The Lord of the Rings: War of the Ring Preview

Liquid Entertainment's upcoming real-time strategy game will draw inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy novels.

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The spirit of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy novel series, The Lord of the Rings, is alive and well, thanks to the recent motion picture adaptations, as well as to the recent interest that publisher VU Games has shown in adapting the actual written source material for computer and video games, including Liquid Entertainment's upcoming strategy game based on Tolkien's novels, War of the Ring, for its Black Label Games division. The game will let you command the armies of Gandalf and Legolas by collecting precious resources, building a base of operations, and recruiting armies of skilled military units to defeat your enemies before they can similarly fortify themselves. War of the Rings is being built on the experience that Liquid has acquired through the development of its Battle Realms real-time strategy games, and it's already looking extremely solid at this point.

Battles under the tree cover of Mirkwood Forest should appeal to both Tolkien fans and real-time strategy fans.
Battles under the tree cover of Mirkwood Forest should appeal to both Tolkien fans and real-time strategy fans.

According to Liquid Entertainment president Ed Del Castillo, the team wanted to make a game that would appeal to two very distinct audiences: hardcore fans of real-time strategy games and exacting fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's novels. Over the course of the game's early development, it seemed like the best way to satisfy the needs of both of these audiences was to gear the multiplayer game towards the strategy fans and the single-player game towards Tolkien fans.

The game's single-player campaign will be split into two parts: one set of missions for the good-aligned characters, like Gimli and Aragorn, and one set of missions for evil-aligned characters, like Saruman. The campaign will take place during the end of Tolkien's third age--the same time frame that includes the journeys of Frodo Baggins and his legendary fellowship, as well as various adventures that took place centuries before it. As Del Castillo describes it, the single-player game will essentially serve as an "abbreviated history of the rise of Sauron," the dark lord of Mordor and controller of the magic rings that made men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits, alike, mad with power.

The campaign won't have a linear structure either; rather than play through a predictably linear series of missions that become more difficult over time, War of the Ring's campaign will progressively unlock small groups of missions and let you choose which ones you'd like to play next. The order in which you unlock the campaigns won't be strictly linear, but will instead be governed by the chronology of events in Tolkien's fiction. Each of these missions will include introductory and closing cinematics, as well as an epilogue that explains the significance of the mission in the struggle for power between the forces of good and evil within the time line of Tolkien's third age. Many of these missions will feature multiple objectives and side-quests that can be performed in exchange for miscellaneous benefits.

You must choose your tactics wisely to win this bridge from the enemy.
You must choose your tactics wisely to win this bridge from the enemy.

In terms of multiplayer gameplay, Liquid Entertainment is attempting to both add to and streamline the mechanics it used in its previous game, Battle Realms. In both single- and multiplayer games, War of the Ring will feature only two resources: food and ore (while Battle Realms also featured water as a separate resource). The actual gameplay will focus on the smart, tactical use of your units and their abilities.

War of the Ring will feature an enhanced version of the physics engine featured in Battle Realms. As in Battle Realms and other real-time strategy games, you'll, of course, want to harvest resources quickly and research upgrades for your units and bases. You'll also need to take heed of new tactical considerations, such as "knockback," which is an ability some units will possess that sends their enemies flying backwards--sometimes to their deaths when near the edges of chasms or deep lakes. Units with the knockback ability will be able to effectively subdue close-range melee units, like the good side's stout dwarven shieldbreakers, so you'll need to make sure you either recruit an ally with immunity to knockback (like the legendary shapeshifter Beorn) or add ranged units, like elven archers, to your army. Or you can do both.

Epic Battles and Tactical Strategy

Since War of the Ring will be fully 3D, you can also expect to find structures on the map that your archers can climb to gain a larger field of vision. Your archers can then gain an additional accuracy bonus when fighting enemies on lower ground. In addition to these unit-level tactical concerns, you'll also be in control of powerful hero units, like Gandalf, Frodo, Saruman, Legolas, and Gimli. Each will have special abilities that they'll acquire over time. For instance, Legolas' "trueshot" ability will be a damaging ranged knockback attack that will send individual enemies flying. Obviously, these heroes won't just aid you in attacking your enemies' armies and base.

War of the Ring will feature massive skirmishes, but smart players can use places of power and fate powers to turn the tide of battle in their favor.
War of the Ring will feature massive skirmishes, but smart players can use places of power and fate powers to turn the tide of battle in their favor.

As Del Castillo explained, most battles in real-time strategy games involve rival armies clashing with one another or one player's army devastating the opponent's base--and subsequently damaging the opponent's economy. To keep battles dynamic, Liquid Entertainment will add "places of power" to War of the Ring's maps. These are locations which, when captured, grant their owners exceptionally powerful abilities that can turn the tide of even a tough battle by granting bonus damage or armor to controlling armies. As Del Castillo explains, you won't simply be able to sit back and expand your own base in hopes of eventually reaching a top-level technology, because your opponent can and will take over the exceptionally powerful places of power on the map and use the advantages these locations provide to completely dominate you and whatever armies you build. As such, Liquid Entertainment plans to design multiplayer games of War of the Ring in such a way that opposing players are constantly struggling with one another for control of resources as well as for places of power.

Players who capture enough places of power, use their heroes to win huge battles, or complete specific objectives will also be able to build a reserve of fate points. War of the Ring's fate points will act as a reserve of magical energy that resembles the yin-and-yang system from Battle Realms. Building up enough fate points will let you use powerful global effects, called fate powers. These powers include anything from temporarily converting your opponents' land into a marshy bog, rendering his or her armies nearly immobile, to summoning a huge, fiery balrog demon with a flaming sword to cause fiery destruction and other damage to different enemy buildings. However, no fate powers will deal instantaneous and direct damage to an enemy's army or base. As Del Castillo explains, abilities such as these often seem unsatisfying in other real-time strategy games. So, rather than lose to a bolt of lightning from out of nowhere, your opponent's fate powers will instead grant his armies enough of a bonus to outdamage yours and march onward to your capital. Liquid Entertainment wants to emphasize battles that are won and lost for discernable reasons, not by random global effects that suddenly decimate one side.

Beware: Computer-controlled units will make good use of cover and may even try to lure you into a trap.
Beware: Computer-controlled units will make good use of cover and may even try to lure you into a trap.

War of the Ring will even feature improved unit AI over that of Battle Realms. In the single-player game, enemy units will make very smart tactical maneuvers and will flank weakened forces. They'll also execute lures and feints to draw front lines away from more vulnerable archer and rear guard units. Computer-controlled archers will make beelines for structures they can climb to gain height advantages, and, in some cases, may continuously bombard any area in which they last spotted an enemy. Though your own units won't act with the same degree of autonomy, they will be smart enough, in both single- and multiplayer games, to assemble in basic formations and to seek nearby cover from arrow volleys and other ranged attacks.

Both the single- and multiplayer games will have a colorful fantasy look to them, provided by an enhanced version of the Battle Realms game engine, which allows many animated units to engage in battle while onscreen at the same time. The game will also feature reflective, shaded water that reacts realistically to units who move through it, as well as animated foliage that sways in the wind and animated grass that parts as soldiers walk through it. War of the Ring is just going into an internal beta-testing stage. The game is scheduled for release in November.

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