Leaves a lot to be desired...
I feel like I was mis-lead in thinking that this was a much better game than the original, when all you get is a few new features added, and old ones removed. When I installed and booted it up (after a rather lengthy wait) the game features I was expecting to be supplied at least were:
1. Great sound (voice-acting, music, ambient etc.)
2. Improved/revised graphics engine
3. A hero unit that I could call my own
4. Some killer new units
5. Neat movies, especially for introduction purposes
6. A more reasonable system of building
7. Just a more refined game, giving justice what the original could have done (skip to here if you don't want to read too much)
This is what I got:
1. Sound: What sets a person in the mood for some high-fantasy, intense emotional moments, and pride when your armies crush the opposition? The music, and the clash of battle of course! The music is disappointing, if only because it barely plays even at full volume. I don't appreciate having to turn up my system volume, to hear the fantastic music.
The voice-acting is plain pathetic. Not only do units use some of the same responses from the original game, but when heroes speak it almost like they took bits and pieces of original phrases and had someone (poorly) fill in the rest. Sentence tenses are almost unbearable, even on the first mission. One minute Arwen is talking about bringing Lancers (new elven calvary), then makes a statement about goblins in what sounds almost like a question!
But when you do hear the music, it's the same good stuff that makes you want to find a soundtrack. Although the ambient and sound effects (battle, horses charging, etc.) are forgettable, that is if you even notice.
Another problem that stands out, is that about 80% of the time, the audio that is spoken doesn't match up to the text/subtitle that appear on-screen; very annoying.
2. Graphics: To be sure, seeing how this is '06 and graphics are blazing along and especially with all the competition, you'd think they'd pull out the big guns. The charade was led up even to the title screen of the game. Seeing two giant archaic statues with sunshine pouring through the clouds while little boats plow through the massive ocean on the back-drop of shadowed mountains, is enough to plunge even the most hardy of bored gamers into the mood. Then you get in-game.
Surprise! Same engine, almost the same graphics (that looks blocky on some units), quickly disappearing corpses, and apparently the animators thought, "The stiffer, the better." Even with the animation customization option turned on max, I am amazed at how so many characters in the Tolkien universe could happen to have rheumatoid arthritis. The thing that saddened me the most was that the units usually don't have more than one attack animation. Even if they do, they abuse one of them so much you don't even see the others.
But, don't be too dismayed at your now-gone fifty dollars. The game does feature the ability to boost the graphic quality slightly higher than the original. Even if that means you drop your FPS lower than twenty-five. The water looks absolutely fantastic, but is indeed a killer. Upping the animation quality really only seems to slow your computer down (considerably in some cases) during large conflicts. What it does is increase the frames that animations are allowed, but you only really see it when you're designing your character. Otherwise, it'd be more helpful to just re-label it "FPS Slower-Downer."
By most standards, the loading times are unacceptable. It takes an unbearable amount of time to get in a game, and with the addition of the One Ring's writing to every menu, (to an even greater extent to that of the original) the game garners a stupid amount to open anything.
Side Note: I tried tweaking the game's graphics through the tutorial, because it's just faster than going through a whole campaign intro or a skirmish. But, when entering into campaign mode, BOOM! All my options just took no effect, and everything is bland. Forcing me to quit, and re-adjust. I'm still not fully sure what even happened.
3. Hero Units: Ah yes. Probably easily one of the most anticipated features. Rather, it's one of the most shocking smacks in the face. You are greeted by a screen that has a bunch of pre-designed characters (which actually just spoiled the whole surprise), which gets you excited because you want to make a guy in full Tower Guard armor that is completely black save for a golden shield with the Tree of Gondor blazed in red on it and with a sword so big it'll take days to fully swing it.
Not this time around. Most of the characters only have two or three options for each category (Head, shield, arms, legs, etc.), and some characters don't even feature an option to equip some of them (such as the shield). The characters usually feature two matching sets, with pieces of armor that don't seem to go anywhere, added in. Not to mention some of the matching sets are discolored, so it throws it all off.
Two of the character choices are really the same one, with different colors and (some) different appearance options. And no, you cannot seem to change anything facially or structurally. You are supplied with a template character for each classification, and you're supposed to be happy with that.
4. New units: Ah yes. This is probably the first thing most people look for in a sequel; new stuff! While it's here, it's not exactly trailblazing. For example, the elven footsoldier is just sad. It's bland, and is probably the most un-animated unit I have ever seen in a game. The buildings are nice, but textures don't really seem to pop out, and graphic settings don't really bring out the details (like the groove of stone in the fortress) all that much.
5. Movies: Okay, so taking into consideration that this is more so a game pulled from the cinematically-spectacular movies than the book(s), you'd think it'd follow in that direction. Well, the introduction movie is practically just some moderately-decent gameplay shots, perhaps with some scripted movements. But the problem is, they try to build it up to be epic. Which apparently meant apply those scripted movements to about 20 units on-screen and maybe that'll do the trick.
The game-play movies that lead into the campaign are extraordinary, however. They feature a hybrid of impressionist painting along with 3-D shaded movement. They are simply excellent.
6. Building: Reading the aforementioned Designer Diaries, I was thinking, "Well at least I'm not going to spend my time holed up in a foxhole." While that's true for the most part, the sad thing is, you'll probably not be holed up in much of anything. The method used for building fortifications relies strictly on wall hubs. Which is more or less a foundation for your walls. Sadly, everything is destroyed so quickly, you'll find yourself building more wall hubs than actual walls.
7. Game Refinement/Conclusion: Yeah, well...rather than just re-state my already expressed impressions, I'll just sum it all up.
In actuality, while the game strived hard to add more ambitious features, it's really more of an insult to the consumer and the talent that could have be employed. When you look at the story, the movies, the books you cry out for a game that does justice. With a series of very disappointing games (The Fellowship of the Ring, War of the Ring, The Third Age to name a few), any real LOTR fan is dying inside to temporarily live in the universe that they love. Battle for Middle Earth made an valiant effort, you'd wish the sequel would build it up even more. And while not a total failure, you have to be hard on it because you can't make half-efforts on such a respectable series.
In all honesty, Empire at War won this round.