“Forget the hobbit. It’s up to us to save Middle-earth.” Okay, nobody actually says that in The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II, the highly anticipated sequel to the 2004 real-time strategy game from publisher Electronic Arts and developer EA Los Angeles, but they might as well have. You’re not here to recreate the adventures of Frodo and the rest of the Fellowship, but rather to take part in the War in the North. Some people might not even be familiar with this area of Middle-earth, though some of the greatest battles between the Free Peoples and the forces of Sauron took place here.
Let’s cut to the chase: the first game was already impressive, even if it was a simplified RTS and faltered somewhat in the combat department. BFME II is much, much better. Whether you’re fighting for the survival of the Free Peoples in the Good campaign or crushing everyone in your path in the Evil campaign, this game does a remarkable job of making you feel like you’re truly in the middle of epic battles. The sights, the sounds, the strategy: everything comes together and makes you say, “This is Middle-earth.”
The Lord of the Rings
The Battle for Middle-earth Ii
US: Jul 2007
This sequel introduces three new races—new in the sense that you couldn’t play them in the first game—namely the Elves, Dwarves, and Goblins. I’ve always found it amusing how the Dwarves have gotten the (pardon the pun) short end of the stick, since the Elves are always basking in the limelight. Similarly, when we talk about the army of Sauron, the first thing that comes to mind are the Orcs, whether the regular variety from Mordor or the new and improved Uruk-hai that Saruman bred in Isengard. The Goblins never get any respect. Which is why it’s great to see BFME II do justice to these two races, who are very much the antithesis of each other: Dwarves are the epitome of order, Goblins are chaos personified. While you still get to play the Elves and the Men of the West (this sequel combines the unit types from Rohan and Gondor, giving you a much more balanced roster) in the eight scenarios that make up the Good campaign, and the Orcs and other evil races in the Evil campaign’s eight battles, it’s the Dwarves and Goblins who really shine in BFME II.
One of the most welcome changes from the first game is that this sequel ditches the Living World map that dragged the forces of Rohan, Gondor, and Isengard to and fro in the South. Instead, the main single-player campaign, as already mentioned, goes for the more traditional RTS structure of a series of battles. This makes for more effective storytelling and intense action. You don’t get the lull or pointless side battles that occasionally bogged down the first game. Here, every battle is an epic one, meant to advance the plot and propel you to a final assault on Dol Goldur or the sack of Rivendell. Don’t worry, though, if you’re a fan of the Living World map, it’s still around in the Risk-like War of the Ring, another game mode BFME II offers.
When you’re playing the Good campaign, the game does a great job of truly making you feel like you’re surrounded by the forces of Sauron and are in danger of being overrun. Since you’re always outnumbered, more often than not you’ll have to fortify your base and survive wave after wave of enemies before finally being able to take the offensive. Conversely, if you’re leading the Goblins, your strategy really is to build and breed, pillage, then breed some more, because while you can quickly churn out units, individually they’re very weak. Which is why you have to rely on vastly superior numbers.
This, of course, is exactly how the war between good and evil played out in the novels and the movies adapted from them, which is why the unmatched craftsmanship of the Dwarves—which you put to good use when constructing buildings and fortifications—and the clockwork-like efficiency of their phalanxes are a great counterpoint to the sheer numbers and rushing attack style of the Goblins.
The Dwarves, however, are painfully slow, while the Goblins are easy to kill, so you adjust your strategy accordingly and complement them with their allies. The Elves move swiftly and are very deadly with their arrows—think of them as the English longbowmen in this war, though frankly, I can’t believe just how powerful they made these volleys of arrows. I still insist that you shouldn’t be able to easily slay a Dragon Lord or the fell beasts of the Nazgul with arrows, but well, there you go. Meanwhile, if you’re evil, your allies the Orcs can construct Mordor buildings that have access to technology and magic that your Goblin structures lack. For instance, it’s the forces of Mordor which can churn out siege weapons like battering rams and catapults. Of course, the Goblins might very well ask why you would need a catapult when you can breed a mountain giant and have them throw boulders at your enemies or their buildings.
As I’ve said, the battles here are truly epic, and I still can’t get over how intense it was in the Good campaign to survive wave after wave of attacks as the Free Peoples made their last stand in the city of Dale and the Dwarven stronghold of Erebor. That was truly a glorious battle. Still, I have to admit that it was also wickedly fun to play the Evil campaign. I’m telling you, nothing was more satisfying than finishing off Gandalf, Aragorn, and the remaining members of the Fellowship. Not even Galadriel could save those fools, hah!
With the great single-player campaign, plus the War of the Ring, skirmish battles, and multiplayer, Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II is simply one of the best PC games I’ve played so far this year. If you can, get the Collector’s Edition. It contains an extra DVD with behind-the-scenes footage, the game soundtrack, and other goodies. Of course, you really only need to know one thing: in the Collector’s Edition, you get to control the new dragon unit. That alone is worth the price of admission.
Now, if only someone could tell me why the Dwarves sound like Fat Bastard.