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Hands-on: LotR: Battle for Middle-earth 2

Can EA's second stab at the Lord of the Rings RTS be the one to rule them all?

We're not exactly frothing Tolkien fanboys here at CVG. We definitely weren't outside Peter Jackson's house shaking wobbly signs on sticks in a rage over the director's decision to remove Tom Bombadil or the books' climactic showdown in the Shire. Having said that, we can't help but raise an eyebrow over some of the liberties taken in Battle for Middle-earth 2 - the sequel to 2004's pointy-eared RTS game. From what we recall, squeaky midget dragons and troll tug-boats weren't exactly a major feature of Tolkien's timeless epic.

Switching hyper-geek mode off for a minute though, the game's essentially a second stab at the LotR RTS, attempting to correct the complaints people had with what was a surprisingly strong first title. The engine has been refined, things are looking prettier and the whole thing is generally a more pleasant experience than before. What's more, much of the game's new content is swindled straight from the book. Don't worry though, Viggo Mortensen still prances throughout the game, along with the rest of the film's familiar cast.

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From what we've played of the limited multiplayer preview version, BFME2 feels more like a posh expansion of the first game rather than a significant re-imagining. Apart from the additional factions, units and all-new naval combat, the core of the game is identical to the 2004 original - albeit extensively refined and reshuffled. That's not to say that BFME2 won't be worthy of your money come release - the changes we've sampled go a long way to amending the, admittedly few, issues we had with EA Los Angeles's first attempt.

So, what's new? Well dear reader, those new factions we mentioned up there a bit include Dwarves, Goblins, Elves and the new combination of the Rohan and Gonders. Thus far we've only been able to sample the Dwarven and Goblin sides, although both bring totally new play styles to the game's existing formula. The Dwarves are a highly defensive axe-wielding bunch who can set up mines to gather resources and teleport units around the map. Goblins, on the other hand, are crafty buggers with a wide selection of monsters at their disposal - they can even scale walls making base fortification all but useless.

One of the most welcome changes in Battle for Middle-earth 2 is the new free-form base building mechanics. The first game forced players to use pre-determined building slots, turning base management into a restrictive paint-by-numbers affair. These constraints have been lifted and buildings can go wherever you please. Furthermore, the siege aspect of the game has been taken to a whole new level with the addition of buildable walls. Now, your main fortress can be dragged and tweaked to create any number of unique base designs - including, much to our juvenile delight, huge stone phalluses. Thankfully too, menus have been given an overhaul, making base building and other tasks far more intuitive.

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Actual multiplayer game modes are also infinitely more interesting: our favourite addition so far is War of The Ring, in which players are tasked with stealing the one ring from Golem, and then trying to hold on to it for the longest. Yes, it's just a glorified Capture the Flag, but we don't care. Presentation-wise, despite using the same graphics engine as the original Battle for Middle-earth, EA has managed to squeeze enough extra juice out of it to keep things visually up-to-date. Even the musical score, written specifically for the game, is incredibly welcome, seeing as we were nearly reduced to yanking off our own ears in a bid to escape the eternally looping movie samples present last time.

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