Nostalgia Video Gaming -- The Lord of the Rings: 'The Third Age' and 'Battle for Middle Earth'
There are a lot of movies which end up having tie-in video games; the greater the phenomenon, the more tie-in games there are. One such phenomenon was The Lord of the Rings series. Much can be said with how that trilogy shaped the movie industry, and even how it shaped the fantasy setting... but this is about games.
I’m here to remind the world of video game series that did something profound, and if not that, than something right. So what puts The Third Age and Battle for Middle Earth on that map? Where most movie tie-in games are cheap copies of something else, these two game series stood out. They had a way of doing their own thing, in lieu of being cheap tie-ins.
The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age (Gameboy Advanced)
There are two titles of this same name released by Electronic Arts (EA), in the same year (2004). Both are drastically different from each other. The Gameboy Advanced version of The Third Age is a turn-based strategy along the lines of Fire Emblem (a series I have already referenced but will be getting to soon, I swear.) Essentially, the good and evil sides each take a turn. In their turn, a side is allowed to move units in each flank (left, right and middle) based on the number of command points granted by that side’s leaders.
Here's where this game further differentiates itself from Fire Emblem. The standard units are different depending on which level you are on -- namely, if you are playing the mission from Rivendell, it's elves against goblins -- but if you play the Black Gate Opens, it's orcs and humans. The only ones who carry over from each level, gaining experience and power, are the heroes. Most notably there are two types of Heroes in The Third Age: commanding heroes and secondary heroes. Each side has three commanding heroes. Good: Aragorn, Gandalf, and Elrond. Evil: Saruman, the Mouth of Sauron, and the Witch-King of Angmar. The commanding heroes contribute the most command points out of any unit, they have four powers (one unique to each commander,) and they also must be in every level. When starting a profile you pick one commanding hero and are stuck with him as long as you play on that profile.
Secondary heroes are a little different. Each has only one power, but they each vary in their capabilities: Legolas is a mid-level commander, but the best archer in the game. Grima Wormtongue is the best commander in the game, but that’s about it. Depending on the level, you can choose up to four secondary heroes to join you in a mission, and losing them means different things based on the game mode. ‘Sauron Mode’ means any lost hero is lost for all eternity on that profile, as if that hero actually died.
I guess what really makes this game stand out is its uniqueness as a movie tie-in game. It is not just The Lord of the Rings version of Fire Emblem, it is The Third Age, and that alone. If I had to fault this game on anything it would be a lack of balance in some instances. There are some levels where good or evil is just too heavily outweighed, despite the fact you 'can' beat any level as both good and evil. Still it's a great game -- great especially for something like long car rides. Both 2004 and the Gameboy Advanced have been obsolete for a while. Retro gaming stores will be your friend if you want to find this game.
The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age (Console Version)
Also released in 2004 by EA, but for the GameCube, PS2, and Xbox, this version of The Third Age rips off a different Japanese role playing game. Instead of Fire Emblem, it’s Final Fantasy. A party of heroes send out three members at a time, as any number of enemies line up opposite them and each take turns attacking each other.
It's pretty obvious playing The Third Age that a lot of time and research went into it, somewhere. Each character has a plethora of different armor pieces that can be exchanged about, all relating to The Lord of the Rings franchise. You get more than just an ‘iron sword’ or a ‘bronze axe.’ Instead you get the ‘First Age Sword of the Valar’ or a ‘Moria Walking Axe.’ In fact, all items relate back to Middle Earth: instead of using a potion to heal a character you instead use kingsfoil or athelas. There are easily near a thousand pieces of armor and items, so someone had to take the time to draw, animate, and name all those things.
Now, what didn’t get a lot of time in the creation process was the story. The tale of the console version of The Third Age is set up so your characters can hit all the major battles of the series, from Helm’s Deep to Minas Tirith, even shoe-horning in a way to fight the Balrog (alongside Gandalf) and go toe-to-toe with the Eye of Sauron. Really, the sad part is that the story began rather convincingly, as what truly drives the story is the characters.
The protagonist is Berethor, a balanced Gondorian captain with special leadership powers. He is trying to find Boromir when he is attacked by Nazgul. Idrial, the team’s healer and spellcaster, rescues him from the Nazgul and toys with his emotions throughout the story. Then there is Morwen, the true love-interest for Berethor. She is a brutal, dual-axe wielding fighter who has special thief powers, and not enough HP.
Then you have a disposable cast of extras: Elegost the Dunedain ranger, Hadhod his dwarven friend, and Eaoden, a Rohirrim. Like I said, these characters really drive the story, but all their arcs wrap up by the time you reach Osgiliath, and that’s only the beginning of the Return of the King section! It is after that point where the story really becomes simply moving from battle to battle. All this boils over in a failure of a conclusion occurring in the game's most confounding map, Pelennor Fields.
