Battle for Middle Earth II is the upcoming Xbox 360 conversion of EALA's solid real-time strategy game set in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings universe. The game marks the second entry in the series, which has previously been a PC exclusive, and is the first of EA's games to take advantage of the company's unified rights of the license, which lets the game feature elements from both the popular books and the films. The title is the first RTS for the Xbox 360 and carries a lot of expectations and doubts, given its PC pedigree and mouse and keyboard control scheme. We recently had the chance to get an exclusive look at the upcoming game to see how it's shaping up.
For anyone unfamiliar with Battle for Middle-earth II, the game is this year's sequel to 2004's Battle for Middle-earth, which married the rich Lord of the Rings lore with RTS gameplay. You're placed in command of the good and evil armies of Middle-earth and are tasked with either restoring peace to the land or mowing down Sauron's opposition to ensure a dark future. Though the series has received a favorable response on the PC, its popularity wasn't the main onus for its adaptation to the 360. The idea to do an RTS on a console began close to two years ago at EA, when internal discussions veered toward creating a control scheme that would allow console players a strong RTS experience and that didn't feel like it was ported. After a good deal of research and development, an original team wound up crafting a scheme that worked to everyone's satisfaction. Once the control scheme was finalized, the decision was made to apply it to bringing Battle for Middle-earth II to the 360.
For the conversion, the team has brought over all the content from the PC game and made some expected additions--namely to the interface and control scheme--along with some extras, such as new multiplayer modes. If you're unfamiliar with what the PC game offered, here's what to expect from the Battle for Middle-earth II experience: good and evil single-player campaigns, a strong multiplayer mode, and an impressive collection of cinematics to tell the game's unique story. To flesh out that solid lump of content, the 360 version will contain four new multiplayer modes, including king of the hill, capture and hold, hero versus hero, and resource race. King of the hill requires you to gather resources, build an army to capture a strategic position, and possess it for the majority of the time limit. Capture and hold has you gather resources and build an army to capture and hold the majority of multiple strategic positions for the longest amount of time within a set time limit. Hero versus hero requires you to use only faction heroes and those you have unlocked through achievements to conquer lands, protect your fortress, and defeat your opponents. Finally, resource race tasks you with gathering the most resources within a time limit while building an army to defend against your opponents or destroy their resource-gathering capacity.
Of course, all of the above wouldn't mean much if you couldn't control the game. To that end, Battle for Middle-earth II features a smart control scheme that makes good use of the Xbox 360 controller. The entire scheme revolves around a context-sensitive reticule that rests in the center of the screen. You'll use the two analog sticks to move around the maps--the left stick moves you around the field of battle while the right stick zooms you in and out. The reticule will change function depending on where it is and let you move, attack, or build with units. The main action button in the game will be the A button, which will let you select single units or structures by pressing it when your reticule is in position. Holding down the button will let you "paint" over units and add them to a group on the fly. When you've got a unit or structure selected, you'll use the right trigger to call up action or build menus depending on what you've selected. Once you have those fundamentals down, the game features an intuitive array of modifiers you can access that give you more functionality. The right bumper will let you sort units by type, while the left bumper will let you add and subtract individual units. The left trigger will let you select all units onscreen with the exception of builders. The X button will let you return to a selected unit if you've moved to another part of the map with that unit still selected. The Y button is a very smart hotkey that lets you jump to events, such as attacks on your camps, instantly. If you find that the situation is in hand when you get there, you can simply tap it again to go back to where you were on the map.
One of the smartest adaptations is the way groups are handled. You can make different groups from your forces, which will let you create specialized squads, such as an all-archer group. You can then "bookmark" these squads, letting you hop between different groups quickly and efficiently. The best aspect of the bookmark system is that you can also mark structures and access their build menus when you're on another part of the map. So, for example, you can bookmark an elven barracks and create soldiers or archers without having to find the building and select them from the build menu. You'll simply call it up with your bookmarks, put in your order, and go back to your business. The nice touch is that while doing this, you can also set your waypoint by pressing the A button with the building selected. If you find the simple system of juggling between different options a little daunting, the D pad will serve as a handy set of shortcuts that let you hop to your key needs while playing. Up on the D pad selects your heroes, right selects your available spells, down will call up your buildings, and left will call up your bookmark menu.
Despite the work-in-progress status of the game, the visuals are very faithful to the sharp graphics seen in its PC cousin. Unit detail is nicely done and the terrain looks especially lush thanks to high res textures that are comparable to the PC game running at its higher visual settings. Unit animation, one of the nicer touches on the PC, was comparably smooth as well. We should note that, according to the reps demoing the game, Battle for Middle-earth II won't have to make any compromises to accommodate some of the gigantic maps you'll find yourself on. More significantly, the game is being optimized to run as smoothly as possible on the 360 so as not to throw you off your strategizing groove. We have to say we're pleased by how smooth the early version we've seen of the game is running already. At this point the only thing that's piqued our curiosity is how easily you'll be able to make out units in the game on smaller TV's. While this was a breeze to do during our demo, the game was being shown on a massive widescreen plasma TV that was a perfect showcase for the vistas you'll see in the game, but we're curious to see how things go on smaller HDTV's and normal TV's.
The audio is, unsurprisingly, a spot-on re-creation of what was heard in the PC version of the game. You can expect to hear a suitably rich mix of epic tunes (many taken from the film score), voice, and effects that are all designed to place you in the lush world. Fans of the film will recognize the enunciated tones of Hugo Weaving, who reprises his role as Lord Elrond.
Based on this early look, Battle for Middle-earth II is looking like a smart conversion of the PC game to the 360. The control scheme works surprisingly well and should be a breeze to pick up for dedicated console gamers who find a mouse and keyboard frightening. Seasoned PC players may scoff at the notion of juggling the action in an RTS with a controller, but after a really minor bit of adaptation, we expect they'll find the 360 controller a pretty comfy fit. As far as content goes, the focus on the multiplayer modes and functionality is a step in the right direction, although we'd obviously like to have seen more on the single-player side. Still, though there's a lot to go through for newcomers to the good and evil campaigns, we reckon the online multiplayer is where players will gravitate toward thanks to the engaging gameplay, new content, and voice chat. Xbox 360 owners looking for some LOTR RTS action will want to keep an eye out for Battle for Middle-earth II when it ships this summer for the Xbox 360. Look for more on the game in the coming months.