Best of all, emphasis is placed on upgrading your troops. When resources are plentiful you can invest in stronger armour, sharper weapons and a banner to promote your cause. The banner is pivotal. When the White Hand of Mordor, (or the Horse's Head of Rohan) is raised, your troops will automatically heal in their spare time.
Your army is born of these concepts. First a fortress and a workshop, then your tools: a division or so of infantry, some cave-trolls and Ents, accompanied by a hero. Then, to war. And then the frustration hits.
The opposition AI appears not to have evolved since the original Command and Conquer arrived ten years ago. The computer will happily dribble out small groups of troops to die fruitlessly against your defences. Streams and streams of basic infantry will bash up against your walls before being quickly struck down without you lifting a finger. After skirmishing against extraordinary silicon minds on the battlefields of Rome or the Warhammer worlds this is a major disappointment.
More: the numbers in your army are limited by your 'command points' and the 'veterancy' of your barracks. Command points are accrued during the game in response to capturing areas of Middle-Earth. By the time you're knocking on the walls of Helm's Deep you can control masses of soldiers but early on you're limited to six or seven groups.
The problem comes when playing as the Rohan, taking on the forces of Mordor. There's a huge, gaping design hole here. Only the upgraded troops, such as archers with the flaming arrow upgrade, will cause any damage. Yet, once enough men have been purchased to upgrade the barracks, you've hit the army numbers limit.
The only option is to cull your older troops in suicidal attacks that have little purpose other than to create room for the new guys. No wonder the peasants look so reluctant to serve under Eomer. Here is a more fundamental fault. There is precious little strategy in this strategy game. Battles are won through the sustained, inexorable pressure of force and little else. Quick wits rarely factor. Why? It's partly down to the lack of significantly interesting units. Cavalry charge at the enemy and little else. Infantry wade in. Archers or cross-bow men deal out damage from afar. It's left to the heroes - such as Gandalf, Boromir or Legolas to add some spice. They don't. Keeping them close to your troops can prove useful: they do more damage when a local legend is by their side, but fundamentally, most of their abilities come down to this: they're units with a bigger health bar, and the ability to kill any conventional unit in one hit. That's all.
This is supposed to be a fantasy battlefield, a place defined by imagination. The lack of it shown in character development is near shameful. What's more, using the one-hit wonders is a trial, even using the keyboard shortcuts. The shortcomings of these powers are blatantly demonstrated during the occasional missions where you control a small group of heroes. The opening level, where you control Gandalf in the face of the Balrog, is a good example. This should be a pivotal moment, the defining encounter of the Fellowship.
In Battle for Middle-Earth, it's a disaster. This is the literal extent of your involvement. Click power icon a. Click Balrog. Click power icon b. Click Balrog. Wait for the recharge. Repeat. Win.
Yet this must be repeated: there are some astonishing moments. Sieges remain next to perfect. The humans nearly always find themselves at the pointy end of an Uruk pike advance, so must retreat. Manning the walls with flame arrows and trebuchets, pinning back siege ladders and battering rams is a simple pleasure, directing that assault close to sublime. Such attacks follow a ritual: first catapults wear down the defences before the attack. Then come the explosive charges, dragged into place by a pair of Uruks. That's the moment to counter. Any flame reaching the barrel will cause it to erupt, scattering armies of both sides to the four corners of the screen. Some levels even enable you to hammer nearby towers, causing them to crash through the walls, creating a jagged gap. If only the rest of Battle for Middle-Earth could live up to these brief sorties.
And that's the problem. Battle for Middle-Earth has so much to live up to. It's the first real chance for the spirit of the books and the films to be reflected in a PC game. The massive backdrop of Middle-Earth has been squandered, producing a dismally average strategy game, and nothing more.
This game doesn't love its source material, as Rome or Dawn of War does. It doesn't love the source material as much as you or I. And that's the biggest frustration of all.
The Lord Of The Rings: The Battle For Middle-Earth is released for PC on 10 December