Friday, June 8, 2007

Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth Review

Adapting a movie into a game, particularly a multiplayer game, is never an easy task. Because we are already familiar with the story, and because the story usually involves extraordinary heroism, people tend to have very high expectations when they sit down to play. Battle for Middle-earth is an attempt to merge the classic Lord of the Rings world with a real-time strategy game. Although it falls a little short of the epic conflicts of the books and movies, it does a pretty good job of bringing these disparate elements together.

BFME is built around the C&C Generals graphics engine, so you will notice many similarities between the two games. Both have excellent visuals, and BFME has taken it a step further with great animation which is triggered by game events. When an enemy army approaches, for example, your army will jeer at it, and when they win a battle they will cheer. It doesn't affect gameplay much, but it does add a lot of life and atmosphere to the game world, which is a nice touch. The sound is also very impressive, featuring the voices of the actors in the movies.

While the single-player portion of the game consists of a linear campaign tied closely to the plot of Lord of the Rings, multiplayer allows you to skirmish as one of four factions: Gondor, Rohan, Mordor, or Isengard. There are a good selection of multiplayer maps to choose from and an active player-matching system for setting up games online. Like most RTS games, one player with a poor connection will slow the whole match down. 2 or 4 player games are subsequently more practical than attempting to skirmish with the 8 player maximum.

Although there is an official ladder, at the moment people can disconnect from a match without having it count as a loss, which is an annoying oversight in this day and age. Obviously a disconnect must count as a loss, or you will have players dropping the game before their last few buildings can be destroyed. We've been through this before with other multiplayer RTS titles, so hopefully it will be addressed in a patch.

BFME is a little different from the standard RTS fare in certain ways. You can only build in fixed locations, and there are firm limits on which buildings those locations will accommodate. While it's definitely quicker than the sort of freeform sprawl most RTS fans are used to, it robs you of the ability to defend a point of your choice with fixed fortifications. Another notable difference is that gathering resources has been reduced in some cases to simply building the necessary structure, as most of them don't need laborers to produce income. Naturally, the benefit of this is that it gives you time to concentrate on combat that you otherwise spend tweaking your economy.

Then there is the use of Command Points to limit the number of units you can have at any one time. Far be it from the massive battles of the films; even if the game could render it, the default settings keep things on much smaller scale. Limits may be changed by altering certain .ini files, but any significant increase would likely make online play unacceptably choppy. Don't expect engagements on the magnitude of those in Rome: Total War.
Unit veterancy and upgrades play a large role in combat. Many of the Heroes and troops gain experience on the battlefield, and certain buildings allow you to purchase better weapons and armor for your warriors. You'll find yourself using advanced units more carefully than new recruits. Curiously, heros don't lose any rank when they die. After their revival they carry on at the same level they were at before their demise.

I was a little disappointed to see that, unlike C&C Generals, you are not able to make much use of buildings that pre-exist on the map. Being able to order your men into a nearby structure for defensive purposes is cool, but in BFME, although there is the odd abandoned tower to send archers into, you can't get them back out again.

Plenty of imagination had to be used to implement the story's heros. One interesting twist is that heroes in the game don't really die, they can always be resurrected back at the castle - for a price, of course. In skirmishes you will find Rohan fighting Gondor, Saruman scrapping with Nazgul, and even Gandalf throwing fireballs at himself. All of this results in some delightfully unthinkable senarios for a Lord of the Rings purist, but it a can be terrific fun watching an Ent smash Pippin with a boulder.
It wouldn't be Lord of the Rings without a vast array of magical spells and special abilities at your disposal. On top of the fancy moves of the Heros, you have the Powers of Good and Evil, which are the fantasy equivalent of the nukes and ion beams of earlier strategy games. These powers are earned through combat, and range from temporary production increases to summoning a Balrog to breathe fire on the enemy.

To be honest, I'm not a big fan of nuke-like powers in multiplayer RTS games. These games should be about strategy on the battlefield, not simply a race to reach a certain tech level. With all its Heros and Powers, BFME doesn't completely avoid this problem, but at least they haven't put in a bunch of direct-damage Powers akin to those of C&C Generals. While you commonly summon allies to come to your aid, once they appear it is up to you to see that they are deployed effectively.
I do have some doubts about just how balanced the various sides in this game are. Wins and losses on the official ladder are quite evenly distributed right now, but I would say winning with Mordor is more difficult than winning with Gondor. Gandalf is arguably the best Hero in BFME, which wouldn't be so bad if he weren't reinforced by certain Powers of Good that seem considerably better than anything available on the Evil end. While Gondor and Rohan get useful bonuses like Heal, Elven Allies, Rohan Allies, Ent Allies, Eagle Allies, and an unstoppable Army of the Dead, many of the evil powers simply boost production, which is perfectly useless when you've reached your command limit and you need to bust a castle.
While the Balrog is very cool, it's relatively difficult to deploy effectively, and it's about the only decent offensive Power in the arsenal of Evil.
In any case, considering the wide range of units in BFME, it plays out better than you might expect, partly because the Command Point system. Since your army can only be so big, it's necessary to conduct attacks in a timely manner with the right combination of soldiers and Heros, or you may fall just short of your objectives. After players reach their Command limit they tend to accumulate large reserves of cash, which allows them to rebuild quickly unless completely vanquished. Subsequently, a match between 2 veteran players can easily drag on for hours in a sort of stalemate before one side cracks. It can, however, create some really captivating siege situations for everyone involved, and it's remarkable how reminiscent some of them are of Helm's Deep, albeit scaled down to RTS proportions.
The Bottom LineBFME might not have enough depth to satisfy hardcore strategists, but the multiplayer portion of the game is solid, and will give most Lord of the Rings fans many hours of entertainment even if the single-player campaign doesn't appeal to them. There is something irresistable about taking control of Middle-earth in this manner, and it's hard to describe how thrilling it is to watch a veteran Troll smash its way through a group of archers, sending them flying in all directions with every swing. While is doesn't really break any new ground, or live up to Tolkien's fantasies, BFME comes through with the character and gameplay it needs to make it fun, and that's what counts.
Battle for Middle-earth Screenshots

