Resizing the ring.
Though fairly rare, several real-time strategy games have been ported to the consoles. Dune transported itself to the Genesis, Command & Conquer and Warcraft landed on both the Playstation and the Saturn, and Starcraft somehow got smashed onto the N64. But thanks to fuzzy TV graphics and the limitations of the controllers, none have ever enjoyed widespread success.
So when EA promised they were paying extra special attention to the Xbox 360 version of (takes a deep breath) The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth II: Hobbits on Ice, people got hopeful. Perhaps someone would finally get it right.
But unlike Frodo’s miraculous success, EA’s nearly identical port doesn’t quite overcome the dark cloud covering console strategy games. Though the control is better than expected, a myriad of technical issues and overall wonkiness keep it from becoming the one to rule them all.
[image1]The story follows the exploits of you-know-who as he tries to dispose of you-know-what to keep the evil you-know-who-again from taking over Middle Earth. If the plot is familiar, it’s also a familiar game – build your base, pump out some armies, and attack the other guy en masse. There is an especially elaborate system of wall building and defensive structure upgrades helping you do so.
However, the game still forces you to spread your encampment far and wide with its resource gathering system. Structures such as farms, slaughterhouses, or Mallorn trees will automatically produce the game’s single resource, cleverly named "resources." The effectiveness of a resource gatherer is dependent on the large area of unused land around it, so placing a farm too close to another farm does you no good.
It’s an interesting idea in that it tries to balance both defense and territorial control, but ends up flawed because the structures are flimsier than the Hollywood facades from the film. It turns out that half the units can climb or fly over the walls anyway, and the other half can knock them down just as quickly. Every building, including those widespread farms, can be razed in just a few seconds when confronted by even a single enemy unit. As a result, you simply have to invest all your resources into your mobile army, as trying to build defensible bases is pointless.
It’s not a huge loss, though, since the units are far more satisfying than the buildings. Battle for Middle Earth II features a generous six sides; the Men of the West, the Elves, the Dwarves, Isengard, Mordor, and the Goblins all have their own axes to grind. You can also take to the sea in new naval vessels, but while they look good, they don’t come into play very often since the game sticks to the known peninsula of Middle Earth and does not include any of the lands across the sea.
[image2]Even more fun are the plentiful hero units. Over 30 ultra-powerful characters hail from the original Fellowship, the stories of Tolkien, the movies, and the minds of the developers. Though you can bring Gandalf into a battle you know he had no part in, it’s still uniquely satisfying to watch him destroy whole battalions of orcs. Or, if you feel a bit evil, to watch your Fellbeast hero plummet from the sky, smashing into a formation of Gondorian soldiers, scattering them like twigs, then grabbing one in a giant taloned claw, ascending back into the sky and tossing the unlucky fool to plummet to his death. I could be entertained by this endlessly. While the PC’s design-a-hero feature is gone, there are instead a ton of new ones you can unlock with Xbox Live achievements.
Both your heroes and your units gain experience from their battles and become more powerful, which is great. Unfortunately, you won’t get to carry your units over to the next one, and even when you do, it’s only a certain few. This makes the unit advancement much less satisfying than it could be.
EA clearly spent a lot of time making this playable with a console controller, mapping a very complex user interface to the 360 controller. Plenty of smart buttons for selecting your whole army, finding a worker, or zooming back to your base make navigating fairly intuitive. Unfortunately, it’s still trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole. The game simply wasn’t originally designed with a console controller in mind, so I’m surprised so little has been simplified for console gamers. Instead, the game makes you try to do everything you’d do in the PC game, but with inferior tools. You can lose both your arms in a horrible accident and you can learn to drive with your feet, but that doesn’t make you a good driver.
Another notable change in the port is in its content. Though you can still take on good and evil campaigns, the secondary War of the Rings single-player mode from the PC has been removed. In an effort to make up for it, the 360 version has a couple new online modes, like Hero Vs. Hero, where each player only gets four heroes and the one who levels up the most wins. It’s a nice addition, but not inspiring. Even online, the strategy is a bit lacking since it is so difficult to protect your resources. Every battle turns into a race to destroy each other’s fragile, far-flung resource buildings rather than a contest of military tactics, made only more obvious by the new Resource Race multiplayer game. How boring.
[image3]While the strategy might not run as deep, it looks pretty good. There’s a visceral, cinematic feel to the combat here that truly needs to be experienced; bodies go flying as trolls swing massive stone clubs and goblins fall under the trampling hooves of a cavalry charge. Save up enough power points to summon a Balrog for a particularly impressive display of carnage.
But you might want to summon him to the PC first, because some notable problems ruin an otherwise pretty picture. The game can slow down and the framerate can start to stutter when the action gets intense. Worse are the game’s shadows, which are distracting and pixilated. And if you don’t have an HDTV, just forget it; icons, units and text meld into a blurred mess.
The sound is more impressive as Orcs still roar with rage and the Men of Gondor shout rallying calls. Many of the actors from the movie have reprised their roles for their gaming counterparts, and Elrond (actor Hugo Weaving) provides the narration. The excellent film score has also made the migration and dramatically sets the backdrop.
I’ll give EA credit for trying what few companies have the cajones (or cockiness) to do –stick an RTS on a television. Unfortunately, the result of their effort is somewhat inconsistent and misses the smooth, intuitive play of the original. If you really desire to tool around Middle Earth, go do it on the PC, where it looks and plays better for cheaper.