As with all good RTS games, the distinctions between factions go way beyond cosmetic changes. In the broadest sense, BFME2 plays like a fantasy Starcraft. Men and dwarves take the place of the Terrans, building secure outposts then more powerful super units with which to demolish enemy bases. The goblins act like the Zerg, building quick but relatively weak units with which to swarm enemy bases, but with the assistance of a network of tunnels that can be used to quickly speed new recruits into battle. The elves are – in some respects – the Protoss; smaller in number, but more powerful in combat capability and special abilities. And whomever you’re playing, there’s always fun to be had. The goblins can command trolls and mountain giants, who act like mobile siege engines, throwing rocks at structures or demolishing units in massed ranks. The dwarves get their own cool war machines, and battalions of lethal axe throwers to go with them.
The team has also made efforts to tidy up the overall game mechanics. What was already working has returned for the sequel, including the hero units – though these are less recognisable this time around – and the special powers which enable you to heal your forces or bring down a swarm of arrows at a click. However, this time you can build bases where you like, add your own protective walls and defences where you wish, and add distinctive features to your fortress home. The goblins, for example, eschew decorative features for spider-pits and rock-lobbing giants. It just makes the place feel more homely, don’t you think?
In the wake of Rome: Total War, there have even been attempts to add a new layer of tactical complexity. Units are now mostly larger, and can be placed in different battle formations and assigned aggressive or defensive stances. In some battles, this seems to work quite well, but a lot of the time, with constant attacks to guard against and counter-attacks to mount, there’s a tendency to go into the old fashioned “lasso a bunch of thugs and throw them in the enemy’s direction” routine. To be perfectly honest, this usually proves just as effective. And while the AI is pretty good – not constantly attacking the same spot, wise to vulnerable resources, and always looking for a weak point in your defences – it’s no Caesar or Napoleon. In fact, the old lasso routine seems to be a favourite choice for the computer as well!
More variety comes in the form of naval battles, which usually occur within the context of a land-based map, but offer some thoroughly enjoyable moments. Perhaps those glimmering elf ships have the edge on your black-sailed Corsairs, but let’s see how they like it when a troll rows an exploding death ship up to their bows. It’s time for spectacular explosions all round.