The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-Earth Hands-On

We finally get our hands on this upcoming real-time strategy game based on the smash-hit <i>Lord of the Rings</i> motion pictures.

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The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth
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The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth will be a real-time strategy game based on the blockbuster motion pictures. It's also a game from which we've finally had a chance to try out a mission, as well as to get an up-close look at the Helm's Deep and Moria levels.

We finally got our hands on The Battle for Middle-earth--see it in action for yourself in this latest movie. Click "stream" for a larger view. As we've mentioned in our previous coverage, Battle for Middle-earth will feature a highly streamlined interface that can, at your option, hide pretty much everything other than the basic onscreen action--though the game does have a full interface that shows your selected units and current resource pool, if you care to keep it onscreen. However, the game is clearly intended to avoid micromanagement--that is, having to babysit individual units to make sure they follow orders and don't get into trouble while you're not looking. The game's unit control system lets you give orders to a group (or "horde," as it's referred to in the game) of units and send them all into battle. If you care to, you can micromanage some aspects of their behavior in specific cases, such as with porter units which, in the Helm's Deep mission, carry barrels of pitch to the archers of Rohan to let them create fire arrows. You can also group hordes together (simply select a horde, then right-click on another friendly horde). These units will automatically march in an intuitively obvious formation (for instance, swordsmen will surround more vulnerable archers), and they may even gain new battle abilities. Grouping trolls with orcs, for instance, lets trolls pick up and hurl individual orcs as flailing, screaming projectile weapons.

Like with most real-time strategy games, the current version of the game we played lets you select units by left-clicking on them, and you can then issue move orders with the right mouse button. Even large hordes of grouped units seem to hold together pretty well when given move orders and they don't usually get lost or clumped up around choke points. Building a base is also a highly streamlined process--we played as the orcs of Sauron and we were able to create structures simply by specifying a building point and letting the buildings build themselves. Interestingly, Battle for Middle-earth will forgo the real-time strategy tradition of complicated "tech trees"--different development paths you need to research in order to access more powerful units. Instead, the game will feature a concept of "veterancy," both for units and buildings. In order to get the most powerful kind of troll unit, for instance, you'll develop your troll pit into a "veteran" structure by producing a bunch of trolls. As a building develops, it will gain different abilities, like bonuses that speed production of units, or the ability to defend itself, and it will finally have the ability to create enhanced units. Hordes (and heroes) in battle will also gain veterancy by fighting and surviving successive battles--this level of experience will be indicated by a banner unit--a flag-bearing soldier who will carry a larger, more elaborate flag depending on how experienced its horde is.

We also had the opportunity to get an up-close look at two of the game's single-player missions: the Helm's Deep mission, which is based on the climactic battle scene from The Two Towers, and the mines of Moria, which draws inspiration from the same area featured in The Fellowship of the Ring. Helm's Deep, at least when played by the nation of Rohan, is a desperate siege defense battle in which King Theoden and his armies must defend the keep against wave after wave of attackers from the armies of Saruman, including many hordes of fierce Uruk-Hai. The key to succeeding in this mission is to hold out against the attackers long enough to allow Eomer and Gandalf to bring reinforcements. To survive the attack, you receive an early wave of elf archer reinforcements, and you must quickly admit them into the keep and shut the gates. The armies of Isengard attempt to smash through the gates using a battering ram, scale the walls with siege ladders, and even send in the gunpowder bomb that the Uruk-Hai used to breach the wall in the motion picture.

We then got an up-close demonstration of the mines of Moria--a hack-and-slash mission in which you won't have a base and resources, but rather, the fellowship of hobbits: Gimli, Legolas, Gandolf, and Aragorn. You'll control only these units throughout the mission, and you must hack your way through the assembled armies of goblins up to Balin's tomb, which, like in the motion pictures, is illuminated by a single, piercing blue light from the ceiling. From there, you'll fight your way out into the caverns of Moria where you'll be confronted by the fiery balrog demon. This, and other missions in the game, will not only add variety to the game's more traditional strategy objectives, but it will also let you put your hero units into battle to ensure that they gain veteran levels that will toughen them up for bigger battles.

Visually, Battle for Middle-earth looks impressive and seems to accommodate huge armies onscreen just fine, along with particle effects for exploding walls and fire arrows. In addition to the graphical effects, the game's units are also characterized by what EALA calls "the emotion system," which can cause units to go through one of five different emotional states, including "fear," "cheer," "taunt," "point," and "cower." You'll see your and your enemies' units manifest these emotional states in specific situations, such as when an army of orcs successfully drives off an angry ent, then cheers at its victory, or when flying nazgul units use their enchanted "shriek" ability to force their enemies to flee in terror. Overall, the game seems to be shaping up extremely well. If the development team can successfully incorporate its many features, Battle for Middle-earth will be an innovative and exciting strategy game. The game is scheduled to ship this November.

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