August 19, 2007
Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth II is the first of multiple RTS games set to hit next generation consoles from EA and developer EA Los Angeles. With a tradition steeped in the Command & Conquer series, they set out to finally make RTS games playable, and hopefully mainstream, on consoles. While BFME2 may not quite accomplish this, through great innovations in controls and how units are controlled it makes greats strides to bring the RTS genre back to consoles and help break the genre out of a PC-only market.
The first thing you'll notice about BFME2 is the controls. Or rather, it's the first thing you won't notice as, for a console RTS, the controls for BFME2 are among the best controls schemes to date. Everything is simplified for the controller and as such, you'll rarely be frustrated by the control scheme. Controlling units is a breeze. One click on a unit will select it and all similar units in the general area and another click will select the whole army. Units are easily grouped by unit type, or you can make mixed units as you want and bookmark them for easy unit switching as you see fit. If you're in the mood to just rush your opponent in one felt swoop, you can take control of the whole army and send them off to your opponent's base, where they will hopefully kill his mans. The control scheme for units is about as good as you can get on a console with most actions being quickly accessible and very smooth. It is, of course, still no match for the ease of use of a keyboard and mouse combination, but you're average gamer will still have the hang of the controls by the end of the first five minutes or so. Where I started to have problems with the controls is managing single units or trying to do more precise movements with units. Also, building the more complicated structures like connecting walls can become a slight annoyance at times, but on the whole, the controls are the best you'll find on a console.
The story of BFME2 does follow some of the basic plot of the movies and books, but for the most part the single player campaign focuses more on things that the movies only hint at, so while the story will feel familiar with some of the headlining characters from the books and movies making an appearance at one time or another, it will still feel fresh for people that have only seen the movie. The game contains two separate campaigns, one for the evil factions of Middle Earth, and one for the good. Each campaign offers a different story and the ability to play as various factions within the overriding 'good' or 'evil' category. Both the evil and good campaigns start at the same point, but by the end, the end game for each is definitely unique. Each campaign consists of eight missions. During the good campaign you'll be playing mostly as elves and dwarfs, while during the evil campaign you'll be limited to orcs, goblins and trolls, but at times you'll be able to control different factions and units for each group. One of the most fun to play as is the Ents during the good campaign. While lumbering and slow, they are an incredibly destructive force and can take quite a beating from anything except fire. About the nearest thing for the evil side are the battle trolls, which are probably the most powerful non-hero unit in the game. If you plan on playing multiplayer, be wary of anybody that chooses a faction that can build battle trolls as a unit of 20 or so battle trolls can pretty much destroy anything in their path.
As a RTS that follows a certain narrative, there are multiple objectives to each encounter that extend beyond just eradicating your enemy. Most of them are superfluous and can be skipped, but if you want the full experience of the game (and most of the achievements for that matter) you'll want to do all the secondary objectives as well as the main objectives. Also, by completing the secondary objectives, you'll gain more power points to be used to unlock special powers for use in the game, such as healing units or summoning heroes. More on that in a bit.
Resource management in BFME2 is pretty standard as far as RTS games go, as is unit expansion. The factions have specific resources they'll use. Unit expansion is handled in the same way as most RTS games in that you'll need to build certain structures to expand your total allowed forces 'X' amount. Where BFME2 starts to distinguish itself from other RTS is in the powers expansion system and the use of heroes. The power system in BFME2 resembles a dumbed down version of the License Grid system in Final Fantasy XII. Basically, as you progress through the game, you'll be able to unlock certain powers in a grid. To start unlocking the more advanced powers, you'll have to unlock a clear path through the beginning of the grid to the power in question. Not only does this add some extra depth to gameplay, but also serves to add some customization to your faction. Which powers you unlock will greatly effect how you play the game as powers are different enough for it to actually matter which powers you pick.
Then there are the heroes. Heroes are the more specific and central characters to the Lord of the Rings canon and are much more powerful than average units. They have a more varied number of special attacks than your average units as well. Some heroes are available from the beginning, while others are able to be summoned for a period of time using the powers you've unlocked in the powers grid. Others still are unlocked by completing previous missions without losing a single hero. Heroes can serve as a great way to turn the tables in your favor if you are in danger of losing, or and effective means to stall for time while upgrading your units.