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Top 10 Multiplayer RTS Games

Many real-time strategy games now have multiplayer options that allow you to wage war over the Internet. In most cases you are required to gather resources, research new technology, build up an army, and use it to vanquish your enemy. The player limit is typically between 6 and 12. A game's popularity is not the only consideration, and these selections are based in part on my opinion and your feedback. Feel free to let me know if I've missed something.

1) Warcraft 3
This game is the latest installment of Blizzard's award-winning Warcraft real-time strategy series. Although it was released in 2002, it's still one of the most widely played RTS games in pro competitions. The Battle Chest version includes the original, Reign of Chaos, and the first expansion, Frozen Throne. Features include 3D graphics, compelling new roleplaying elements, and expanded multiplayer options for up to 12 players over

2) Company of Heroes
Often referred to as one of the best PC games of 2006, Company of Heroes ties real-time strategy to a WWII setting with great results. The graphics are spectacular and the game allows you to make effective use of the terrain. Company of Heroes has only two factions, the Axis and the Allies, and there are a few limits to the the type of skirmish you can configure, but these minor issues really take nothing away from this outstanding game.

3) Supreme Commander
Described as the spiritual successor to Total Annihilation, Supreme Commander manages to scale up the RTS experience a few notches. The game supports an astounding number and variety of units, and the tech tree is similarly vast. A unique camera interface allows you zoom out to a tactical map that gives you a broad overview of the conflict. The maps can get truly enormous, resulting in battles that often go on for many hours.

4) Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War
Based on a famous tabletop strategy series, Dawn of War is a curious combination of fantasy and science fiction, beautifully rendered in 3D. There is a solid mix of units and none of the playable races have been given an overwhelming advantage. Although very different from the tabletop version, it is a nicely polished game with an active community. The Gold Edition includes the Winter Assault expansion.

5) Age of Empires III
Excellent graphics, an historical setting, and the same solid RTS gameplay as its predecessors have made this title a best-seller. Persistent home cities add another dimension to the strategy, and there is a good matchmaking service for finding online games. If you already have it, The WarChiefs, released in October of 2006, is the first expansion for Age of Empires III, and brings playable Native American factions into the fray.

6) Medieval 2: Total War
Medieval 2 is the latest addition to one of the most engaging RTS series to date, renowned for its depth, large scale battles, and unparalleled levels of strategic detail. Total War games are always a hit with history buffs, and the graphics in Medieval 2 are also quite stunning. One of the only drawbacks is that you can only play battles, not an entire campaign, in multiplayer mode.

7) Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth Anthology
Battle for Middle-earth II improves on its predecessor in a few ways, such as allowing you to build wherever you want rather than only in designated locations. It also adds elves, dwarves, and goblins to the mix of playable races. The official competition ladders at GameSpy are very active, and the first expansion, The Rise of the Witch-King, launched in November of 2006. The Anthology includes the first Battle for Middle-earth, The Battle for Middle-earth II Collector's Edition, and The Rise of the Witch-King expansion within a single compilation.

8) Command & Conquer: The First Decade
The Command and Conquer series from Westwood has become an RTS institution over the years. C&C: Generals is fully 3D addition to the franchise not only takes the graphics to new level, it also uses a more current setting, introduces new veteran units, and gives C&C addicts a third side to play. The First Decade package is a great deal for C&C fans, as it includes pretty much every game and expansion in the series so far, including C&C: Generals and Zero Hour.

9) StarCraft: Brood War
This is a classic sci-fi RTS from the makers of Warcraft which still has a large and very devoted following. Control one of three different species, each with their own unique units and special powers, in an effort to take over the galaxy. StarCraft remains one of the most popular RTS games played in video game competitions, especially in Korea. The Battle Chest version includes the Brood War expansion, and it supports up to 8 players over

10) Rise of Nations: Thrones and Patriots
With 18 playable races and a tech tree that covers everything from swords to missiles, Rise of Nations is a remarkably ambitious title. Loaded with game types and multiplayer options, Rise of Nations has won many accolades from the RTS community. The Thrones and Patriots expansion added six nations and a new government feature to the game.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Monday, May 14, 2007