Warcraft of the Ring.
Sauron's power is growing. The one ring has resurfaced and seeks its master even as the master seeks it. The legions of Mordor are a barely contained horde, straining against the natural barriers of the mountains and the unnatural barriers of men.
This is the time of the War of the Ring, a game that draws inspiration (and licensing) from the book rather than the movie. While a decent game, fans of Tolkien's Middle Earth will probably be disappointed that WotR doesn't stay particularly true to the trilogy. Fans of the movie will find it to be more like a cartoon than the dark, serious film. Fans of real-time strategy games, on the other hand, will immediately recognize the game's true inspiration: Warcraft III.
You're going to hear a lot of comparisons between War of the Rings and that other Vivendi product, and you won't just be hearing them from me. Some of you won't like this comparison. Many of you are already planning to send me emails explaining how you can select more units at once, and how War of the Rings actually uses the Battle Realms engine, and how the Orcs in Warcraft ride wolves, while those in WotR ride wargs. Clearly different.
However, I'm telling you now this is exactly the right comparison to make. WotR looks and plays so much like Warcraft that people casually looking at my screen thought I was playing Warcraft. So now if we can just take this for granted, I can get on with my review without mentioning that other game.
The two sides in War of the Ring are the traditional ones of Good and Evil. The story covers the wars and events surrounding the struggle between Mordor and the rest of the world. Most of the campaigns are made-up scenarios not mentioned by Tolkien, but fit into the larger war well enough.
It's the units that don't fit the vision of Middle Earth. Dwarves, if they fought the forces of Sauron at all, did so in their deep halls, but in WotR charge about every battlefield. Elves are produced endlessly from your buildings, rather than each one being a precious, eternal life. Huorns (a type of Ent) who only once left their forest to tear down the walls of Isengard now march against Mordor. And Beornings, despite a rich Tolkein mythology, are just made up bear-men named after a minor character in The Hobbit.
The minions of Evil fare slightly better, with Orcs, Goblins, Trolls, Uruk-Hai and even Dark Riders, all whipped into battle by the Slavemasters. The RTS format just seems to suit the dark hordes better than their light counterparts.
Hero units are here too, and you'll recognize many familiar names like Frodo, Gandalf, Gollum and Saruman, as you place them at battles where they never fought. Just like in that other game, they have unique abilities, can gain experience up to level 10, and if they die, you can just summon them again.
The game has only two resources to manage: ore, which is mined from the conveniently placed pile of stone in your camp, and food, which is somehow produced by a well which is also conveniently placed near the pile of stone and will eventually run out of water… err.. food. It just doesn't make any sense. Even Alice knew there was no such thing as a Treacle-well.
The graphics are well done, featuring 3D, slightly cartoonish characters much like those in another game. The animations are smooth, weapons (especially arrows) are oversized and everything runs great, although things do tend to get blocky around the edges when you get close up. I had some stability issues with a Radeon card that I didn't have with a GeForce, but one assumes that will all be worked out in the inevitable patch.
The sound is also good, albeit standard fare for this type of game. A triumphant orchestral score in the background keeps your ears busy while the unit acknowledgements get increasingly tiresome.
The multiplayer works fine and has some solid modes, including one innovative battle featuring an uber-powerful catapult that everyone fights to control. Matches are made via Gamespy Arcade, which has gotten better recently, but is still a far from perfect service.
Now don't get me wrong, War of the Ring is a solid game and has everything a current RTS game is supposed to have…and nothing else. If the Lord of the Rings characters and mythology had made a better fit, it could have been a better game. I would have suggested a game where the units were more precious, even irreplaceable, perhaps more like the now-classic Myth series.
As it stands, War of the Ring is a fun but ultimately forgettable RTS. It's a guided, open-topped bus tour of Middle Earth where you only stop at a the tourist places, buy a snow globe with a miniature Lothlorien inside, eat some Frodo-Fries, and never get to see any of the real place. "Look Sally, there's Legolas! He's so dreamy!"