BFME2 also features a robust online multiplayer mode. While the most fun to play will obviously be the standard deathmatch type game which supports up to 4 players and any combination of teams you want, there are multiple other modes available from King of the Hill, to Resource Management, to Hero vs. Hero. All are pretty self-explanatory, with Hero vs. Hero being a standout as any unlocked hero from single player can be used in a head to head battle. It definitely adds some incentive to complete single player and unlock all heroes before heading online as heroes are a huge part of online battles, and you'll want a full stable of heroes for your hero v. hero battles.
The graphics of BFME2 are decent considering the number of units on screen at times. The textures look good and characters are detailed and well animated for the most part. A good deal of extra detail goes into the heroes and it shows. Shadows are a little murky and pixelated at times, but most of the graphical problems with BFME2 are inherent to RTS games, with all the chaos going on on-screen at any given time, and are generally easy to overlook. The big Achilles heal of BFME2 however is the massive frame-rate drop during sections of the game. When forces clash on screen, there is a noticeable drop in frames and during big battles, it can get quite bad. Again, this is inherent in RTS games in general, though it is particularly bad in BFME2. A little extra development time could have smoothed this out some, and the game would have been all the better for it.
The sound in BFME2 is excellent. From the chime of bells as objectives are updated or completed, to the voice acting during battles and in game cut-scenes, to the audio of the animated cinematics between missions, the game sounds great and feeds into the Tolkien world perfectly. The music fits the Lord of the Rings world perfectly as well, and it doesn't hurt that Hugo Weaving (Elrond in the movies) does the voice over for the game either. All in all, EA went the extra mile to make sure that BFME2 sounds excellent.
Achievement-wise, BFME2 is a bit hit and miss. On the one hand, there is a good distribution of online and offline achievements, and most of the online achievements are actually achievable, meaning no '#1 in the World' leaderboards achievements. In fact the achievements in general offer a fair level of challenge without ever being frustrating. While there are achievements for beating each campaign, most points for single player will come from beating each mission without losing a hero. This definitely adds some replay value and actually does make you play the game in a different way, not relying on your heroes as much. The one downside of the achievements of BFME2 is that only 705 points are achievable at the present, and as BFME2 came out before Microsoft mandated that all 1000 achievement points of a game must be available either on the original game or in free downloadable content, and as such is not bound to these new rules, we may never see the final 295 points without having to pay for them. Besides that, however, the achievements are golden.
Overall the gameplay of BFME2 is quite inventive and fun. It is unique enough to stand out in a crowd of RTS games but not so different that veteran RTS fans will be lost. The gameplay is balanced for the most part, although like I mentioned before, the battle trolls are so incredibly powerful, it can feel cheap sometimes and more balance there would have been nice. No doubt the faction that can build battle trolls will be the favorite to play as online, as even a novice can take down a skilled player with these over-powered units. With multiple online modes and two full campaigns that offer significantly different plot and unique gameplay, BFME2 offers quite a lot in a great package.
All around good sound. From the music, to the first-class narration from Hugo Weaving, BFME2 gets sound right.
By no means an ugly game, but the massive slowdown during battles really hamper the game and more than offset what the game gets right. Characters could stand to be more detailed and shadows more realistic. There are occasionally some muddy looking textures as well.
For a console RTS, this is the cream of the crop. Never before has an RTS felt so fluid and natural on a console. While still not up to snuff against a keyboard & mouse combo, this is definitely a step in the right direction. If it weren't for the severe drops in frame rate at times, the game would be even better.
Some extensive load times hurt the score here, but for the most part the game is sound. The between mission cut-scenes are unique and very well done.
A good set of achievements, but with 30% of the points unaccounted for, I'm afraid 30% of the achievement score will also have to go unaccounted for.
BFME2 is one of the best console adaptations of the RTS genre to date, despite a couple flaws including serious drops in frame rate at times. The control system, while not perfect, is a huge improvement over past attempts to bring the RTS genre to consoles and should serve to lay some good ground work for Command & Conquer 3, the next game from developer EA L.A.