Monday, 1 June 2009

PC Game Review - Battle for Middle Earth

The Battle for Middle Earth is a real time strategy (RTS) game set in the fantasy world created by JRR Tolkien, and a pretty good one it is too. You can take control of the forces of good or evil as you wage a campaign that will forever change the face of Middle Earth.

Essentially the game is split into a number of maps, which must be conquered in order to progress, and may give you additional bonuses that carry on into your next campaign. If you play the Good campaign, you start off leading the fellowship of the ring through the mines of Moria, then take charge of first Eomer and then King Theoden as you try to rid Rohan of the menace of Saruman. Then Gondor must be defended, Frodo and Sam need to make their way past Shelob, and finally the armies of Sauron must be held at bay at the Black Gate until the Ring is thrown into Mount Doom. For the evil campaign you start off as Saruman or his lieutenant Lutz, leading the Urak-Hai into battle and victory, among other things polishing off the heroes trying to help the Ring-bearer. After Rohan is secured, you switch to controlling Mordor's armies, with the overthrow of Minas Tirith being the end of the game, and darkness reigning over Middle Earth.

There is plenty of variety in the gameplay, with some of the missions being far more centred on using the heroes than others, and a reasonable number of different units in each type of army (basically, Rohan and Gondor). The units as well as heroes can gain experience and level-up, though the maximum level of ten does seem a little restrictive. Levelling up your units is crucial to your success, whereas if you're playing the Evil side of things levelling up is much more difficult, and heroes play a much smaller role. This is in keeping with the books / films, though to be honest I thought there was a lot more scope for heroes in the Evil campaign - where was Gothmog, for instance? Surely you'd expect to find him at the Black Gate?

Anyway, such quibbles aside the game is pretty compelling and you definitely need to use different strategies for Good and Evil, and to some extent between the different maps. Base-building is naturally a large part of the game and this is very simple, only being possible at present locations provided you'd conquered them. A number of buildings and upgrades can be built, a fair variety really but coupled with the simplicity of resource collection and the map sizes seeming rather small on the whole, this does come across as a game designed with newcomers to the RTS genre in mind. This isn't necessarily a bad thing of course and seasoned RTS fans will still enjoy this game, just perhaps finding it a little lacking in depth.

That's not to say that the game doesn't have its little surprises - while heroes gaining abilities as they go along it clearly evident, little features like troll's abilities were found by accident (by me, anyway). You can grab a rock or tree to use as a weapon, or if your health is getting low, find an orc to eat! Orcs can attack each other to gain combat experience (‘cos they're all nasty, like), and there are a few other little features that aren't immediately apparent. In addition to everything else you can gain special abilities through the use of the One Ring (evil_ or the Elvenstar (Good), some of which are quite spectacular.

Each campaign will take you quite a while to complete, 10-15 hours at a guess, and there are three difficulty modes. Easy doesn't present a huge challenge most of the time but one or two maps did require a restart and, often, an improved strategy. The AI is actually quite aggressive, but in Easy the computer doesn't make good use of its available resources. There's also a Skirmish mode with many maps to play on and you can choose your army and difficulty level; this is almost like a third campaign mode, with some continuity to it as you earn ranking points when you win. User-created maps are available for this mode as well as the official ones.

I tried the multiplayer mode and it looked like it had been quite good... some time ago. The servers are very sparsely populated and, despite a "ladder" system that is meant to pair you up with players of similar rank / ability, there are so few active players nowadays that you're more than likely to end up matched against some nutter who's played the game so much that he or she has perfected it to a fine art and you'll have no chance. Considering the age of the game, I guess this isn't really surprising.

Graphically the game is good, not outstanding but it's certainly got eye-catching visuals. The backgrounds are a little bit samey, but the person / creature animations look good, and watching your cavalry charge is always impressive. The cut-scenes look very good on whole, and the introductory sequence to the game is basically the sequence from The Fellowship of the Ring which explains the history of the Ring. The music is taken from the films so naturally is superb, while the voice acting and sound effects are also very high quality. While not many of the films' cast were involved with this game, crucially Ian McKellan and Christopher Lee reprise their roles as the wizards Gandalf and Saruman, who act as the narrators for the Good and Evil campaigns.

Overall, Battle for Middle Earth is a very competent RTS and faithful to fans of the books / movies (while obviously taking one or two liberties). Die-hard RTS fans may find it a little too simplistic, but most strategy game fans will enjoy it and it's a good introduction to the genre for beginners. Rating: 8/10

System Specs

OS: Windows XP or 2000 (worked fine on Vista)
CPU: 1.3 GHz or faster
RAM: 256 MB
DISC DRIVE: 8x or faster CD/DVD drive
HARD DRIVE: 4 GB or more free space
VIDEO: DirectX 9.0b compatible (see right)
SOUND: DirectX 9.0b compatible
INPUT: Keyboard and mouse

Tested on the Packard Bell iPower X9810. No problems performance-wise, a couple of minor bugs here and there but no game-stoppers.

Related Reviews:

Lord of the Rings book review
The Fellowship of the Rings movie review
The Two Towers movie review
The Return of the King movie review

Still my favourite RTS:

game review

Having your own army of mountain trolls is undeniably awesome, but somehow controlling an army of dinosaurs is even better... despite the incredibly cheesy storyline, Paraworld is a very, very cool game.

CaptainD - PC Gaming Blog

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