The thing is, this is still a great game. Like its other The Third Age counterpart, it is not trying to be the game it's based on. That’s part of what makes it great, this game is still its own thing. And after all, it landed in the top half for most reviews. Again, like its counterpart, you’ll want to spend time browsing retro gaming stores if you really want to find this title.
The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth (PC)
Battle for Middle Earth (also released in 2004 by EA -- quite the year, wasn’t it?) is even more unique a title than The Third Age games, as it is not based on one video game in particular, but samples a bit from many real-time strategy games of that era. And all that while trying to be itself too.
The gameplay basics are standard RTS fare, factions gather resources to construct buildings which in turn make units and upgrades, which in turn defeat enemy units and tear down their buildings. Now here is where the uniqueness starts to come in. Most RTS games will have units that gather one or many resources -- but in Battle for Middle Earth, there is only one resource (dubbed ‘resources’ *rolls eyes) and it is produced from certain buildings, specific amounts at a specific rate, for as long as that building stands.
But, buildings are also rather unique in this game as most RTS’s allow you to plop a foundation most anywhere, and workers begin construction. In Battle For Middle Earth, there are certain locations that must be captured in order to build. The smallest can only build farmhouses or other such resource buildings (unless you play as Rohan, then they can build Entmoots!). Then there is the outpost, which provides a command tower and four build plots. The next biggest is a camp, which provides several building plots and a wall, but no gates. Lastly comes the castle, which sports walls thick enough to station units upon and build towers from, more build plots than the camp, and the strongest citadel.
One more thing that makes this game quite unique is 'veterancy,' which extends not only to the many heroes, but also to the units and buildings. Upgrading units makes them stronger and allows them to restore lost members of their battalion -- upgrading buildings increases their productivity and allows for the creation of new upgrades or units. For example: the Tower Guard from Gondor’s barracks, or the Fire Arrows from Isengard’s armory.
Battle for Middle Earth has definitely been one of the most unique RTS games I’ve played. The Lord of the Rings setting allows for a lot of great battlefields, and a very wide-ranging cast of characters and powers to be employed in strategic warfare. Though, if I had one qualm it is fire arrows. Sometimes, they are just too effective. Some reviewers were upset by the lack of depth, but for what kind of a game this is, I was just fine.
Being a PC title from 2004, I’d say it would be easiest to find this by booting up your PC and searching for it on the web. Probably on Amazon or something.
Battle for Middle Earth II (PC and Xbox)
This is where things get really interesting. Battle for Middle Earth II backpedaled in uniqueness, and yet still moved forward its individual identity. Released in 2006, by EA, for both PC and Xbox (*rolls eyes) there were definite changes in this sequel that really mixed things up.
First of all, the factions changed up some. In the original you had Rohan, Gondor, Isengard and Mordor making up the good and evil sides, but still being able to come into conflict with anyone. The sequel combined Rohan and Gondor into the ‘Men of the West’ faction, while also giving us the Elves and Dwarves. Evil stayed mostly the same, only adding the Goblin faction, and the Angmar faction (if you bought the expansion pack.)
What was always the most interesting change, to me, was gameplay. There was still veterancy, heroes, upgrades, battalions, things like that, but building changed drastically. Gone were the outposts, camps, and build plots -- instead each faction worked out of a fortress. The fortress could be given special upgrades (different from just ‘level 2’ or ‘level 3’) and it would produce heroes and builders. The builders could then construct a building anywhere within the vicinity of the fortress.
Additionally, building veterancy was purchased, not earned by producing units. So, if you want those snazzy Gondor Tower Guards, you just have to cough up an extra 500 resources, and a few more minutes of your time. One intriguing thing that came out of this change was the resource building. Each faction was unique, and since it could be built anywhere, new rules made specific placement increase building productivity.
Battle for Middle Earth II also adds a hero maker and its own unique story, focusing on the actions of the elves and the dwarves during the war of the ring -- or if a player allies with the evil faction, the mission is the total destruction of the free world.
With the expansion pack, one could follow the rise of the Witch-King of Angmar, and the fall of the Dunedain, many years before The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit ever began. As it stacks up, I find it easier to jump into a game of Battle for Middle Earth II, over Battle for Middle Earth. Truly though, the first is great for mixing things up once in a while, as the sequel can get really mundane if all you play are skirmishes over and over. Get this one the same way you would get the first. In fact, I just found Amazon is selling the Battle for Middle Earth games as an anthology.
These games ate up a lot of time as a kid, maybe just because I’m a The Lord of the Rings fanatic, or maybe because these were really easy games to convince my mom to buy (she is an even bigger fan than me). I will always recommend these games -- they show inventive strategy and great incorporation of the franchise they represent: great for fans of strategy or The Lord of the Rings.Images via: Electronic Arts