When it comes to officially licensed games outside of the sporting world, quality is far and few between. This is usually thanks to the main perpetrator, games based on movies. We've seen it all before, time after time a sub standard movie creates an even worse computer game in an attempt to achieve nothing more than extra sales generated off the mainstream name the movie creates. However, every so often an exception comes along that puts this theory temporarily to rest, and the fine folks at EA LA, the same team responsible for a few of the C&C classics, are trying to do just that with The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth on the PC. Can this title prove worthy of the RTS genre it lends itself to, or is it yet another casualty in the war against crappy movie inspired games?
BFME is licensed from the very popular LoTR movie series as you may have guessed from the intro, so you can expect to see various outakes from the movie included. Lets face it, the movie series was great, and it most certainly created a whole new generation of LoTR fans, even if their newly found interest is the result of "big bad Hollywood" and not the original works of Tolkien. In a sense EA were quite smart to focus their attention on the movie, giving them a pre-made structure to follow, with pre-made media to boot, and with the whole trilogy now out of the way, it means pretty much everything from start to finish is at their disposal.
However, fortunately BFME doesn't just restrict itself to the movie, the actual storyline plays out differently in some regards, but when it does use movie elements, it uses them well. This is a great setup, as it doesn't really feel like your typical movie based game, rather, it feels like a unique game with no restrictions that happens to feature media from the official movie series which does nothing more than add value to the game. For such a popular movie series you would have thought surely any game based on it would ride easy on selling just on name and not on quality, but it really seems EA LA have made BFME's quality a top priority.
Right from the start of the tutorial missions, it will become clear that BFME is not a complicated RTS, in fact you'd be hard pressed to find an RTS that was as simple as BFME. For example, camp/town management is dead simple - you build the required buildings for whatever it is you want to do, such as archery ranges, farms etc, and you let the game take care of the rest. You don't even have to make civilians to build for you, that is all taken care of. All you do is select one of the spare building blocks in town and select your desired building. I guess the idea here is less micro management and more action gaming, which I must say is fine with me as it does make for a very simple and fun RTS, however there certainly comes a point where an RTS perhaps is a little too basic fundamentally, and BFME is probably the best example of this that I can think of in recent memory.
However, what was left out in terms of advanced management was certainly spent on the playability. Unlike the movie, which is primarily portrayed through the eyes of the "good guys", BFME actually lets you play the role of both sides, each with their own campaign mode. This offers you the chance to change the storyline and it does wonders for the game's "harddrive life". On top of this, you also have multiplayer online and over a LAN, with online gameplay using EA's online system, which naturally requires registration.
One thing which guaranteed awe like reactions from the viewers of the movies was the epic battles. Although early in the game battles are naturally small in size, later on into the game you will experience some very impressive large battles. Combined with "hero" abilities, such as Gandalf's Wizard Blast, some serious devastation can be layed down onto opposing forces, but even with these abilities aside, just the normal swordsman, horse back and archery combat is also very well executed making for some truly immersive large scale gameplay. Unfortunately, it seems that even at moderate quality settings on a high end system larger battles will bring frame rate issues, which do have a slight negative affect on your ability to quickly command units. I guess we can't win them all, right?
Another aspect which doesn't quite stack up is the camera management. Although you can perform the usual pan, zoom and rotate camera functions with your mouse, the camera just never feels comfortable, forcing you to constantly tweak on the fly further adding to your tasks. I guess in hindsight the simplicity of the game means you are not overwhelmed with tasks so camera management doesn't exactly drive you crazy, it just could have been implemented a little better. For instance, the zoom needs to go out much further; even the highest view is too close, and with the potential for a lot of action on screen, this become very apparent.
Visually, BFME is about what you'd expect from an RTS in this day and age. Units have reasonably good detail, and the buildings aren't too shabby either, but the best part is certainly the environments and special effects. Landscapes look very detailed; everything from the tree detail to the terrain texture seems to have been rendered with high priority. As far as the special effects go, certain characters have "hero" abilities as mentioned above, often involving some sort of magical force, whether it be exploding or zapped or, well you get the idea, and these are generally very impressive to look at. As stated, the game does suffer from minor performance issues so even on reasonably high end PC's you may not be able to get the absolute best out of the image quality if you desire perfectly smooth performance.
The good thing about Lord of The Rings: Battle for Middle Earth besides the well executed LoTR content, is the fact it is a rather simple and fun RTS to play, so fans of the movies that may not be familiar with RTS gaming will enjoy it, and yet, RTS gamers will too. At times this simplicity does give the game perhaps too much of a basic nature, but all in all, it makes for solid gameplay with minimal hassle. Unfortunately, some aspects such as the engine performance and camera view execution prevent it from becoming as good as it could have been, but for any RTS gamer, LoTR fan or not, this is a worthy title for your collection.