Yep, just when you thought Lord of the Rings fever had died off completely, a sequel to Battle for Middle-Earth arrives. It's a sequel that at first glance seems to make little sense, considering the solid, but unspectacular, nature of the first game. However, on hearing the news that EA had purchased the rights to Tolkien's books, and that the game world was to be opened up to include all the wonders of Middle-Earth, I found myself interested again; even if the thought of Tom Bombadil chilled me to my bones (and yep, he's in it).
The structure of the game feels familiar from the off, mainly because Battle for Middle-Earth II borrows liberally from every other RTS on the market: A dab of Warcraft 3, a drop of Command & Conquer, and a nice sprinkling of Dawn of War. This may come across as a damning indictment, but when a game is as well constructed as this it's hard to take too many pops at it. It's not as if other video game companies haven't liberally copied their rivals in the past...
Three main modes of play are offered: Campaign, War of the Ring and Multiplayer. The first mode is divided into a good and evil campaign, allowing you to command the forces of the Elves and Dwarves or Sauron's rampaging horde of Orcs. Each of these campaigns is loosely based around the invasion of the Northern lands of Middle-Earth and both play out a similar story, albeit from opposing sides. Structurally, they follow the traditional RTS template, which for the most part means building a base to start you off, then completing a series of objectives such as destroying a base or capturing a building. As I've already said, it's not exactly taking any risks, but the campaign ticks along solidly with an engaging storyline that runs parallel to the narrative of the films.
The War of the Ring mode is a much meatier experience, although it once again borrows from its RTS stable mates. Similar to Empire At War's Galactic Conquest mode, it tasks you with not just winning battles, but with winning an entire campaign. It brings a more subtle strategy element to the game that isn't present in the tank rushes (or cave troll rushes, I guess) of the campaign or skirmish games. It's certainly the option for those of us who enjoy the more tactical lure of RTS games, and managing your army throughout a full campaign is very satisfying, even if the ham-fisted interface does take the charm away a little.
As seems to be the recurring theme, troop types are fairly generic too. You have Swordmen, Archers and Cavalry all working on a paper, scissors, stone system, where each unit is specialised in taking out a certain type of unit. It makes planning strategies a doddle, but it can also make things a little too easy. Battles are still very satisfying though, and big events, like your cavalry crashing through the ranks of some Orc archers, never fail to raise a smile.
Part of Battle for Middle-Earth II's draw is being able to control all of the fantastic creatures that you've seen in the LOTR films. Sending four or five cave trolls into battle (each with a tree trunk in hand, of course) and watching them clean house is superb, as is the first time the Balrog appears, or the first time a giant eagle crashes into a group of pikemen... and I could go on. While the game may play similarly to other games, only its prequel can offer a similar LOTR experience.
This experience is made all the better by some truly beautiful visuals, particularly for an RTS game. The basic landscapes and character models are nice enough, but it's only when you see some of the game's other effects, such as the incredible water, that you realize how technically accomplished the engine actually is. The presentation isn't let down by the audio either, with some great sound effects and excellent voice acting making for a completely immersive experience.
The other notable addition is the ability to make your own hero characters. It feels like a bit of a strange addition to an RTS game, despite the 'create a character function' being a staple of EA games these days. It offers a decent range of customisation for the look and abilities of a character, but feels a little restrictive when compared to other games. Even so, if you're really into the franchise it's a nice addition and does mean that you can add a personal touch to your War of the Ring army.
Online, the game is immense fun and will pose a challenge for even the most accomplished players. As expected, there's the option to play skirmishes, either with two players or in teams. Cleverly, the War of the Ring mode can be played online too, even allowing you to save games and pick things up again later. The Hero characters seem to have an even greater importance online, with experienced players able to utilise their power to devastating effect. This is all made incredibly simple to get into via a great online front-end, which even tracks your performance and estimates your chances against selected opponents.
It could be argued that many RTS games have stuck to the age-old RTS formula because it works so well, but when other games have made such strides in new and interesting directions, it's hard to maintain that the old way is still the best way. However, EA has made it work very, very well. They've put more than enough bells and whistles in to make Battle for Middle-Earth II seem extremely fresh and, most importantly, a lot of fun. When it comes down to it, for the LOTR strategy fan, this game is a must. In fact, for any strategy game fan, you'll definitely get your money's worth; just don't expect to see anything new.