The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth II further builds upon the foundations of its predecessor. The game is still a classic style RTS, which means you’ll have to build a base, gather resources, raise an army and squash your opponents. This time we get six playable races in stead of the original four. You can duke it out with Elves, Dwarves, Men of the West, Sauron, Isengard and Goblins. The six races have quite some differences, which adds to the replayability and gameplay variation.
The campaign once again is the mainstay of the game. You can choose between a Good and an Evil Campaign. If you choose the good side, you’ll start out with the Elves and as you grogress, the Dwarves and Men of the West will join your side, until you finally win the war. The objective of the Goblins and the troops of Sauron and Isengard is of course to spoil that party and annihilate the races on the good side. The campaign is set in the northern part of Middle-Earth and follows a parallel storyline that is mentioned in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, but not in the films. Next to the campaign mode, you have skirmish games, multiplayer modes and War of the Ring mode. The latter combines the real-time combat of the game with a turn-based part that reminds us of Risk. Your mission is to conquer the entire map, and you can do that by training soldiers and building barracks, forts etc. In general, War of the Ring is a nice addition to BfME 2, that nevertheless lacks the quality finish of the game’s main storyline.
BfME 2’s biggest flaw is its lack of strategic depth. Practically all of the missions can be won by building an invincible army and using it to wipe the map clean. The AI doesn’t put up a good fight. The enemy armies only attack in small numbers and clearly haven’t heard of attacking the flanks or surrounding your opponent. The changes that have been made in this sequel are quite disappointing. In the original game, you had to build bases on predetermined spots, which practically forced you to build several camps, since otherwise you couldn’t build all of the units. That way, you had to divide your attention, which resulted in a bigger challenge. Now, it’s possible to concentrate on building an impenetrable fortress.
The experience system has undergone some changes. The first BfME let you keep the same battalions throughout the campaign, which then gained experience and became stronger as the game progressed. On top of that, you could combine several unit types (e.g. archers and pikemen). All of this made you cherish your most powerful units. Losing a highly experienced battalion thus was a severe blow to your war efforts. In Battle for Middle-Earth 2, your units will gain experience much quicker and can’t be taken with you on a next battle. That means you can just keep pumping out troops, send them to their doom and build some more. In my opinion, this is a clear step back.
Of course, as a result, the combat takes place on a much larger scale. Massive battles with hundreds of units are no exception. Unfortunately, you can quickly loose control when two hordes of Dwarves and Uruk-Hai are bashing each other. As was to be expected, the heroes make a reappearance in this game. Legolas, Aragorn, Gimli still kick major ass, but the new ones (Elrond, Arwen, Sharku, Tom Bombadil…) are also a force to be reckoned with. For some modes (War of the Ring for one), you can even create your own hero. You can alter both his/her looks and special abilities.
Naval combat is one of the few useful additions. If you capture a shipyard, you can buy all kinds of ships, from ordinary transports, over Corsair galleys to the rightfully feared Elven storm ships that create a huge vortex in which a dozen or so ships (even friendly ones!) will meet certain doom. The sea battles look very spectacular, mostly due to the gorgeous looking water. BfME 2 might well have the most beatiful water, ever shown in a strategy game. Even Age of Empires III can’t compare to this.
But the other parts of BfME 2 also look impressive. Particularly, the special summons (Balrog, Watcher,…) look very spectacular. The many units are all very detailed and the many explosions lookfabulous. It’s unfortunate the framerate often takes a nosedive in massive battles, but of course that’s the price you pay for larger armies. Another small con (obviously due to the changed setting) is the lack of movie fragments. Battle for Middle-Earth II does a fine job with its [b]audio[/n]. Some actors from the motion pictures have leant their voice again (Hugo “Agent Smith/ Elrond” Weaving for example) and the great LotR music from award-winning composer Howard Shore is back. Still, I thought the battle cries and clashing blades could have used some more punch.