The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth Preview

EALA's next game will bring the most epic battles of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings motion pictures to a PC near you.

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EALA, the studio formerly known as EA Pacific, has already produced Command & Conquer: Generals, and has already moved on to production of its next all-new game, The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth. The game will be powered by an enhanced version of the 3D engine that the studio used for Generals and will feature huge battles based on what executive producer Mark Skaggs describes as "the biggest battles from the Lord of the Rings movies."

Enemies at the gates. Lots of them.

In addition to multiplayer modes that EALA is not willing to publicly discuss at this time, Battle for Middle-Earth will feature two single-player campaigns: a "good" campaign and an "evil" campaign. These campaigns will familiarize you with the game's four playable factions: the human riders of Rohan, the human soldiers of Gondor, the armies of Isengard, and the legions of Mordor. As you might expect, each of the four sides will emphasize different strengths and weaknesses, and interestingly enough, each side will also use different resources to build up their holdings. Battle for Middle-Earth will in fact include traditional real-time strategy economic elements such as resource gathering and base building, but the way each faction executes these elements in the game will be different.

The wandering riders of Rohan, for instance, will have fast, powerful cavalry units, as well as powerful hero units, like the deposed Prince Éomer. Like in The Two Towers, the riders of Rohan must rescue their country's refugees before they can be hunted down by orcs, and in some circumstances, they may gain economic bonuses for each recovered citizen, which will serve as their resources. The stalwart soldiers of Gondor, on the other hand, will focus their strategies and strengths mainly on base defense, as seen in the climactic motion-picture battle at Helm's Deep. The forces of Gondor will rely upon more-traditional resources, such as food they grow at farms, though if pressed, they may recall their peasants within the walls of their keeps and arm them with swords and bows. However, the men of Gondor have many powerful allies, including the mighty sorcerer Gandalf and the Army of the Dead (also known as the Oathbreakers, an army of undead Gondor soldiers that fight fiercely and mercilessly), which they may call to their aid at various points in the battle.

The armies of Mordor aren't kidding around.

The armies of Isengard will feature the wise and powerful ents, which will act as extremely powerful siege units in battle. The armies of Mordor will, interestingly enough, be almost limitless--orcs, trolls, and nazgul pour forth from Sauron's domain in such a way that your army size isn't limited by resources on hand, but rather, by time and population limits. You may find, for instance, that your population limit will be capped by the number of camps you've built, and in order to increase your population limit, you'll need to build more camps. These camps will successively spawn new troops based on a timer, but if you want to recruit higher-level creatures such as the hulking trolls, you'll need to instead sacrifice your next wave of reinforcements to build a troll pit. You'll end up with fewer units on hand, but the next time you receive reinforcements, there will be trolls in the ranks.

Since the game is based mainly on the huge battles featured in Peter Jackson's acclaimed film adaptations, you probably won't see too many appearances of the legendary one ring, since it didn't figure too prominently in the larger conflicts. However, trolls, nazgul, siege towers, and other powerful units should, in fact, figure prominently in these large battles, especially because the game's enhanced engine will provide for deformable environments that can be torn apart by the game's most powerful troops. For instance, trolls can tear trees out of the ground by their roots, and after giving uprooted tree trunks a good shake to divest them of any pesky leaves, they can then wield these trees as huge clubs whose mighty blows can deal grievous damage to infantry battalions and can send some units flying. The ents of Isengard can not only hurl boulders at their enemies, but can also walk right up to existing structures and tear stonework out of them (dealing considerable damage to the structure) and use the debris as missiles. Elven archers will be able to conceal themselves in forests for a defensive bonus, while oliphants (Tolkien's creatively spelled name for war elephants) will be able to crash right through forests and knock them down.

Yes, that troll is holding a tree. Yes, those human soldiers will be airborne in about a second.

And as you might expect from a game based on the spectacular battle sequences from the motion pictures, you can see plenty of siege battles in Battle for Middle-Earth. Both Minas Tirith and Helm's Deep will appear in the game, as will the huge siege weapons used by the forces of both good and evil. The forces of Mordor will smash their way into their enemies' keeps with the aid of siege towers and trebuchets that fire explosive volleys, while the men of Gondor will use wall-mounted catapults to keep their enemies at bay. However, as design director Dustin Browder explains, Battle for Middle-Earth will have more-developed siege elements that go beyond smashing walls. Battles will continue even after a castle's defenses are breached, in which case the attackers will have to deal with a new threat--traps. Castle owners will be able to garrison hidden archers in towers, queue up cauldrons of boiling oil, and keep heavy portcullises open and at the ready to invite unwitting invaders in.

These strategies will all affect the way each side plays the game and should provide for a varied experience with each of the four factions. For instance, the men of Gondor have the ability to summon powerful aid, and exactly what sort of aid they summon, and when, will be a constant threat to opposing players. In the meantime, the forces of Mordor will be equipped with an unlimited number of forces that will spawn continuously on a timer, so that in some cases, it may behoove them to hurl a huge number of troops at the enemy and to have them all die off to make room for the next wave of fresh reinforcements. However, if Mordor's enemies catch them without reinforcements and between waves, they'll have a distinct advantage. In this and other situations, you should see the tide of battle turn, and turn again, especially with the aid of such powerful heroes as Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn.

Did someone call for an army?

Heroes will, of course, act as exceptionally powerful military units, though they'll also have special powers that will help them in battle. Interestingly, these hero units will, in many cases, be controlled individually, though a great deal of the game's battles will be fought by armies of hundreds of units (the team is currently tuning the 3D engine so that it can support up to 500 3D units onscreen at once). In these larger battles, it will be virtually impossible to micromanage every last orc or elf, and as such, the game will feature battalion control that will let you command companies of units onscreen. Though the exact details of this control scheme are still being worked out, the idea of controlling either a huge army or a small band of heroes in the same game, and possibly in the same battle, seems intriguing.

Though the game has been in production for only six months, it already seems to have come along surprisingly well, and it has plenty of time to go. The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth is scheduled for release next year.

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