The One Ring
Wagner and Tolkien have a lot to answer for in terms of heroic fantasy. Without Wagner's Ring Cycle and Tolkien's world we wouldn't have a slew of warriors, elves and wizards across numerous entertainment media.
Peter Jackson kicked things up numerous notches when he made his movies of Tolkien's celebrated works, behind him EA were eagerly watching the development of the franchise and they leapt like Shelob herself upon the biggest fantasy world ever developed and marketed.
They have created several games based on the Lord of the Rings and two heavy RTS titles, both on PC. Well now it's the turn of EALA to slip the One Ring upon their finger and bring us the Xbox 360 version of Battle for Middle Earth II.
EA have opted to set this in Tolkien's world and not based on any of the books or movies, they've set several side-battles and developed areas of Middle Earth that were left to the imagination or hardly detailed. Of the two paths (good and evil) available to you on the game each gets a lavish arty introduction that melts into real-time engine graphics seamlessly and provides the background to the singleplayer side of the game.
Once again without spoiling the story I'll simply say it's pretty good and fits in with Tolkien's mythos quite nicely.
There are noticeable differences between the PC and the console version of this tricky but rewarding RTS. However those of you looking for a smooth ride had best beware, at the time of this review there were noticeable frame-rate issues and stuttering in the game and one can only hope EA patch this via Live.
That gripe out of the way under the hood of this title is a very competent but complex control system. On one hand you can muddle along just knowing how to move, select and control your units and generally play like this. On the other hand you can really go to town trying to learn the complex extra controls that allow you to manage your units and refine your strategy. These are controls that are designed to be more like a game of Street Fighter than a typical RTS.
If you have time to make or print out a cheat sheet then you'll be able to access these commands with only a little bit of fiddling, otherwise the fun quickly turns into frustration as you struggle to execute a combination of triggers and buttons that allow your units to do something like this:
RB+LB+A double tap - Adds all units by type from army to current selection LT+double tap A - selects entire army LB plus single press A - Adds waypoints to a waypoint path.
EALA replaced the unit lasso style from traditional RTS with things like this and modifiers, it can get confusing quickly without the previously mentioned cheat sheet and even then in the heat of battle in an online game you're more likely to just sit back and twitch as you push the wrong combination.
I can't fault them for trying to replace the keyboard and mouse but to be honest there are reasons why we don't see many console RTS games.
The game focuses on a drab of resource management and building up the various army units, each one has strengths and weaknesses just like we've come to expect from other RTS games. Pikemen are good against Cavalry and so on.
The game has a basic and advanced tutorial that leads you nicely into the various concepts and strategies behind the armies: how to build up a working base and defend it with a mix of towers, walls, various kinds of soldiers/archers and special unit powers.
There are land and sea battles in the game and it follows the PC version in that respect.
There are also heroes to unlock in the singleplayer game.
It certainly doesn't live up to the PC's version in terms of graphics, it's a little lower resolution than we've come to expect from the 360 as well. The game is passable in the graphics department and the backgrounds, levels and various characters are nice but they don't stand up to close scrutiny - textures can become washed out and lose their detail when the camera is focussed closely.
The mixture of real-time engine and concept art graphics that remind me of the Lord of the Rings: Two Towers and Return of the King console games, where they took the movie and meshed it with the engine graphics near-seamlessly. This works very well and lends a stylish feel to the product - the load screens have an animated rotating One Ring to notify you the game's loading content.
It suffers heavy frame rate drops and stutters that make the game grind to a near-halt when a small battle starts; at least that's what happens in the tutorial.
The level of animation in the game seems to mirror that of the PC version and the units have their own little quirks, they celebrate when they win and they cower when faced with the likes of the mighty Sauron or the Balrog. The combat animations are fairly varied and the units have different battle tactics.
The game has a fairly decent AI that adapts to various situations; it's not quite as shiny as EA wanted us to think though. It provides a good challenge at lower levels but if you crank it up - then expect to get hammered as the AI can be ruthless on the higher difficulty settings. It is particularly skilled at battering defences and using mixed unit tactics. The AI isn't shy of sacrificing weaker units to get you to make a mistake or wear you down whilst it moves in with heavier siege units to break your walls and smash your towers.
It will also use heroes as well, and it knows their powers better than you do in the beginning - expect a decent challenge.
The game brims with a nicely realised audio system, it has numerous outdoor effects from rushing water to animals, as well as the plethora of shouts, screams and noises from battle. All of these are tied into a gorgeous musical score that flows through the game and brings to mind the epic nature of Tolkien's world.
There are some excellent voice actors in the game, the likes of Hugo Weaving reprising his role as Elrond for instance. The other voice actors pull off their roles with little or no trouble even in the wake of the voice talents of Agent 'Elrond' Smith. The script is very much in line with the sweeping vista of Middle Earth and has a few nice touches.
Just like the singleplayer game there's a drive to make units, upgrade units and do all that RTS goodness we're used to. There are some modes that change things, spice things up a little and add a near shooter equivalent into the mix.
* Versus: Two players or teams are thrown into a free-for-all and the player or team left standing wins the game.
* King of the Hill: Teams must fight to keep control of a certain location, a fortress, signal fire or something at the summit of the map. Hold the map location for a certain amount of time to win.
* Capture and Hold: A little like King of the Hill except the teams are competing to hold onto signal fires around the map. Whoever holds the signal fires or fire for longest (specific amount of time) wins.
* Resource Race: Teams or two players fight for resources, whoever amasses the largest amount or specified amount at the end of the timer wins.
* Hero vs. Hero: Up to four players each get four heroes and they battle one another on the map to wipe out their opponent's (fortress and all) heroes. Victory is decided by either the destruction of all their opponents fortresses or having the highest level hero at the end.
You have the matchmaking tools and searching tools provided for you, so you can find the right game for your skill level. You can play online with up to four players. You could have a coop game of 2v2 for instance or any kind of combination.
Hit and miss
The game is a solid game in terms of controls (with some frustrations) and gameplay. It is let down miserably by the frame troubles and stuttering however and this cripples it at times as the screen jerks to a halt. There are some downloadable maps on Xbox Live as of this review and if EA can fix the problems with the frame rates the game could certainly live up to the hype.