There have been some crazy things going on in the last couple of years: Pink Floyd reunited, albeit briefly; Nintendo went slightly insane with their latest console name; and now there’s a real-time strategy game out on a console. Sure, it’s happened before, but if you’ve listened to any of the hype coming out of EA, this time it’s different. This time, the RTS game isn’t crap.
Actually, it turns out that they’re right, for the most part. The Battle for Middle Earth II for Xbox 360 is hands-down the best console RTS ever. Of course, that’s not saying much – all previous attempts have failed miserably. Still, while it remains slightly inferior to the PC version, this game is surprisingly playable - and even (dare I say it) fun.
BfME II is set in the north of Middle-Earth, focusing on the battles fought between an alliance of dwarves and elves, and Sauron’s northern hosts. I had some concerns that this ‘B' story would be uninspired and dull to play, but the developers have done an impressive job fleshing out the vague accounts given in the books. The campaign is narrated by Hugo Weaving (Elrond), with cutscenes taking the form of excellent artwork and pre-rendered footage. It’s certainly not as good as the main storyline, but for a LotR fan like me it was great seeing forgotten characters like Glorfindel finally get a chance to shine.
The game now features six sides. Gondor and Rohan have been merged into the men of the west, fighting alongside the dwarves and the elves, while Isengard and Mordor have been joined by the goblins. All of the sides are fun to play as, and have been fleshed out nicely with a decent number of units and structures.
Other changes to the previous game include the ability to build anywhere you like, custom walls, and the addition of naval units, all of which help add additional layers of strategy. This is good, because if there was one criticism to be made about the first BfME, it was that it lacked enough strategic depth – it was generally a race to see who could get Gandalf to level 10 quickest.
The graphics are very pleasing to the eye. Explosions, water, fire, and other fancy graphical features are all on par with other recent RTS games, although this unfortunately causes the game to slow down and even pause – something you’d expect on a PC, but shouldn’t have to put up with on a console. It can get kind of annoying, although luckily it doesn’t usually impact on the actual gameplay.
The other big issue (at least for most people in this country) is that you really want an HD TV to play this game on. If you only have a 14” screen, I wouldn’t even bother with it – the text is too low-res to easily read, and it can get hard to pick things out during an intense battle. If you have a larger TV, it's certainly playable – it’s just blatantly obvious that you’re not playing the game as it should be played.
Of course, this being a 360 game, it comes packaged with some very nice multiplayer modes that are generally more robust than what the PC version offers. In addition to the standard deathmatches, you can also engage in hero vs. hero battles, resource races, etc. And, of course, the game comes with a whole heap of achievements to unlock.
If you have a 360, and are even vaguely interested in strategy games, it’s easy to recommend this one. The controls are well thought out, and the actual game is lots of fun, especially when you’re playing against other people. If you think you can get over the flaws mentioned above, you won’t regret picking this one up.