EA's The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth offers a real-time strategy game that lets players fight it out in the familiar terrain of Middle Earth - from the beginning of the quest to destroy the ring, right through to the ultimate face-off between good and evil. And as this is a game, not the books or the movie, the outcome is not set. Choose to play on the evil side and you can defeat Frodo, Gandalf and company, casting Middle Earth into darkness. And if you play as the good guys, events won't always pan out in line with the books.
Given the epic nature of the conflict portrayed in the movies, you could be forgiven for thinking that Battle for Middle-Earth might have a lot in common with Rome: Total War, with its massive battles. But you'll be disappointed if you go in expecting that - Battle for Middle Earth is based on the Command & Conquer: Generals engine and the scale of battles is much more in line with standard real-time strategy (RTS) games of that type.
The business end of the game is down at the real-time battle level. Many standard RTS conventions are here, making the learning curve fairly easy, but EA throws in a few twists. Firstly, and logically, are the heroes. Most of the main characters from the movies appear as hero units in the campaigns (and with a few exceptions, in skirmish and multiplayer games). Heroes have special powers and as they grow in rank, more powers are unlocked. None of these powers make the heroes stand-alone game winners, but they can prove very useful nonetheless. The stock units are based on troops familiar from the movies: the Riders of Rohan, Yeoman archers, Rangers, Warg Riders, Uruk-hai, and so on. In terms of abilities they cover the standard conventions: close quarter troops, ranged units, cavalry and siege units. As usual, for every unit there is a counter. If anything, the various counter units seem a little too strong, to the point that when one appears you must meticulously manage your response. This can be especially frustrating given how much time you invest in some units.
The game also handles resources and building differently to many RTS games. Rather than sending gathering units out to collect resources, you simply build farms (on the good side) or lumber yards and slaughterhouses (on the evil side). But you are not free to build just anywhere. There are a limited number of locations on each map that you must capture to expand. These range from basic settlements, through to castles, which grant you a citadel, walls (if you're on the good side) and lots of foundations to build your vital structures. Apart from campaign missions that involve no building, battles ultimately come down to controlling these vital locations.
Apart from the two relatively long campaigns, you get both skirmish mode against the AI and multiplayer mode. In both cases the game comes with a healthy selection of maps of assorted sizes. Overall, Battle for Middle-Earth may not be groundbreaking, and may fail a little to capture the scale of the battles seen in the movies, but it's a solid and entertaining RTS with excellent production values and enough new twists to keep RTS fans interested.