Since the inception of gaming, there have always been opposing factions of gamers. Whether you were considered a console junkie, a PC aficionado, or even back in my glorious hay day, an arcade addict, there was never any question as to their strengths and weaknesses. For consoles the biggest problem by far has been the Real-Time Strategy genre, which has always been dominated by the PC market. This problem stems from the fact that using a controller to handle so many tasks is nigh impossible without a mouse and keyboard, and support for those peripherals on a console is next to non-existent. Enter EA with their popular PC franchise Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth II (man that is a mouthful) and a completely re-tooled control scheme. Now for the biggest question of all, does it work?
For those unfamiliar with the genre, RTS titles rely heavily on resource management and troop supervision all at the same time. It isn’t uncommon to have upwards of twenty or more tasks going at the same time. With a mouse and keyboard, this is cake because you can navigate quicker with a mouse and assign hotkeys to the keyboard for instant access to almost anything in the game. Now when porting these titles to the console you are left with only a handful of buttons and two analog sticks, which is not the greatest tool for commanding armies in the thousands. EA could have easily gone the short route and simply ported the game with a few tweaks. Hell, they could have even added in keyboard and mouse support since the 360 does work with USB devices. But, instead, they have opted to completely re-tool the scheme to make it work with the standard Xbox 360 controller. The results are absolutely amazing and work extremely well. I would even go as far to say that this is the best control scheme of any RTS on a console ever.
This is achieved, mostly due to the fact, that EA has designed most of the actions around the left and right triggers. Basically, how this works is, you will highlight a building or object with the A button and then pull and hold the trigger to bring up this slick menu in the lower left corner of the screen called the Palantir. When expanded, the menu gives you access to your Heroes, builders, and even your powers. While on the battle field, you can command single units, entire armies, or even just certain types such as archers or cavalry.
You can also split armies into teams and bookmark them and move them across the entire map with a central on-screen cursor. Selecting units is simple, with the left trigger you can grab every troop on the current screen by simply pressing and holding down the left trigger and tapping the A button on any unit or you can even select individual types with a quick double tap. This control style is built for console fans. If you want to get the best feel for it, I recommend checking out the tutorials from the main menu because it can still get confusing and overwhelming at times, especially during intense and large-scale battles.
All of the little things EA has done, finally make playing this type of game enjoyable on a console, but of course it doesn’t come without its fair share of problems. For starters, sometimes it can be a chore to get your cursor on the correct set of troops and especially on the heroes. This can easily be remedied by simply bringing up the Palantir, but when you need to select something specific, fast navigating through menus won’t be your first intuition. It is also more of a chore to plan strategic encounters with the slower paced style. Navigating more than two to three armies can cause confusion, thus, making the game more about epic scale conflicts that are won through sheer power as opposed to refined strategy. Basically, if you have the means to play this on PC, you are better off. But, for the console gamer who wants to enjoy these types of games from the comfort of your couch, staring into that gorgeous HDTV BFME II is more than acceptable. In fact, it is a blast.
Speaking of HDTV, the next thing I want to discuss is the visuals. BFME II is certainly a solid looking title. EA even claims that the 360 version supports even the highest PC resolution, but you will be hard pressed to see that on any TV including the higher end HD models. Granted the game still looks great, but you will notice some low-resolution textures here and there and even some jaggy shadows on occasion. However, the worst part of the visuals comes in the form of random frame rate drops. Even as early as the first level, you will see this game take significant hits in frame rate, dropping it well below the standard 30fps most games run at.
Now take into consideration that all RTS games have bits of slowdown because of all the onscreen processing. There are hundreds of troops all fighting, shooting projectiles, death animations and so on, but to contain bouts of this on the first stage, which is basically a training ground, can prove a bit annoying. Some of the later levels can slow down to a point where you will actually not be able to click on units for a few seconds which can make or break a battle. For the most part, though, the game has superb presentation and the visuals are impressive. So, if you are still on the fence give the demo a download and try it for yourself. This game truly is worth checking out.
The sound is also quite impressive. Inter-weaving the movie score into the game really gives off the impression you are controlling some of Middle Earth’s legendary battles. The sounds effects are also top notch, filling each individual character with emotion and authenticity. The sounds of the battlefield have never sounded this good in Dolby Digital 5.1. The voiceovers are great and the narrative by Hugo Weaving rounds out this nearly flawless audio package.
The single player campaign is divided into two separate story arcs, good and evil. Each side has a total of eight missions to venture through with each one progressively teaching you new skills and tactics. Every level also has a basic set of main objectives, as well as some bonus objectives that the player can complete to earn achievements or simply choose to ignore. You can also play through the entire game without letting one of your heroes die to gain another achievement. So needless to say, the single player game has plenty to offer anyone willing to take the time and learn the intricacies of the game.
On the other side of the spectrum, you have online multi-player with up to three other people via Xbox Live. There are several different game types including Hero Vs. Hero, King of the Hill and even Resource Race. So for those of you who crave the joys of competition, there is plenty to be had online. Unfortunately, the online modes carry the same frame rate problems as the single player so be warned before trying to blame your losses on lag – more than likely it was the game slowing down, not your internet.
Fans of the Lord of the Rings have plenty to cheer about as this first Xbox 360 outing is certainly a worthy effort. EA has taken great care in delivering a solid storyline that aficionados of the series will certainly enjoy while at the same time creating the world’s greatest console RTS control scheme. If you have never played this type of game before, download the demo on Marketplace and judge for yourself, but if you are a vet of the genre, and have been dying to see how it feels from the comfort of your couch with just a console controller, then do not hesitate to pick this one up. With a solid single player campaign and tons of online multi-player modes, Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth is yet another must own title for the Xbox 360 console.