Mrcere writes: LOS ANGELES Let me make this really easy for you: If you have played EA Games Battle for Middle-earth II and enjoyed it even moderately, the new expansion The Rise of the Witch King is spectacular! If you havent played it, you may find like I did, that crawling into Middle-earth in a game format is immensely fun and contains more of the feel of Tolkiens works that you thought possible.
Everybody in the Tolkien universe, or at least the pop-culture side, knows that there are Lord of the Rings games aplenty. Most of us have some, boxed on a shelf or received as presents or even board games or card games or miniature games that have received a fair share of use.
Computer games are nothing new either. Console games or games for the PC have been around as long as Tolkien has been part of mainstream pop-culture. So EAs two Battle for Middle-earth games have always been in the back of my mind somewhere as something I really should try.
So when the call came from EA Games to visit its campus and try out the new Rise of the Witch King expansion for the Battle for Middle-earth II game, I had a vague idea of what to expect. In the gaming circles, which I assume doesnt include all TORn readers, BFME2 (Battle for Middle-earth 2) is a real-time strategy game, known as RTS to gamers. I have even played RTS games before somewhere in the Command & Conquer series and had a lot of fun.
The big event EA was promoting is the expansion of BFME2: The Rise of the Witch King, which hits the streets on November 28th and is a major addition/expansion to the game touted as having several significant upgrades and differences in game play. Apparently, TORn along with representatives from several gaming sites were the first to actually get hands on the finished game and play it. If you already know the BFME and BFME2 games, let me make this real easy for you: Rise of the Witch King is fantastic!
For the rest, who like me, maybe dont know the games inside and out, lets look with a little more depth. First, I only played the game for eight hours at most and some of that time was spent teaching myself the basics. BFME2 is required to play the expansion so EA didnt need a tutorial on the game, but as a BFME2 virgin, I had to spend some control-learning time which was fun.
In full-disclosure, I cant ethically give a complete review of the game because I didnt play it all or anything close to it. I can only say that I absolutely loved what I played and if the rest of the experience can match the early stages, well, it was enough to send me scrambling for a BFME2 game so I could play the expansion after I completely devour the game it expands. Again, I cant say for sure that the game holds up over time, but my enthusiasm for it at this stage is genuine.
For beginners, the concept puts a gamer as a 3rd person all-powerful controller of a race from Middle-earth. You can play Dwarves, Elves, Goblins, Isengard, Men of the West, and Mordor. You will be pitted against the computer or other players who also control a group (called factions) and you square off to wipe each other off the map. Players must manage resources that are harvested by mechanisms such as mines for Dwarves, Mallorn trees for Elves, farms for Men and so on. Resources allow players to build various fighting units which can be used to take out the opponents army or his structures.
Now, that all sounds basic but the joy of the game comes from all the complexities inside that simple formula. To twist a phrase that only a Tolkien-geek can love, the Valar are in the details! A real feeling of the richness of Middle-earth is in the game, allowing players who manage well to produce stone-hurling Ents or a secret attack Watcher in the Water. Each faction has story-appropriate attacks and defenses and heroes. This allows favorite characters directly from the books and films to make appearances but without being silly stock units of an army.
WHAT IS NEW?
So the expansion of the game takes the player out of the familiar movie and book world of LOTR. EA has a license from both New Line Cinema but with Tolkien Enterprises, allowing them to delve deep into the lore and legend of the greater Middle-earth, not just for the War of the Ring. (Look for more details in a pod-cast interview soon!)
Game producer Amir Rahimi presented the game to the community members and journalists invited to the summit. In favor of brevity let me just spit out the leading features about the expansion:
- With 3,018 years between the loss of the ring and Frodos quest, EA picked the rise of Angmar and its leader, the Witch King to set its battles in
- Basic game play changed, enhanced, deepened by 1) improved siege 2) enhanced, better artificial intelligence 3) new units
- The new faction for the game is Angmar
- Improved game artificial intelligence
- Siege weapons improved, more of an emphasis in the game
- Every former faction has new units
- New weapons and armor something for every unit
- Economy feature added to world map (think Risk with money!)
