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Littered with heroes, quests, battles, hacking and slashing, the scope is vast, and has, of course, already been liberally exploited. But a real-time strategy game?

Of course. Around this time next year, that dream will become a reality, as EA unleashes another LOTR game on what they hope will remain a Tolkien-crazed public. The more you think about it, the more obvious a genre the RTS is, with the LOTR universe boasting an array of different units and a slew of readymade scenarios, such as the battles at Helm’s Deep, Ithilien, and Minas Tirith, for instance. It’s actually something of a surprise that no-one thought of it earlier, although Vivendi is working on a similar concept based on the original books.

In the hectic world of RTS games, one name stands head and shoulders above the rest, resonating down the years on the success of a flurry of quality titles. However, Westwood is no more, the Las Vegasbased outfit now sadly closed, much to the chagrin of many a press trip veteran.

Whether through the books or the films, remember how exciting that was? The sense that you were there, the wondering what was going to happen next as you turned to the next chapter. Imagine if you could immerse yourself in this world, if you could get in there and actually play a part, command the battles.

What would you do differently, if you were there? Understandably, much of the action is derived from the second film, featuring as it does the epic closing battle. The game will also draw heavily from the forthcoming The Return Of The King, which is already being touted as featuring the most spectacular battle scene ever filmed, namely the attack on Minas Tirith, which will also play a big part in Battle For Middle-Earth.

As Skaggs says, “Our goal with this game is to create some of the best fantasy battles ever seen in a game. You get to control the films. The sense of being able to control the battles and doing it for the first time is going to make a lot of, not only fans of the fiction, but game players very excited. How thrilling is that? Very thrilling indeed, judging by the demonstration to which we were privy.

Despite only being in development since March of this year, much of the combat seems to be in place, and we witnessed an almighty ruck between a firm of trolls and some of the Ents’ top boys – the Ents, of course, being those ludicrous walking trees from the second film.

In a merciless onslaught, the trolls actually uprooted static trees and used them to club their mobile counterparts about the trunk and branches. Hoisted by their own petard, the Ents retaliated by grabbing handfuls of rocks and hurling them at their troll aggressors. When they ran out of rocks, chunks of masonry were dislodged from nearby buildings and used as impromptu missiles, as were a couple of passing orcs. The Lord Of The Rings is, of course all about large-scale battles, and this will be reflected in the game.

In various demos, we witnessed , and finally units on screen, the latterexample maintaining a frame rate around the 40 per second mark. Technical issues aside though, simply controlling such a large number of units would appear to be an impossibly unwieldy proposition, something of which Browder is fully aware. As he says, “How do you control this kind of battle? Animals will also feature heavily, and Browder says, “We’ve had games before with birds in them, people have done games with sheep in them.

We want to make that stuff really matter and make the world part of the experience. For instance, the huge Oliphaunts will effectively be used as transporters, enabling you to load them up with troops and take them across the battlefield.

And if you chuck a few archers in there, they should be able to use the extra height to their advantage and pick off a few foes en route. Other wildlife includes the Wargs, those wolf-type orccarriers that crop up halfway. The game will also support as many aerial units as the fiction allows, including, of course, the Fell-beasts, those great big flying dragons.

Attacking buildings will involve going at them with catapults and battering rams, as well as attempting to scale the walls, although the inhabitants will naturally fight back with a variety of weapons and traps.

There will also be some resource management, with wood required to spawn Uruk-hai, for instance, and also liberal use of magic, including the ability to change the weather in order to hamper the enemy. Multiplayer is also receiving a great deal of attention, and the plan is to steer away from pseudo-Deathmatch maps and develop a more story-led campaign in keeping with the fiction. It’s finally happened.

LOTR: The Battle For Middle-Earth is a bold step away from the predictable mainstream RTS formula that has been prevalent in so many games of this genre for far too long, melding the best of the mainstream and hardcore markets in one exquisite, shiny package.

Based on all three films from Peter Jackson’s titanic trilogy, this is a work of supreme detail and quality, shoehorning many of the celluloid adventures’ best merits and moments into two campaigns Good and Evil of equal excellence, tension and entertainment. As you’d expect from a high-budget game based on one of the most accomplished trilogies ever created, TBFME simply brims with references and content from the films.

