Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth

One licence to spell-bind them all

Wave goodbye to the blue screen of death, intractable hardware conflicts and the bi-monthly graphics card update - the PC's tactical reign of terror ends here. For no longer are serious RTS' restricted to those desktop dinosaurs sitting in the corner of the coldest room in the house; we have the processing power, we have the online community and finally, we have a control system to condemn the PC to its grave.

For Battle For Middle Earth II is an almost completely straight port of the PC game - matching the original completely in numbercrunching, bone-grinding, unit-pumping tactics. And this time we don't even mind that our bearded cousins have seen it all before because, after years of half-hearted, simplified, stripped-down strategy games, this tastes, looks and feels like the real thing; a bright, bold, bombastic mixture of resource building, brutal fighting and small figures.


But the key to BFMEII's success lies is in the simplicity and speed of the control system. Instead of trying (and failing) to use the pad to ape a mouse and menu system, the right trigger simply summons a ring of commands, the D-pad slides you through the extra sub-menus and a becomes the context-sensitive button that rules all the others. And while a keyboard and mouse combo might still be slightly quicker to pick up groups of units in the gloom, it's still a more than slick enough system to slip into the subconscious, allowing you to appreciate the fact that this game has more bells and whistles than a leper's pride parade.

Because, unlike so many of the other LOTR-branded products, this isn't tied to the already-told tales in the bladder-testing trilogy. Instead it plunders the dusty shelves of the entire Tolkien library, shaking the books by their spines until new legends and fresh cannon fodder falls out. Half-forgotten lines are harnessed to see grim goblins riding poisonous spiders, paragraphs are plundered for swooping eagles and unread appendices allow beautiful three-masted schooners to break the waves. This is no mere film license built on hastily thrown together video-clips; instead it revels in its source material, wallowing in both the worlds and words.

But BFMEII isn't preciousss about protecting its past as each one of the 16 campaigns (eight for the good guys and eight for the evil-doers) allows you to rampage through familiar Middle Earth locations. And it is hard not to cackle along with over-acted Orcish glee when Bag End is torched or Tom Bombadil takes a blade through the throat.


Despite this, these two lengthy and well designed campaigns do have an orthodox feeling; bases are built, resources farmed, soldiers sired and technology researched until your forces become overwhelming and battle is finally joined. If you've Commanded And Conquered in the last decade, the traditional way that this spiral of small skirmishes leading to sieges and eventual mass slaughter will offer few surprises - except how much fun you're having sending your boys off to die in the Mordor fields.

Similarly minor but equally annoying are the traditional rough edges we expect with PC-ports; overlapping and over-acted voices, jittery and unpolished cut-scenes and a few hefty loading times. But if innovation isn't BFMEII's strength, dramatic action definitely is. Few strategy games can come close to matching the ground-shaking impact of Trolls and Ents trading blows, the weight of wheeling cavalry crashing onto cowering infantry or the sight of a Hobbit exploding in a shower of second breakfasts on the end of a Uruk pike. It's about as subtle as opera, and nearly as full of fat people.

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