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But surely, you might say, the Battle for Middle Earth is over? Aragorn and Gandalf have triumphed. The Ring has met its end in Mount Doom. We’ve already fought our way through Helms Deep and the Pelinor Fields. Why does EA feel the need for another campaign?
Probably, I would reply, because there’s still a lot of money in the franchise. Less cynically, I might add because it gives them a second chance to do things right. For all its pleasures – and there were many – Battle for Middle Earth always felt a little RTS-lite. On the one hand, it was easy to get the hang of, even in the unlikely event that you’d never played an RTS before. It boasted a lovely streamlined interface, gorgeous graphics, and an amazing sense of scale. What’s more, it had the tone and feel of the movies, from the ethereal lighting to the wispy elven music, down pat. On the other hand, there was an awful lot of poncing around with Hobbits while you were waiting for the big battles to kick off, the storyline was padded out with bizarre interludes, and there was a tendency for many maps to disintegrate into that time-honoured pattern of build base, defend base, build massive army with super units, then attack enemy structures. And the bizarre restrictions over where and what you could build were – frankly – a little bit silly.
With Battle for Middle Earth 2, EA has taken what seems like an uncharacteristically brave move. Where the events in the trilogy take place in the South of Middle Earth, the sequel shifts focus to the North, where dwarves and goblins scrap over cavernous mines, and where the elves of Mirkwood and Lorien stave off raiding parties or fight to drive the goblin hordes from icy mountain passes. Luckily, this isn’t just a brave move – it’s a good one.
Why? Because by casting off any real pretence of sticking to the story in terms of plot or character, the designers have given themselves more room to be creative. Don’t fret. As far as look and feel goes BFME2 is still firmly rooted in the cinematic vision. It’s just found space to branch out, with new playable factions – elves, dwarves and goblins – and two new story-based campaigns with which to explore their capabilities. Can the elves of Lorien save Rivendell and build a force to take Sauron’s fortress at Dol Goldur? Will the forces of evil triumph and wipe the smarmy point-eared aesthetes from Middle Earth? You decide.