It is that time again when an opportunity arises. We have had one momentous change in the way we perceive console gaming already with Halo on the Xbox. Halo made all us gamers, including the developers and publishers to look at First Person Shooters on consoles no longer as a 2nd class status compared to that of its PC counterpart.
For years this mind set existed, but Halo with the help of the Xbox controller with its ideal two analogue sticks challenged our perceptions and triumphed. You only have to look at the number of First Person Shooters that now exist on both the Xbox and Xbox 360 platform to see how much of a revelation it really was!
The same is being attempted again with yet another conception that Real Time Strategy games should only remain on the PC because of the keyboard and mouse control. This time it is The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth II that will be taking on this challenge to again win hearts and minds, which could potentially bring yet another genre to the console market.
The Lord of the Rings is a massive universe of magical thoughts and creatures, firing the imagination in book form for years only to find itself brought to life on the screen in more recent years. With gaming becoming the new entertainment force behind any franchise now, it is important to have a killer game to boost sales of all commercial endeavours. The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth II certainly doesn’t shy away from its historical and well loved roots.
The crunch of this title though will always be the control system. Have they successfully taken on this challenge with grit determination and pulled out of the bag the start of what could be a long line of Real Time Strategy games to come? Well on the most part yes and PC gamers should be more than a little concerned that yet again, what used to be considered the poor cousin of the gaming market is now taking on the typical PC gaming diminishing empire with gusto and succeeding with a smile and a heavy wallet.
So firstly we have to remove the typical acknowledgements of the virtues of a keyboard and mouse and look to our new friend, the Xbox 360 controller. Amazingly you soon find yourself traversing the vast landscapes with ease as by now, using two analogue sticks at the same time I no longer like rubbing your belly and patting your head. Instead and again thanks in no small part to Halo, we have already mastered this technique and this has been ironed out perfectly on this title.
The game looks at controlling troops and individual units at a simplistic stand point, but without diminishing the overall feel of control you have over your heroes. The first step to this game is to head immediately to the ‘Tutorial’ section, which in this new genre for console gaming, requires a little time and patience to master. Surprisingly once you pick up the basics, you soon start experimenting and figure quite short cuts to achieve the most complex of movement and command tasks. This is helped by bookmarks for selecting groups of units as you specify and the extremely robust operation of selecting all your units on screen.
At first we are all going to pick up the game and say, well hey it isn’t as precise or indeed as satisfying as the traditional keyboard and mouse we have become so used to. Again though look to Halo for inspiration of how that really changed our gaming habits. In time we will look at the keyboard and mouse as something we only use in the office and not for gaming. A true revolution in gaming is slowly happening as the PC market slows down spoilt with non-standard setups, drivers and of course piracy.
I am afraid The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth II is yet another nail in the coffin for PC gaming, but as always these things take time to catch on, but what a start!
The actual game feels like a Command & Conquer approach of building a base to which you have to find resources and build, build, and build to then destroy, protect and finish the objectives. Of course this is all achieved in the Lord of the Rings universe, which is quite a license to use for this type of game.
There is of course a single player campaign playing as either good or evil. Both have a fairly short lifespan with only 8 levels on each.
Hardcore RTS fans will find the artificial intelligence a little predictable as wave after wave of enemies come towards you in a consistent pattern. As long as you have set up your fortress and defenses, you have plenty of opportunity to gather resources that will eventually lead to your force being large enough to take on the pesky rascals causing you all the bother. For people new to the genre though, it does give breathing room and with three difficulty settings available, at least it gives you a great introduction into this new console genre.
Online is something I was particularly looking forward to as working with a friend against two other friends can be very rewarding. Unfortunately the servers kicked me out after I spent about 45 minutes setting up my base to the dismay of my friend who then got pummeled by the others. There are the usual modes you would expect with this type of game, however we also have other modes which are far quicker if you want a much shorter online romp. If only the EA servers would give us Xbox Live gamers a break! Every game seems to have its problems when EA use their now notorious gaming setups.
The majesty and splendour that you would hope and now expect from next generation gaming is ever so present in the overall presentation and feel of the game. The visuals are just exceptional, especially with those lucky enough to have a high definition screen to view it on. The ability to zoom right into the action with the right analogue stick tells a 100 stories all on its own. The detail of the individual characters, while also considering that there are possibly nearly 100 on screen at that time as well is just mind boggling.
Every race be it human, elf, dwarf or one of the evil foes look special and different enough to identify immediately even when zoomed out. This of course is matched by the locations which are lush and fairly vast.
Having a game that proves to be great on the ground also then catapults it self again when you have any of the naval missions. Stare in awe at the beautiful ocean animations all while you are in a fire fight with other enemy ships as they explode and sink all around you.
There are some problems though. The shadows look incredibly blocky and spoil the overall realism and lush visuals with its pitiful attempt. With many units on screen, the frame rate can also drop quite dramatically spoiling the speed and indeed action of the title. This is however to be expected as those of us with the game on the PC as well will also suffer with this problem. I just hoped that with some optimization, this could have been made easier with a standard setup like the Xbox 360, but alas not.
The music is of course taking full advantage from the setting The Lord of the Rings provides and I am pleased to report all is well here. The character voices add enough to the title to offer information and instructions.
The battle sounds and fighting do offer a sense of excitement and joy, although I do feel more could have been done with the surround sound to really push the big battle scenes.
With a fairly simple and short simple player campaign, it is left to the skirmishes to provide extra hours of pleasure if you don’t have online capabilities. If you do have online capabilities it can again be left to the offline skirmishes to provide the longevity as online problems are a nuisance, although not immeasurably so.
The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth II should be one of the most played online games seeing as it is the first Real Time Strategy on the Xbox 360, but with a few online niggles getting in the way, it is probably actually going to turn people off.
The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth II provides an excellent starting point for the transition of Real Time Strategy games to a console platform. It fairs very well against its PC counterpart both graphically and more importantly with the control issues in the gameplay as well.
The controls aren’t quite 100% satisfactory, but an incredibly brave attempt has been made and should be applauded. For RTS fans this now opens the same doors that Halo did on Xbox (1). Expect many more RTS games in the future bouncing off the success of The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth II.