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The Lord Of The Rings: The Battle For Middle-Earth review

Solid

Rarely does a game feel this frustrating. Here's an example: my Rohirrim archer cavalry are piling arrow after arrow into Mordor's dark towers. They sit out of range, laughing to themselves at impotent orcs cut down as the fortifications crumble. Right click, move on to attack the next. Without warning my men rush in to the fray, disobeying my direct orders. They're cut down instantly. Their corpses left to rot in Middle-Earth's mud.

Or try this, an early level: the Rohirrim are on the attack again. There are no flaming arrows this time round, but the buildings spew back fire, wilting my attackers. Meanwhile, at the back of the base an Uruk Pit streams out enemy infantry leaving my archers vulnerable. The only tactic: continually produce cavalry to counter, using them to charge in and out, nullifying the computer's dumb, dumb spawning. This takes half an hour. I sit, clenching teeth, tearing at the mouse, praying they make it. At last, they do. VICTORIOUS! My score is totted up, clearly I'm an orc crushing god. Then it's on to the next mission: exactly the same scenario; exactly the same problems; requiring exactly the same solution. Except this time the darkened coal background has been replaced with grassland.

Or maybe this: playing as Mordor, I've isolated a Rohan outpost. The men inside cower at my mighty ballistae as they ravage the outside walls. With the defences down, siege ladders are deployed, enabling Uruk-hai to scale the walls. But an ominous pot of dynamite sits to one side, waiting for a match or flaming arrow. The spark hits, blowing the wall apart and sending the wretched elves manning the turrets spinning to their doom. At once it's thrilling, spectacular and utterly violent. How can this be? How can something this beautiful be found in something this flawed?

The only thing left after an extended stay in Middle-Earth is frustration. Frustration with a game that should have been so outstanding, that should have been one of the finest strategy games of the year. Frustration that the world's largest publisher has imposed their impossibly high production standards onto a game that doesn't deserve the licence. Beneath the flash, the sampled voices, orchestral score, magnificent landscapes and monstrous animation lies a mess of inexplicable design decisions, bizarre mechanics, Fisher Price strategy and a strange disregard for Tolkien's story.

The good: this game is immediately engaging. When two armies clash you're drawn through the screen, into the combat. While the game never approaches the scale of the armies in Rome: Total War (or indeed the lavish LotR promotional screenshots), it is still beautiful. It's to do with sound, mostly. You're surrounded by the noise of war: screams, violence and industry. Every moment drips atmosphere, be it skirmishing in the driving rain of Rohan or creeping through the Mines of Moria, driving out Goblins, Cave Trolls and the mighty Balrog.

Meanwhile, much of the traditional real-time strategy fat has been stripped away, leaving nothing but war. Resource management has been vastly simplified compared to Warcraft or even WH40K: Dawn of War. If you want cash, build a farm, a foundry, or a lumber mill. There's no need to worry about sending peons out to harvest: they'll happily produce goods in situ. More good: there's no worrying about balancing your supplies. Each encampment produces a catch-all currency, there is no specific wood, iron or food, just cash. The result of this is a pure focus on combat. Gaining a foothold is less about the economy and more about gathering a mixed brigade of troops and sending them forward. Even more good: the interface that manages this army is spectacular. It feels object orientated rather than menu driven. If you want a new collection of Uruk-hai, just click on their pit and an icon will appear. One more click, and your horde is born.

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

High flying action and high drama that's immaculately presented. However it fails to deliver in some key areas, which combines to make this a disappointment

More Info

Available Platforms: PC
Published by: EA GAMES
Developed by: EA GAMES

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