- 14 new territories, geography given emphasis
- 8 complete missions available plus epilogue
- New powers including: ghost of werewolf, soul freeze, snow blind, fell wind, avalanche (note the winter theme)
- Lots of heroes from legend and lore including: Khamul (second in command of the 9 ringwraiths), Morgomir (another wraith), Wormtongue, Sharku, Azog (Orc who killed Thror), Brand (of Dale), Rogash, Hwaldar, Gothmog
- Each faction gets a mini-hero or a hero in a unit as follows: knights of Dol Amroth, Noldor Elves, Dwarven Zerkers, Uruk Beserkers and fire drakes and black riders
- Angmar units are thrall-masters that recruit different units on demand in the game, a versatility that is fun
- Angmar sorcery units actually drain the life-force of his followers to cast spells, very cool
So the pleasures of the game for me come on several different levels. I love the play, just the fun and strategy of the game. It seems to me, from talking with community members who know the game inside and out and from playing it myself, that of the versions of Battle fore Middle-earth the Witch King expansion, features the best game play. Now again, I cant know this for certain until I play the game and previous versions a lot more but that is definitely a strong impression I left the summit with.
The solid BFME2 game has been tweaked and improved to improve imperfections in its previous issue. Of course this happens all the time with such games in the way of patches, but this seems to be another step up.
I also enjoy feeling like I am back in Middle-earth while playing. I am a Tolkien guy and clearly the books are cannon and the films are an interesting interpretation, but the game allows me to poke around in the corners of Middle-earth that havent been defined in too much detail. At first concerned about being a bad guy like the witch-king, I found instead that it is fantastic fun. I enjoyed playing a version of what might have been a sequence of battles that led to the fall of the kingdoms of Men in Middle-earth. Witchy, and his followers, have a great and terrible legacy in Tolkiens writings, but the details arent too specific and while the game isnt gospel, it is fun. Playing it creates an impression of depth and substance that I enjoy.
I think I enjoy it more than playing a game set more in the time of the Lord of the Rings. My mind goes wild with possibilities of possible new directions EA could take these games. Although I know what I concoct in my head wouldnt be commercial enough, I still love the ideas. I dearly hope the expansion game comes to the Xbox 360 as I find I just have too much to do at my computer already and I prefer my couch, big-screen TV, surround sound and thoughts of Xbox live. Hopefully the new Microsoft OS that promises to link computer and console game experiences will allow even more in-depth play.
My biggest criticism of the game is actually the limits on live and head-to-head play. I would have loved the possibilities of expanded team play. The idea of a TORn team (or several) facing off against three other players somewhere and co-operating to bring the other team down would expand live play into something beyond its current possibilities. I can hope EA fits this in the game for Battle for Middle-earth III (if it happens) or some other expansion. In my opinion, in todays gaming marketplace, this alone would launch the game to a whole level.
Playing through the scripted missions is fun, but playing head-to-head offers a whole new intensity. With options to play it live, well, I fear the amount of time this little diversion might cost me. Part of this is game play and part of it is having my own hands in Tolkiens imagined world. I doubt Christopher Tolkien is available for on-line matches, but still the game feels respectful of the good professor and his creation.
I talked with producer Amir Rahimi one-on-one for a few moments, mostly about how they managed to translate Middle-earth. That interview should be available on a pod-cast in a day or two.
At the summit at the EA campus we were given several hours to get our hands on the game. Fittingly, we then were placed in a tournament to play head-to-head. I feel no shame in admitting that had I played every single one of the approximately dozen other players I would have lost to them all. Fortunately I only had to get wiped out once. These folks, compared to me, were masters but despite the butt-kicking I had a lot of fun and to my face at least, nobody laughed. One of the players, and a new friend from Heavengames.com, allowed TORn to use screenshots of her game. My fortresses and war machines were much less impressive than hers anyway, but they still dont quite communicate the coolness of seeing this thing live. The animations and actions and behaviors and voices of the battle-units are just plain fun.
So, as the holidays approach, I must say I recommend the game with the exceptionally long name, Battle for Middle-earth II: The Rise of the Witch King. Vet gamers will appreciate it, especially live and Tolkien fans, especially those with a taste for exploring more Middle-earth will find many hours of fun.