A glut of real-time strategy. A surfeit. A plethora even. That’s what 2006 feels like: one crispy, creamy confectionary after another. Well brace yourselves, here comes another, shining the light of Elendil onto an original that hardly needed it. Rise of the Witch-king is such an all-around quality follow-up to this spring’s The Battle for Middle-earth II that if you missed the original release, the expansion is all the reason you’ll need to pick up both.
Developer EA LA could have simply turned in the new Angmar faction, here led by a younger version of everyone’s favorite “no man can kill me” Nazgul, the Witch-king. It could have held the line with the new campaign that follows the Witch-king’s northland ascent through missions - like one in which you have to strategically take out different Mallorn Trees that give your enemy devastating special powers - that rate as some of the best you’ll play in the genre.
But no, EA LA had to likewise resuscitate the board-gamey War of the Ring mode and finally make it worth playing by adding features like units that carry through RTS battles, a smarter economy based on generating (instead of waiting for) resources, and a computer A.I. that attacks more judiciously and backs up in a pinch. It couldn’t resist tweaking the power and cost systems in Create-A-Hero mode to let you design more strategically nuanced “walking nukes” for either early or late game bombshells. Even multiplayer, with all the same match modes, is blessed with a dozen new maps.
Still, it’s the Angmar faction that sells this one almost by itself, and they’re easily the most satisfying to play of the seven armies. Their unprecedented Thrall Master units: cheap as Goblins, but able to summon one of four melee types on the fly (warriors, wolf-riders, pikemen, axe-throwers), make them perfect as attack-scouts or simply outlying defenders able to react dynamically to enemy attacks. You also get elite Numenorean infantry and archers, dire wolves (good for rear charges), and both hill and snow trolls - strong against cavalry and footmen respectively.
The new spell-slinging sorcerers are tougher to wield effectively. They’re really support units that topple like bowling pins when attacked, but if you hotkey shrewdly, they can be decisive sideliners, converting enemy units into wights or raining major damage down by unleashing avalanches of exploding cadavers. That’s right, cadavers.
Speaking of avalanches, Angmar’s new powers complement the faction brilliantly. Employ "chill wind" to suck enemies into scrums so Rogash, the new troll hero, can leap attack on the assist. Lay down frozen swathes of land to bolster allied damage and armor. Use "avalanche" to dump devastating snow-piles on battalion-sized armies, or summon a nearly King Kong-sized werewolf late in the game to freeze enemies or simply snack on them to recover health.
A few months ago, Company of Heroes was a lock for RTS of the year. With Rise of the Witch-king, we're on the verge of flip-flopping. Seriously.