player with the highest level hero. There are plenty of NPC hordes to destroy, effectively raising your hero’s level. Play in these modes is very smooth with no lag and reasonable load times.

    Achievements play an important role not only in boosting your gamerscore, but the game has added an Unlock-a-Hero feature that allows you to obtain heroes, playable in online play, through unlocking certain achievements. For example, if you gain the Servant of the Shadow achievement, you will unlock Urulooke-Servant of Sauron. These are not simple achievements mind you. Servant of the Shadow for example, requires a player to complete the entire Evil Campaign without having a single hero die in the process. Obtainable? Yes. Easy? Not quite.

    Graphically, the game looks good. Overall the game has more of an animated look to it than some of the true-to-life visuals we have seen from other EA titles for the 360. The look of the characters remind me more of board-game pieces, but certainly not in a bad way. Details are sharp for the most part, although zooming in close on the map will reveal some pixelation that you wouldn’t expect in a next-gen title.

    While I did find the game fun and well produced, there are a few shortcomings, with the most prevalent one being the struggle I faced in moving around the map. While following active troops, returning your view to your Fortress and moving to a “flash event” (ie an attack on a battalion) can all be done with a single button press, there are times when the only option to change views is to move the cursor to the edge of the screen and scroll. An option to click on an area of the mini-map would have been welcome. It can also be a bit confusing trying to locate an area while scrolling since rotating your main view does not rotate the mini-map which resulted many times with my scrolling upward only to see the “V” shaped icon (which represents your field of vision on the mini-map) moving in a completely different direction.

    Another difficulty I found with the game had to do with it’s zoom level. While you can easily zoom in very close on the map, zooming out can still seem too “close” to the battlefield. It’s impossible to view your home base all at once, even if it’s only moderate in size. There were also times when two different battles were taking place relatively close to one another and I would have to zip back and forth in order to oversee my battalions status. This would have been less of a hindrance if the mini-map allowed you to use it for movement, but I’ve already harped on that subject so there’s no point in revisiting it now.

    Overall the game plays very well and resembles some of the better RTS titles that I have played in the past. Live play is smooth and seamless with plenty of players available. Lord of the Ring fans and RTS fans alike should be very satisfied with this one. And if you’ve never played a real-time-strategy game before but have always had an interest, I would say that you won’t find an easier one to cut your teeth on then this one.

    Score: 8/10

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