From the voiceovers well, most of them anyway and storylines to the map of Middle-earth and the replication of each character and unit, it’s authentic enough to satisfy Tolkien fans, yet rarely ” overwhelming to a Lord Of The Rings newcomer. From the very first time the sprawling map of Middle-earth unfurls on your monitor, you’re left in no doubt about the game’s quality. The boxy, clunky interface of RTS games of old has been replaced by a beautifully streamlined and intuitive control system that disposes with the tedium of manually upgrading buildings and the necessity to construct just one unit at a time.

Every command is now just two or three mouse clicks away, while troops now spawn in squads. Well for starters, raising an army takes a fraction of the time than in many other RTS games, giving you more time to concentrate on combat and conquering your opponent. And that’s got to be a good thing, right? While the two campaigns are fairly unique in terms of storyline, both feature the same three mission categories.

The simplest of these are the Fellowship missions, which task you with either leading the Ring Bearer Frodo and his protectors safely through dangerous territories such as the Mines of Moria, or if you’re playing the Evil campaign , thwarting the Fellowship’s progress. These are quick-fire missions that are usually over within minutes, more action-based than strategic and usually bereft of any type of resource management. Defensive and offensive siege missions require you to either fortify your defences before repelling an enemy assault, or mass your forces and storm an enemy stronghold.

The defensive levels are without question the most emotionally enthralling sections of TBFME, with your outnumbered forces struggling against seemingly insurmountable odds. Things reach a feverish climax of adrenal gland-drying carnage towards the game’s latter stages, when you get to relive the visually spectacular battles of Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith. During the few precious moments you’re given before the enemy swarm upon you, you must frantically line your walls with archers, identify the different tiers of each fortress so you can fall back and regroup when things are looking bleak and plug any holes in your defences.

Suddenly, the uneasy calm is broken by war horns, heralding the arrival of the enemy and the commencement of hostilities. Men quiver in fear as the enemy approaches, just one example of the many emotions depicted by the game’s intuitive Emotion engine. Your ears pound with rushing blood, bellowed war cries and finally, the clashing of steel as baying orcs and Uruk-Hai scale the walls with siege ladders and pound at your buckling gates with fearsome battering rams.

And save for a few clumsy moments especially if you’re attacking when your troops won’t do as you tell them to, there’s very little to find fault with in these encounters. The third mission type – basebuilding and conquering – is also the most common. It’ll be instantly familiar if you’re an RTS fan, tasking you to build bases and expand your holdings on the map to try to strangle your opponent’s resource gathering capabilities and ultimately eliminate every enemy unit and building from the level.

These maps are dotted with designated base-spawning areas, some of which enable you or the enemy to build mighty fortresses that you can pack with an array of buildings, while others act as smaller outposts with only three spaces on which to erect new structures. With the location of your bases out of your hands, you’re literally forced to explore each level and track down new building sites, then defend them against enemy onslaughts, a feature which really bolsters the game’s strategic depth.

Once you’ve built a base, you can start producing units and upgrades, such as improved swords, armour and shields. The more units or items a building produces, the more experience it gains. Once you’ve used a building enough, it automatically upgrades to the next level, unlocking new units and power-ups for you to explore and construct. It’s a beautifully simple interface, and with little micro-management clogging up your time and attention, there’s plenty more scope for concentrating on the action-haemorrhaging battles.

But first, a complaint. There’s one very major fault with some of TBFME’s base-building missions, something that’s blighted these types of games for a decade and that sadly hasn’t been fully rectified here.

With resource gathering still playing a major role in proceedings farms and blacksmiths for the Good side, lumber yards, furnaces and slaughterhouses for the Evil side , these levels can at times deteriorate into wars of attrition, with neither side being able to seize the initiative.

Either that, or they’re just too damn easy. When the former happens, missions can become ultrafrustrating and repetitive, with enemy attacks concentrated on the same few locations with exactly the same types of unit. By the time you do finally manage to prevail, you’re just relieved that the mission is over, rather than feeling any sense of satisfaction. What’s more, in these situations, you rarely if ever feel as though you’re being out-thought by the Al, which seems to prefer relying on brute strength rather than guile.

