GameSpot may receive revenue from affiliate and advertising partnerships for sharing this content and from purchases through links.

The Battle for Middle-earth II: The Rise of the Witch-King Exclusive Impressions

We take the first look at this upcoming expansion pack for EA's strategy game that draws upon the <i>Lord of the Rings</i> novels and motion pictures.


You could say that the stars were aligned for the 2006 real-time strategy game The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth II. After all, the game combined all the joys of building up tiny little armies of elves and dwarves and goblins and using them to crush your enemies along with the full lore of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy world of Middle-earth, as represented both in Tolkien's novels and the award-winning motion-picture adaptations. The same team at Electronic Arts Los Angeles that worked on the original game is now developing an expansion pack, The Rise of the Witch-King, which will add a substantial amount of new stuff, including additions to different gameplay features, a brand-new single-player campaign, and a new playable faction.

According to producer Amir Rahimi, the upcoming expansion will attempt to fill in about 3,000 years of history from Lord of the Rings lore--three millennia that have been hinted at, but never fleshed out, by any interpretation of Tolkien's works. Specifically, the expansion pack covers everything that happened after the dark lord Sauron was defeated by the human warrior and king known as Isildur, and before the wizard Gandalf returned to the Shire to pay a visit to a young Frodo Baggins. According to the story in the expansion pack, Isildur did defeat Sauron by cutting off the evil warlord's hand, which severed his ties with the mighty "One Ring." But he then took the artifact for himself, and was later waylaid and killed by orcs, and his corpse--and the ring--sank to the bottom of a river.

The upcoming expansion pack for The Battle for Middle-earth II will add a new campaign, a new playable faction, and much, much more.
The upcoming expansion pack for The Battle for Middle-earth II will add a new campaign, a new playable faction, and much, much more.

A thousand years later, the evil influence of the ring brought forth the nazgul--the spectral horsemen that serve the mighty Witch-King. The Witch-King was, of course, the terrifying being that rode a winged Fel beast, splintered Gandalf's magical staff and flung the wizard from his horse in the extended DVD scenes in the motion pictures, and then was ultimately defeated by princess Eowyn in the third movie. In the game, this powerful being instead rides a horse (this is 2,000 years before the events in the motion pictures, after all), and rules the kingdom of Angmar. Angmar borders Arnor, one of Middle-earth's mightiest kingdoms of men split into three parts, and the new single-player campaign will actually place you in the spiny armor of the Witch-King himself in a centuries-long campaign to topple the humans.

Yes, you'll be playing through the single-player campaign from the perspective of an evil army for a change, and your enemies will be an earlier (and larger) faction that resembles the Men of the West from the original BFMEII. Rahimi describes the Witch-King's armies as a "slow, strong, powerful evil faction capable of building walls"--essentially, an evil counterpart to the sturdy dwarves, and something that has been missing from the strategy series so far. Apparently, the faction will possess several sturdy, powerful units that can be accessible for beginners, though it will also have a few units with highly specific abilities that will be very suitable for veteran players who are willing and able to micromanage their armies to victory.

The expansion will attempt to add something for everyone--fans of Tolkien lore, hardcore strategy fans, and even newcomers.
The expansion will attempt to add something for everyone--fans of Tolkien lore, hardcore strategy fans, and even newcomers.

Experienced players will probably enjoy playing with the new sorcerer and thrall master units. Since, according to the game's story, the Witch-King seized control of the mostly human-inhabited region of Angmar by means of intimidation, the faction has several units who either act as, or command groups of, miserable slaves. Sorcerer units begin their careers with a handful of magic spells (and they can learn additional ones to further specialize), yet the units are surrounded by a handful of apprentices at all times. Each time sorcerers cast one of their more-powerful spells, such as the soul-freeze spell that temporarily renders a target invulnerable to damage but unable to move or attack, several of their apprentices' souls are torn from their bodies, killing them instantly. Yes, the entourage of the sorcerer is gradually replenished over time, but the cost of using higher-level magic poses an interesting strategic choice. For example, throwing around your most powerful magic can severely hinder your opponents, but it also deprives the sorcerer of a bodyguard to soak up damage.

Likewise, the new thrall master unit will be highly appealing for veteran players who like to outthink their opponents. The new unit begins its career alone on the battlefield, but possesses the one-time ability to more or less instantly summon any basic-level infantry unit available to the faction, including infantry, pikemen, and cavalry. As such, experienced players will be able to have their thrall masters hang back slightly from their main forces, scout out the composition of the enemies' armies, and summon the appropriate army type to counter their foes (such as summoning pikemen to counter enemy riders, for instance). You'll even be able to use the faction's abilities in various combinations, such as using the sorcerer's soul-freeze spell to immobilize enemies until you can bring in a thrall master to summon the appropriate counter-unit. In the meantime, you'll be able to commission a new troll hero unit (a highly requested feature from the fan community), troll-powered siege engines, bands of snow trolls (which act as cavalry), and devastating new top-level magic spells once your hero reaches an experience level of 25. These spells include "avalance," an overwhelming siege spell that levels most enemy structures, and "shade of the wolf," which summons a gigantic spectral wolfman that seizes and tears apart enemy infantry to replenish its own health.

The Witch-King rises later in 2006.
The Witch-King rises later in 2006.

The expansion will also make numerous improvements to BFMEII's core gameplay, such as, in Rahimi's words, "making sieging more fun and more relevant" by rebalancing the game so that general hero units can't deal siege-based damage to enemy walls and structures (an issue in the previous games that made siege weaponry less useful in battle). The expansion will also let you command your armies of mixed troops to march together, in formation and at the speed of the slowest unit, so that you can keep massive forces together without having to chase them down. It will also offer smarter artificial intelligence for skirmish mode; rebalancing for its various custom hero options to cut down on exploits; and the ability to carry over armies persistently from battle to battle in an improved version of the semipersistent War of the Ring mode (the hybrid turn-based/real-time mode introduced in previous games that let you attempt to conquer Middle-earth from a board-gamelike interface before jumping into real-time battles).

If nothing else, it seems like The Rise of the Witch-King will offer plenty of new toys for fans of the Middle-earth strategy series to play with. The new story and campaign should offer Tolkien fans plenty of new lore to explore, while the new Angmar faction should appeal to both beginners and battle-hardened regulars. The expansion is scheduled for release later this year.

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email

Join the conversation
There are 56 comments about this story