Elven bows sing and dwarven hammers ring as your fellowship fights desperately against a swarming horde of orcs and goblins. Enormous eagles and shrieking dragons clash overhead while, outside your city's walls, cave trolls are exchanging crushing blows with giant talking trees. Although the outlook is dire, you can't help but smile as you summon your next attack - a happy band of rock-tossing hobbits. They're probably dead men walking, but still: hobbits.
The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II succeeds because of unique, cinematic moments like these. In fact, the real-time strategy game does such a fantastic job recreating the awesome sights and majestic sounds of the movies (plus books, thanks to an expanded license) that, even when you're losing, you can't help but admire the epic spectacle unfolding before you. Every hero, every creature, every spell and every battlefield is here and at your command. For a Tolkien fan, it's pure miniaturized heaven.
Luckily for everyone else, however, there is also an excellent RTS title hidden beneath those slick production values. The expected stuff - base building, resource gathering, army amassing - is all here, of course, and done nicely with plenty of options for customization and modification. But it's the unexpected additions that will keep you up at night, fiendishly thinking up new strategies and schemes with which to crush your chosen foe.
You can recruit famous heroes, like Gandalf or Sauron, equipped with devastating special attacks; conjure a magical monster (or two) smack dab in the middle of your enemy's base; bolster your defense by hiding in a natural landscape feature like Isengard; or even gain the One Ring and all its power by capturing the wild card Gollum. When you consider that all this and more can be done with six different races, each with its own distinct look and feel, the strategic possibilities start to seem endless. One match in BFME II can honestly feel completely different from the last and next.
Well, as long as you're playing in skirmish or multiplayer mode, that is. The single-player campaign, which depicts the northern front of the War of the Ring that was only talked about in the LOTR trilogy, has a frustrating tendency to hold your hand through every mission. It likes to tell you when to build a base, what kind of army you should train and will even black out certain options to ensure that you follow its preferred tactics. Until the last couple of missions (and there aren't that many to begin with), the entire thing feels like a bloated tutorial.
Still, BFME II spoils you with so much diversity and lovingly crafted detail that it's easy to forgive its shortcomings. The single-player may be over in a day or two, but you'll spend many more happy weeks and months starting skirmishes or challenging friends online. The controls may not be the most intuitive adaptation of keyboard-and-mouse to 360 pad, but you'll likely spend enough time battling in Middle-earth to get used to them… maybe even master them. And if you don't have HD or a large television, you may have to squint occasionally to distinguish an archer from a swordsman, but you'll probably be willing to do that, too.
Because how can you resist a game that not only enables you to pit hobbits against dragons on a regular basis, but also gives you the tools necessary to concoct a crazy strategy in which the little guys actually win? Whether you're a fan of the property, a real-time strategy buff, an Xbox Live warrior, or some combination of the three, this one is definitely worth checking out.
Need more proof? Click the Movies tab above and watch actual game footage of all the splendor and destruction that makes BFME II so satisfying.