Please note: nothing mentioned above is really new, and I struggle to think of a feature here without thinking “Oh, didn’t that turn up two years ago in x?” However, it’s all very slick, agreeably paced and relatively well-balanced. True, there are only sixteen single-player missions, but each has an individual feel with interesting primary and secondary objectives, and the difficulty level ramps up thoughtfully. Best of all, there seems to have been some idea at work as to what players would actually like to do if they had the chance in Middle Earth. Tell me, what self-respecting goblin king wouldn’t want to raise Lorien to the ground, or trample the hobbits of the shire into their muddy cabbage fields, face-down?
But the real life of the game isn’t in the single-player campaigns, but in the larger-scale, turn-based War of the Ring mode. This transforms the whole of Middle Earth into one massive game of Risk, with one or more players battling AI players or each other to occupy territories, build units and structures, then clash in real-time battle. It’s simple, but it works, and it gives you the chance to fight the big battles of the trilogy with BFME2’s various enhancements.
And those enhancements extend to the graphics. Battle for Middle Earth was already in the running as the finest looking strategy game in town, but BFME2 raises the bar one notch higher. The colossal lumbering super units and rolling seas are impressive; the lighting is out of this world. Sadly, as always, good looks come at a cost. With detail on maximum and hundreds of troops on-screen you can prepare for some slowdown unless you’re packing 2GB of RAM and a high-end GPU and CPU.
Still, nothing good in life comes without a price, and it’s always good to see strategy games that truly make use of your hardware. So, is BFME2 a drop-dead strategy classic? No. It’s not innovative enough or striking enough, and in the odd moments where I wasn’t gleefully leading the goblins to victory, I had a horrible feeling that I was playing the same game I’d played many times before. But if it does just give a new spin on a classic formula, at least it makes that spin look and feel different and exciting for a while. In this respect it’s a league in front of other recent efforts, such as Age of Empires III or Star Wars: Empire at War. In other words, that return to Middle Earth is justified, after all.
Like a good burger or a pint of the usual, the content is familiar but very tasty all the same. A stunning-looking strategy sequel that moves on from the original in all the right ways.