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Battle for Middle Earth

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The Battle for Middle Earth Game Information

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Developer: EA Los Angeles
Publisher: EA Games
Release Date: December 6, 2004

When EA announced they were making a Lord of the Rings RTS, people were caught off guard. On one hand, it was expected. EA has been a major force in the games industry for quite a while and a LotR RTS game was inevitable. However, in another sense, it was a surprise. The company had just finished releasing Command and Conquer: Generals and its expansion, Zero Hour, both of which targeted the most dedicated and hardcore kind of RTS fan. So, when the company revealed that their next RTS title would not feature tanks, helicopters, or scud missiles, but instead horses, wizards, and orcs, some fans (especially long time C&C fans) of EA's previous two titles were quite disappointed.

However, the gaming monolith knew what they were doing. Their strategy was to branch out and expand their hold on the RTS market. This time the company would be developing an entirely different kind of RTS. When The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth (BFME) was released, players realized there were many aspects of the game that made it somewhat un-RTS-like, but this was mainly because many RTS fans still had not become accustomed to these kinds of elements and had already made up their minds about what a proper RTS should be.

The game had a very unique feel, which resulted from the large number of deviations it made from RTS convention. While many long-time RTS fans enjoyed the game, the special flavor of BFME's gameplay meant that it wasn't for everybody, but that it held a special appeal for many casual players and for Lord of the Rings fans new to the RTS genre. Its uniqueness and simple enjoyability were the result of several elements, most notably a fixed number of "build plots," a fairly unique resource system, and power point "trees."

For a hardcore RTS player, the build plots were the most challenging feature to accept. In almost all other RTS games you were given the freedom to build whatever you wanted wherever you liked, but BFME took away that freedom and forced players to build in a new way. The game did not feature peons, as in Blizzard games, or Mobile Construction Yards, as in Westwood games. Rather, BFME gave you a certain amount of build plots and you were forced to build your structures on those plots. Everything, from resource structures to unit production structures, had to be erected on one of these special sites. The idea behind the system was that it was essentially a "population cap" for buildings. Many past RTS games had featured population caps for units, but the build system in BFME went a step further by forcing you to build all your structures in a certain area. Because all four armies had their own structures and number of build plots (some had more than others), a certain amount of skill was required when building one's base. Build too many farms and you'll have plenty of money, but no room left to build unit production or research buildings. Build too many barracks and you'll be able to raise an army fairly quickly, but you won't have any money to afford one. It was an entirely new system that meant that the earliest decisions you made concerning your base layout would have effects that would ripple all the way into the late game.

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As you can see you only have a limited amount of spots

The resource system in BFME was also somewhat different. However in reality, its uniqueness directly resulted from the new build system. Whereas most RTS games feature resources scattered about the map which the player needs to collect, all of the income in BFME is generated "in house." In other words, you simply build a structure and you get money from it over time. Furthermore, the two Forces of Light factions (Rohan and Gondor) start the game with walls that surround all their build plots. For these two factions, this means that their economy is well-protected from the very beginning of the game!

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And what walls they were...

The four factions were very different from each other. For example, Gondor was the most defensive faction and could survive a whole game by only defending. The faction design was different from most real time strategy games since Dune 2, mainly because of map control. Two factions, Rohan and Gondor, had pre-built walls, while the other two, Mordor and Isengard (collectively known as the Forces of Darkness) did not have any, which meant that map control was a more important aspect of the game for Mordor and Isengard. The factions with walls were safe from immediate attacks, but they still needed to get map control in order to win. This was because maps featured alternative assets, such as settlements (resource plots) and "creeps" (neutral creatures that could be killed for experience) scattered around the map. Securing these resources was very crucial in the game, especially creeps. However, they were all the more important because of a little concept inherited from EA's previous RTS game, Generals.

Command and Conquer: Generals featured a system of "generals powers" that granted the player special abilities at no monetary cost. To earn these abilities, you simply needed to kill a certain amount of enemy units. The system had no particular structure, except that the more valuable points could not be unlocked until the late game. BFME applied a concept as old as the RTS genre itself to this system—it made a "tree" out of the system. Just as buildings could be organized into a "tech tree," so also could special powers be organized into a "power point tree." Effectively, certain powers required other powers to be unlocked first, even if you didn't want to use the lesser power. It seems that, no matter what form it takes, the concept of a structured "tree" is fundamental to the RTS genre.

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The power point structure for Gondor.

Power points were crucial because they offered special abilities to the player, which varied for each army. Some power points, for example, could summon more units to the field and aid in battles, while others were magic-based and could reveal an area of the map, while still others could heal your units. Since power points were acquired by killing enemy units and structures, you needed to be careful what you bought, which, in turn, meant that you needed to be careful what you built. But, due to the limited number of build plots, this was easier said than done and it forced the player to sometimes make difficult decisions. And the heart of strategy comes from knowing how to make difficult decisions, so while many initially feared that BFME would be a shallow and dull game, its special features created a unique form of gameplay that had a different kind of depth than most other RTS games.

But not everything about the game was unique. The game's hero system was inspired by WarCraft III. Like in WarCraft III, units could "level up" by killing enemy units and creeps. Leveling up granted the hero access to increasingly powerful abilities, just as killing more enemies granted the player access to increasingly powerful special abilities. Heroes were common and hugely crucial in the game. Some were very powerful heroes, while others were less useful, but they all had very different abilities, such as leadership for nearby units, anti-hero abilities, and, of course, anti-unit abilities. The hero system gave the game far more depth than it would have had without it. Every time a hero achieved a higher level, it would get a increase in HP, damage dealt, and armor, which was a decisive factor in the end game.

BFME also borrowed the trampling feature of the Total War series, where cavalry could charge at the enemy troops and run them over, which would either kill them or wound them. The game applied the concept of battle formations as well, which had been used in a myriad of other RTS games. Simply put, each unit could either be in formation or out of formation. Different formations would give different bonuses, such as the extra armor that pikemen would receive in defensive formation. However, this did come at a price, which, in the case of pikemen in defensive formation, was a reduction in speed.

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There are plenty of heroes for both teams, each with there unique abilities.

The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth will be remembered as one of the most unique modern RTS games because of its many nuances and peculiarities. It added some new ideas to the RTS genre and modified some old ones. It might not be the best RTS game for competition, but it has more than earned its place in the history of real time strategy because it introduced an entirely new demographic to RTS games and featured a remarkably simple formula that challenged the traditions of the genre.

Written by SoulWings