While most games with film tie-ins generally line the bottom of the barrel in terms of quality, the recent games based on the Lord of the Rings franchise have actually been fairly solid. The Battle for Middle Earth is not actually the first RTS to take place in the Tolkien universe: Liquid Entertainment's War of the Ring first attempted to milk the movies' popularity in 2003, although it was based specifically on the novels, not on the films inspired by them. However, while War of the Ring was a somewhat bland and unexciting effort, Electronic Arts has managed to make a first-rate tactical title that seamlessly integrates set pieces from the films directly into the gameplay. The results are often spectacular, and commanding familiar scenes from your computer chair is exhilarating. Some may roll their eyes at the simplified base-building and resource-collecting, and the artificial intelligence may occasionally underwhelm, but most strategy enthusiasts will find a lot to love about The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth. Both good and evil campaigns are available to you at the outset, and both faithfully follow the events of the films, although the few players left who have never actually seen them won't feel lost, particularly as key moments are enhanced with movie clips that play in the minimap. All of the key players are here: Gimli, Frodo, Gandalf, and the entire Fellowship and their supporting characters are faithfully created, functioning as hero units that carry over from map to map. Actually, their function as supercharged units seems at first to be an exciting one, since the possibility of losing heroes that progress the story could change the entire dynamic of a linear narrative. Instead, should you lose a hero, he will return the next time he is needed, keeping the game faithful to its source material, but losing some continuity as a result. There is no doubt, however, that fans of Peter Jackson's trilogy will be flabbergasted at just how well the spirit of the films has been integrated into the game. The campaigns begin on a world-view map of Middle Earth, which is broken into sections that represent various cities and territories. It's not really a campaign map, such as the ones you would find in the Total War series, or in the turn-based element of Rise of Nations. You are really only choosing the location of your next battle – and often, not choosing much of anything, since there may be only one location available. Which territory you choose will determine what kind of bonuses you will receive in the next skirmish, be it resources, experience, or command points. You make no real strategic decisions from this view, however; instead, you are simply getting your overall bearings on the large map of Middle-Earth, which is itself made up of individual maps used for combat. Once you have chosen your destination, you are given your orders and jump into the fray. More often than not, your primary mission will be to simply destroy the enemy base, although you can complete other goals to earn different rewards. Battle for Middle Earth features some huge battles – but not a huge number of different types of units. Most of the variety will come from your heroes and the powers that they develop as the game wears on. Gandalf summons a handy lightning attack that can fell many units at one time; Aragorn can sound the Horn of Gondor, which forces nearby units to flee. Unfortunately, while the interface allows you to easily select any given hero unit at any time, managing many of them at once is a chore, since they get lost in the shuffle. As your heroes defeat units, they gain experience, which then opens up new abilities. You also earn power points as you go, which you use to purchase some wonderful abilities, such as unit healing – and later, Balrog summoning! These powers must be used sparingly, but they can easily turn the tide of battle if timed right. Other units are the Tolkien version of RTS standbys: cavalry, archers, pikemen, and the such, although The Mordor and Isengard units are much more interesting They, too, earn experience points, and the units that survive the mission then carry over to the next, giving you some powerful units when you need them most. When the combat works, it works very well, especially when there are dozens and dozens onscreen at any given time. Most skirmishes end up being waves of enemies in a free-for-all, although some weak artificial intelligence made for more babysitting than we would have liked. Friendly units have a frustrating tendency to watch idly as their countrymen are slaughtered a few feet in front of them; other times, they seem to gravitate towards weaker units as they let huge trolls lumber on by. The game also uses the “Eye of Sauron” to effectively cheat against the forces of good; as they eye's gaze passes over an area and identifies your base's location, a group of orcs generally appears nearby. Leaving a few veteran units behind to guard will fend them off, but at times it seemed a flimsy excuse to distract us from the inconsistent AI. Don't expect to use any fancy flanking maneuvers: battles are generally a head-on affair of arrows and swords. Base building and resource gathering has been highly simplified, and while this at first seems to BfME's detriment, it works well as you get used to it. Building locations are predetermined: you simply click on a foundation, choose an edifice from the radial menu, and build it. Farms will accumulate resources, and can also give life to peasants, although the uses of peasants are mostly limited to calling them to arms when in a pinch. As you discover other foundations and destroy enemy buildings, you can then use them as well, although you must have a unit close by to begin construction. The interface itself makes it easy to set up camp as you fend off your enemies, but the generic “resources” and inherent limitations of this system don't seem the best way to let the player focus on combat, particularly when Ground Control 2 and Dawn of War conquered this goal with more aplomb. Outside of the immersive campaigns, you can also play skirmishes with up to seven others via internet – or the CPU, if you prefer. There are 37 maps available, all of which were used in the single-player game, and these multiplayer battles can last for hour after nail-biting hour. If you register at EA.com, you can also take part in ladder matches that will assign you an opponent of similar expertise. This is where the special abilities of your heroes really come into play, and watching Gandalf cast dazzling spells on battlefields overflowing with glowing swords and flaming arrows is as thrilling as it sounds. Considering the main campaigns will take you upwards of 30 hours to complete, Battle for Middle Earth could keep you occupied for quite some time. The game's stunning visuals are a large part of what makes the film tie-in so successful, and the in-game re-creations of familiar cinematic environments are often amazing in their faithful detail. BfME is based on the C&C: Generals engine, although it is barely recognizable behind the polished veneer of the colorful surroundings. Unit animations are top-notch, particularly in the occasional moments of celebration after a successful confrontation. Heroes, in particular, are the spitting image of their silver screen counterparts, and unlike many RTSs, units are just as attractive up close as they are when zoomed out. There are some moments of sluggishness in the most active assaults, but this is a minor hindrance. Of course, the Lord of the Rings films are as beautiful to hear as they are to watch, and the game is no exception. Both Christopher Lee and Ian McKellen reprise their onscreen roles, leading a solid voice cast. Howard Shore's moving score is also featured, although EA has added some original in-game music to round it out, and it is such a good fit, you would be hard pressed to know where Shore's score ends and the game's original tunes begin. Battle for Middle Earth does not revolutionize any genre standards, but it is a polished, solid strategy gem that will thrill most RTS fans – and please quite a few film buffs, too. It is easily one of the best movie-based games yet produced, and a strong title in its own right. Experienced players may be somewhat annoyed by the limited AI and rudimentary base building, but those drawbacks won't stand in the way of a surprisingly compelling game. If you enjoy sweeping strategic combat – or just love Peter Jackson's movies – you should play The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth.
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