The Battle for Middle-earth II Exclusive Xbox 360 Hands-On

EA hopes to kick-start a console real-time strategy revolution with the upcoming 360 version of its Middle-earth strategy game.

EA's Louis Castle knows a thing or two about real-time strategy games, considering he was one of the founders of Westwood Studios and overseers of a little game called Command & Conquer. That game's inspiration came from a couple of console games, which might surprise you considering how popular real-time strategy is on the PC, not to mention how resistant it is to being translated to the consoles. Well, EA is hoping to kick-start the console real-time strategy revolution next month with The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth II for the Xbox 360, and we recently got our chance to play the single-player game to see how this year's PC game translates to the console. You can also see for yourself in a handful of new HD-quality gameplay movies.

By this point, everyone knows what exactly The Lord of the Rings is, thanks to Peter Jackson's acclaimed movie trilogy. The Battle for Middle-earth II is based partly on those movies, but it also blends in elements from the rest of J.R.R. Tolkien's written works, as EA has the license from the Tolkien estate to use everything else. And the idea behind the game is that it lets you see the other battles that you didn't get to see in the movie. In particular, the game deals with the northern part of Middle-earth, where the elves and dwarves battle goblins and the armies of Mordor.

There are six factions in the game--three good and three evil. The guys in white hats are represented by the elves, dwarves, and Men of the West, who are basically a combination of the forces of Gondor and Rohan. Meanwhile, evil is represented by Isengard, Mordor, and the goblins, which is a faction we didn't get to see in the original Battle for Middle-earth on the PC. Each faction has its own strengths and weaknesses, just like you'd expect. The elves, for instance, are powerful archers with their silverthorne arrows, while the dwarves are exceptional fighters.

From a content standpoint, the single-player game looks to be almost identical to the PC version released earlier this year, save for the fact that the Xbox 360 version lacks the War of the Ring campaign mode featured in the PC version. Still, you'll get a good and an evil campaign that appear identical to the ones found in the PC version, as well as a regular skirmish mode that lets you choose a faction and battle it out against the artificial intelligence on any map in the game.

The developers seem to have preserved just about all the content from the PC original for this port.

If you haven't played a real-time strategy game before, the concepts are fairly simple. You start off with a fortress and a couple of builder units, and you must collect resources to let you build new buildings, which in turn lets you recruit different units. Build a barrack and you can recruit soldiers, an archery gives you archers, a stable gives you cavalry, and so on. Other buildings let you research upgrades, such as better weapons and armor for your troops. When you have a large enough army, it's time to go on the offensive and crush the other side, with the end goal of destroying you opponent's base and thus their ability to make war. Each faction has its own buildings and units, and there are subtle differences to how they play, but if you manage to get the basics down, they apply to all factions.

Combat is a rock-paper-scissors affair, so you can't build one type of unit and expect it to run rampant through the game. Soldiers are your basic fighting unit, and they're decent fighters, but they're a bit vulnerable to cavalry. Pikemen can deal with cavalry, but they're not so good against regular soldiers. Archers can pick off units caught up in the middle of a fight, but they're vulnerable in melee combat. Toss in the larger units, and you have even more carnage. Ents (the huge walking trees), as well as giants, can pick up boulders and toss them into enemy formations, though ents are vulnerable to fire and will flee to water to extinguish themselves. Trolls are slightly smaller, but they can pick up tree trunks and use them as great clubs to sweep the battlefield clear. Flying units such as the giant eagles can swoop down and pluck units in their claws, but doing so exposes them to arrow fire, and so it goes.

In addition to regular units, there are various hero units on each side, and these are usually major figures from the movies or novels. For instance, familiar faces such as Gimli, Gandalf, and the Nazgul appear as hero units, superpowerful figures with special abilities ranging from the ability to cause fear in the enemy ranks to carving through enemy formations like a hot knife through butter. To complement a hero's individual powers are your special powers, which you can select from the powers list, provided you have enough points to purchase them. These can range from an area-effect heal spell to the ability to instantly grow a lush elven field, boosting the fighting abilities of good units in the area. On the higher end of the scale are summoning abilities, such as being able to call in Tom Bombadil (a singing, dancing figure that utterly destroys everything evil in his path) to a balrog, the fiery demon seen in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Could this be the most playable strategy game to ever hit a console? You'll find out in July.

While EA has developed an elaborate control scheme that lets you use all the buttons on the gamepad, the important thing to know is that all you really need is the A button. Use the right thumbstick to move the cursor over a friendly unit and hit A to select them, then move the thumbstick again over an enemy unit, and the cursor will turn into an axe, indicating you can issue an attack order if you hit A. If you have a large army on the screen, holding down the left trigger while hitting A will select all the units on the screen, so you can send them off at once.

If you select a building, holding down the right trigger will summon up a build list of options, so you can build more units, research new technologies, or upgrade existing structures. If you want to select all of a same type of unit (such as archers), hold down the right trigger and a list of all your units appears. Simply use the D pad to select which group you want, and hit the A button to select. The left thumbstick controls the camera, and you can swing it around and zoom in close to the action to better see what's going on or pull back for a more strategic view. It takes a bit of practice getting used to, and while it's admittedly nowhere near as efficient as a mouse, it's a decent translation of real-time strategy controls to a gamepad.

If you're a veteran of real-time strategy, then all of this will be familiar to you. EA didn't have to modify the game much to make it fit on the console, and it looks like it's a literal translation of the PC game for the most part. It will certainly be interesting to see if the console generation will embrace traditional real-time strategy on the PC. If any game can do it, it's certainly this one. The Battle for Middle-earth II has the built-in branding associated with all things Lord of the Rings, and it was a pretty good game on the PC, to boot. We'll find out in less than a couple of weeks, because that's when the Xbox 360 version is scheduled to arrive.

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