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The Battle for Middle-Earth II

We join EA's Louis Castle as the Battle series debuts on 360 - But is it the one strategy game to rule them all?

It's time for you trigger-happy speed freaks to sit up and pay attention. Battle for Middle-Earth II represents something of a new frontier for the Xbox 360, for beneath The Lord of the Rings sheen stands the console's first real-time strategy game.

Stereotypical assumptions of the RTS genre state that they're slow burners, boring to the point of suicide and on anything other than their original system - meaning the PC - are a nightmare to control. Which is why, despite the free trip offered to us to the northern ends of Middle-Earth to see sights beyond that of the trilogy's cinematic outing, we're more than a little hesitant to accept.

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But after three solid days of Burnout: Revenge, we're in need of a change of gears. With others monopolising the only copy of Oblivion in the office, Mordor opens its black gates once more - and with that, PCphobic games journos stumble through. The eyes that watch our entrance aren't wreathed in flames, but sparkle with the ready acknowledgment of a sceptical audience. Lead Designer Louis Castle knows that he has an uphill struggle ahead of him and his team.

Castle's name is synonymous with the RTS genre, being co-founder of Westwood Studios, creators of the world-bestriding Command & Conquer, which became one of the biggest-grossing videogame series in recent memory. He had a hand in every single game that Westwood Studios pumped out during the 90s. Castle could possibly be on to something that could turn the fortunes of the console RTS around.

Shirking the film-specific trappings of the original BFME, this sequel embraces both Tolkien's original works as well as Peter Jackson's multi-million pound franchise. John Howe, concept artist for the film trilogy has been brought on board to envision text-only
creatures and locations and blend them naturally into the established environment.

But even with the tantalizing image of a Cave Troll demolishing a squad of Elven Archers, we can't help but worry about the interface. Whatever stereotypes you hear about the divide between console and PC owners, the conflict of control systems at least is true. The RTS has never been fully comfortable on consoles, shackled by single controller setups when keyboard and mouse combinations were its natural heritage. It's perhaps the chief reason for this genre's sporadic appearance in the console market over the years.

But Castle is confident that his team are about to blow the low preconceptions of the genre transfer out of the water. With numerous PlayStation ports of the C&C franchise under his belt, we assume that he's invested a lot of time developing a way around the control issues. His solution was to start thinking outside the box.

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"The team's approach with BFMEII for the Xbox 360 has been to build an interface around the controller from the ground up, and to think more about the natural way to do the things you want to do without worrying about how a mouse would do it," he explains. Castle also reveals that he's not happy with the 'porting the game across and trying to keep as much of the mouse-and-keyboard-based interface intact' ethos.

Passing a controller into our hands, we're drawn to the context-sensitive operations of the A button, which will be the focus of most of your commands. It's familiar territory for us, implemented successfully in action adventure games from the time of Zelda on
the N64. In under a minute we've selected troops, formed them up and sent them out to do battle. It doesn't relieve the underlining fear of keyboard centric commands and after the troubles we had with Final Fantasy XI, we're already mentally unpacking the USB keyboard at home. But Castle and his team have got all he bases covered - centring the experience with the Xbox 360 controller has meant research in the unlikeliest of places. "By using advanced combination controls similar to the ones used by first-person shooters and fighting games, players will be able to control their armies easily with the touch of a few buttons," he grins, knowing how daunting a command list assigned via an entire keyboard can be to easily confused war-hungry newbies.

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