Over the course of two Battle for Middle-earth games, EA has managed to thoroughly explore the events of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels, seen most famously in Peter Jackson's movie trilogy. The first game let you command the armies of good and evil, as well as re-create the events and battles of the movies, while Battle for Middle-earth II took place in and revolved around events in the north. With the Rise of the Witch-King expansion, EA mines uncharted territory by digging deep into the past of Middle-earth and centering the action on one of its most enigmatic characters. With the new campaign and new faction, The Rise of the Witch-King is a standard expansion pack.
For the uninitiated, the Witch-King is the dark lord Sauron's main lieutenant and the head of the Nazgul, the sinister black-robed generals of his army. The expansion is set after the epic battle that was seen at the opening of the film The Fellowship of the Ring. After Sauron was defeated by the alliance of men and elves--and his powerful One Ring was lost--the forces of evil were sent reeling in defeat. Centuries later, the Witch-King rallies evil once again. The campaign, which runs around seven missions, chronicles how the Witch-King stages a comeback by uniting the various evil factions of the north to form the kingdom of Angmar and crushing the ancient kingdom of Arnor in the process.
Angmar represents the only new faction in the expansion, because Arnor is basically a recycled Men of the West faction with a handful of new units. Angmar is a troll-heavy faction, so instead of horse cavalry, you get to stampede the enemy with formations of trolls. There are sorcerers who cast powerful spells, though they must sacrifice followers to power that magic. And then there are thrall masters that can summon a variety of different units to the battlefield instantly, such as wolf riders and spearmen. Angmar can also summon a powerful and huge spectral wolf, which is sort of the equivalent of the balrog, as well as huge avalanches that bury enemy battalions. When you get down to it, Angmar is a very powerful and hard-hitting faction.
Though relatively brief, the campaign deserves some credit for veering away from the standard real-time strategy mission design of having you sit back for 30 minutes and build up your army before crushing the enemy. For instance, in one mission, you're in a race to recover shards of a broken palantir crystal, which means you're trying to desperately build up and defend your base from attacks while intercepting enemy units that have recovered crystals. In another, you have to basically conquer and hold as many burial mounds as possible to allow your sorcerers to corrupt them. These new missions offer a fresh change of pace, but they also pack a fair amount of frustration. For example, in the burial mounds mission, the victory objectives require you to hold the mounds long enough for your sorcerers to corrupt 1,000 souls before time runs out. It's a challenging objective made harder by the fact that the game does the cheap trick of constantly spawning enemy formations all over the map. But even worse, you might manage to reach the objective with seconds to spare only to discover that it turns out you need to accomplish the mission with a couple of minutes to spare because there's another objective that's never listed, which must be achieved to advance. So you've got to replay the mission over with that in mind.
Siege weapons and siege warfare remain clunky in the expansion as well. It's not much use to build walls because catapults can knock them down in a couple of hits. And siege weapons are so overpowered that they can pretty much level everything and everyone. In fact, much of the strategy revolves around building siege engines, protecting them with battalions of other units, getting them in range to do their thing, and then repeating the process again until you win. This is exactly what you do in the last mission, which is a long, drawn-out battle that reverts back to the traditional real-time strategy mission design and is basically 90 minutes of slowly grinding the enemy down.
It's a bit hard to distinguish that this is all supposed to be taking place in the distant past of Middle-earth. The Angmar faction doesn't look or feel all that different from the existing evil factions in Battle for Middle-earth II. The men and elves that you battle against are also almost the same as before. Meanwhile, the graphics, while still pretty, haven't changed much. If you were hoping for a more epic feel to the gameplay, you'll find that the scale remains the same. You command armies that consist of battalions of a dozen or more units each. This is in line with the previous Battle for Middle-earth games, though nowhere near the scale of the battles seen in the movies.
The War of the Ring dynamic campaign, which lets you try to conquer all of Middle-earth as one of the factions, has been improved to eliminate some of the issues found in the core game. For instance, armies can now move twice per turn if in friendly territory, which helps eliminate some of the tedium of moving armies around the map. There's also some persistence between the real-time battles and the turn-based strategic campaign; you can transfer units created in battle to the map, provided that you have enough money to support them. This helps address one of the biggest issues with the original campaign because there was a very sharp disconnect between what you did in battles and what you did in the strategic campaign. Still, this isn't a particularly deep campaign when compared to some of the turn-based strategic layer found in something like Medieval 2: Total War. For example, the scale of the overall campaign isn't that large, considering the number of provinces and the fact that there are only two or three build slots in each province. The campaign does offer a dynamic single-player experience, and you can play a number of War of the Ring scenarios (based on the events of the movie) or the historical Arnor campaign, which features Angmar, men, and elves.
The single-player skirmish mode lets you pit all the factions against each other, and you can play with up to seven other artificial intelligence factions. Multiplayer supports online skirmish for eight, and that's certainly where the bulk of the action will be found. Battle for Middle-earth fans will appreciate the Angmar faction and what it brings to the skirmish table. The addition of dwarven heroes and other units for the existing factions helps balance things out even more. Meanwhile, the dynamic campaign remains playable in multiplayer as well, though the amount of time required makes this an option for only the most serious and dedicated of players.
If you enjoy playing Battle for Middle-earth II online and want to keep up with the rest of the multiplayer crowd, purchasing the expansion is a no-brainer. For casual fans, this expansion is purely optional. For single-player fans, there's nothing here that's particularly compelling, unless you're a huge fan of Middle-earth.