The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth Preshow Impressions

We've got the scoop on some exciting, new details on EA's upcoming <i>Lord of the Rings</i>-based real-time strategy game.

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The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth
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Quite possibly the most exciting of Electronic Arts' upcoming games is The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-Earth, a real-time strategy game in which you'll be able to relive the epic battles from Peter Jackson's already-classic trilogy of motion pictures. It's hard not to get excited for the game after checking out one of the early trailers showing off the game engine in action, in sequences that look shockingly similar to the quality and intensity of the battles from the movies. And while EA is still being tight-lipped about the nuts and bolts of the gameplay, at a pre-E3 event we got a chance to see a few more features from The Battle for Middle-Earth, and the sum total is we're now looking forward to the game even more.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

Essentially, The Battle for Middle-Earth is seeking to capture the emotional intensity of the Lord of the Rings movies--a design decision that seems awfully strange for a real-time strategy game, since the genre is typically devoid of much personality, save for a few noteworthy exceptions. The way in which the developers are going about accomplishing this goal is by making Middle-earth itself the "star" of the game; making the world of the game seem as lifelike and as plausible as possible. That means the world will require an extremely high level of visual detail--as well as interactivity.

We were treated to a few specific examples of this design philosophy in effect. In one sequence, archers attacked one of those massive elephantine felbeasts, and the thing started rampaging out of control, trampling friend and foe alike until finally getting brought down--apparently these powerful units will be like a double-edged sword. In another sequence, a band of orc ambushers rained fiery arrows on Treebeard, the ent featured prominently in The Two Towers. The ent panicked and rushed to a nearby stream in which he doused himself... then angrily clambered out, hefted a nearby boulder, and sent it hurtling into the terrified orc band. In other real-time strategy games, units tend not to exhibit any sort of visible concern or otherwise react to enemy units except by attacking them. But this sequence, which we were told was representative of actual gameplay, was truly dramatic.

So was the next one. This one was of a troll taking on a pack of Gondor swordsmen...or, rather, the other way around. The troll starts by uprooting a nearby tree, smashing it against the ground to break off all those pesky branches and leaves, and then using it to smash the swordsmen, sending them flying every which way. Just before the men are struck, they brace themselves for the impact, dreading the inevitable.

Another sequence treated us to a scene in which some Gondor swordsmen (thankfully) outnumbered a nearby band of orcs. We were shown "before" and "after" versions of this scene as a demonstration of some of the game's technology, and basically, in the "before" version, the swordsmen charged their enemies and slew them in the straightforward fashion found in most any other fantasy RTS. Then, in the "after" version, we noted that the swordsmen, while standing idle, cheered and jeered at their foes, as if prompting the player to select them and order the attack. Once the battle was won, the swordsmen clanked their shields and cried out in victory. Again, this scene was truly quite spectacular, especially since it represents just a basic, small skirmish from the game.

We asked about how, if at all, these morale effects would impact gameplay, and the answer is, apparently, that they will not--it's a graphical detail to lend more flair to the proceedings, but don't expect your Gondor swordsmen to ignore your orders if they're terrified or anything like that.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

The Battle for Middle-Earth will feature four different playable factions: The good-aligned factions of Gondor and Rohan and the evil factions of Mordor and Isengard. Gondor will be a defense-oriented faction, with powerful militias and siege weaponry. Rohan will be a fast-strike faction, with its highly trained cavalries. Mordor will be able to overwhelm its foes with an unlimited supply of its brutish orcs. And Isengard's powerful uruk-hai foot soldiers and arcane leader, Saruman, ought to be a difficult threat to withstand. The game will feature two single-player campaigns, one good and one evil, in which you'll get to play as and against all these factions. There will be hero characters that persist through these campaigns, lending cohesiveness to the storyline.

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo, we expect to finally get to see The Battle for Middle-Earth's gameplay, in a sequence based on the battle against Minas Tirith from The Return of the King, from the perspective of Mordor. Here, we expect to see some of the large-scale action unfold in gamelike terms. For instance, we know that to heighten the scale of the battles, players will be able to command regiments of units as individual troops, rather than have to group-select a bunch of tiny infantrymen just to get a decent force going. Admittedly, right now our excitement about this game is based mostly on its apparent ability to faithfully reproduce the look of the films. We hope the gameplay's going to live up to its end of the bargain. The Battle for Middle-Earth is slated to ship later this year, and we'll have more on the game as soon as we can.

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