Oh, and while I’m pointing out negatives, sometimes the Al units can stand around and watch you destroy their base without reacting – though admittedly, this is a rarity. For starters, mastering combined arms and height advantage, as well as utilising each unit type’s strengths, weaknesses and formations which you can combine with those of other units to gain an extra advantage are now essential skills for you.

Cavalry are excellent against infantry and archers, their charges sending stationary foot soldiers carving through the air and thudding violently onto the floor.

But try charging headfirst into a well-organised group of pikemen, and you’ll find horse kebab on special at most local taverns before the day’s out. Archers are nippy and great at range, but virtually useless up close, while infantry can wipe out a group of pikemen without suffering many losses. Believe me, just throwing all your men into battle and hoping they beat the Al won’t get you very far here.

The sheer scope of some of the battles is immense, with scores or even hundreds of troops clashing at once. In fact, with the exception of Rome: Total War, there are few other RTS games which come even close to achieving the sheer brutality and believability of virtual warfare as TBFME, though some of the sieges, such as Helm’s Deep, could have done with being a little larger in scale.

What’s more, with each level also featuring at least one of your favourite heroes from the films to lead your troops into battle see I Can Be Your Hero, Baby’, , you’ve got a formula for some of the most captivating battle scenes ever found in an RTS.

And what of the units, which have been lovingly recreated from the films? Watching a sea of charging cavalry is an awesome sight, their hooves kicking up dust and rumbling like thunder as they gallop at the enemy before hitting them like a tidal wave. Uruk-Hai pikemen march with spears, roaring gutturally and lowering their giant toothpicks at an angle to impale advancing foes, while their crossbow-toting counterparts can upgrade their projectiles with fire.

Cave trolls lumber around dumbly, picking up felled tree trunks and scattering their opponents with fierce swipes, while Balrogs are immense beasts of fire and shadow that can take to the air and call upon an array of arcane powers. And let’s not forget the graceful multi-talented elves who can become invisible in woods and fire their projectiles devastatingly far, or the gigantic Oliphonts giant elephants with their spike-covered tusks. Best of all though are the Ents. Slow and cumbersome but powerful, these walking trees can kill dozens of enemies with one giant kick or slap, and should they come into contact with fire, run manically with arms flailing to the nearest water source to douse themselves.

The Battle For Middle-Earth is simply spilling over with attention to detail, making it one of the most charming and charismatic strategy games ever created. Zoom into the breathtaking visuals and you’ll find Uruks being pulled out of Uruk Pits in muddy jackets, cows being herded into slaughterhouses and coming out the other side as giant slabs of meat and farmers tilling the land on farms.

The presentation is almost above reproach though sometimes units can act somewhat erratically , and coupled with the spine-tingling soundtrack lifted straight from the films, the whole package becomes a mesmensing ride of highs, lows and numerous thrills, with the odd frustration thrown in for good or should that be bad measure. Without question, The Battle For Middle-Earth is a triumph, a game which not only manages to unite the mainstream and hardcore markets, but one which sets new standards in presentation and polish.

Despite its innovations, it’s accessible enough for casual gamers to master in minutes, yet it still manages to cram in just about enough strategic depth to seduce you if you’re a hardcore strategist. Sure, sometimes it can get a tad repetitive, sometimes levels can be a bit of a slog or sometimes a little too easy for RTS veterans , but mainly, this is a thrilling, beautifully-imagined piece of programming that does the films proud. Even if you’re not a fan of the trilogy, you shouldn’t hesitate in checking this out, though you’ll undoubtedly get more out of it if you watch the films first.

Apart from units, heroes, buildings, storyline, missions and resources, what else is different between playing as either Good and Evil? Funny you should ask, because both sides possess two equally powerful, though very different super weapons, which gain in power as each campaign progresses.

The foul forces of Isengard and Mordor can call upon the Power of the One Ring, which among a host of other dark powers, enables you to mat the earth with vines that entwine around enemy troops to slow their progress, and summon Balrogs.

To counter the Ring, the armies of Rohan, Gondor and The Fellowship have access to the Evenstar, which enables you to heal your men and summon huge, near-invincible armies of Oathbreakers undead warriors to bolster your forces.