Reviewed: December 1, 2003
Released: November 4, 2003
The Lord of the Rings. Few fantasy franchises today outside of Star Wars or The Matrix trilogies have generated as much excitement (and revenue) amongst hardcore fans and casual viewers alike. Over the last two years, the excitement and anticipation surrounding the release of the Lord of the Rings movies has generated quite a bit of activity in the gaming world at large, but even as Peter Jackson’s cinematic saga has woven Tolkien’s tapestry upon the silver screen, those wanting to continue the adventure on their PC screens have had prescioussss little to choose from.
As audiences last December witnessed the crumbling of the alliance between the Two Towers, so too have gamers witnessed a divergence in the content licensing of the two major players in the digital realm of Middle Earth. Publishing giant Electronic Arts, who struck Mithril last year with their Golden Axe-like console hit The Two Towers, is producing games based upon the Peter Jackson films, using locales, actors likenesses, and even film clips directly from the movies.
In the other corner we have industry veteran Sierra, who due to a strange quirk of legal fate have the rights to produce content based upon the Tolkien books themselves. This license has essentially given Sierra free reign to interpret The Lord of the Rings Trilogy however they’d like, and while last years tepid offering The Fellowship of the Ring (developed by Black Label) received a lukewarm reaction from the PC gaming world, this time around Sierra was determined to offer something bigger, better and worthy of the tale that grew in the telling.
Tapping the talent of developer Liquid Entertainment (Battle Realms Series), Sierra and Liquid decided to take gamers somewhere they’d never been before in the Tolkien realm: Real Time Strategy. Utilizing their background expertise with the popular Battle Realms RTS series, the folks at Liquid went deep into their Elven workshops in order to craft a real time experience that would bring the magic of Tolkien’s literature to brilliant pixilated life. The result is The Lord of the Rings: War of the Ring, the very first RTS game set in Middle Earth. But did Liquid manage to create a balance between the most engaging aspects of the RTS genre and one of the most beloved fantasy epics of all time?
Read on, good traveler.
The War of the Ring isn’t an attempt to recreate the events of the books in an absolutely blow-by-blow chronological fashion. Instead, players are taken through major events leading up to and following the quest of the Fellowship of the Ring in both a “Good” and “Evil” campaign. Before fate finds Frodo in Rivendell you’ll find yourself assisting Gimli son of Gloin as he attempts to repel an Orc invasion from the Iron Hills, or guiding the elven prince Legolas as he tracks the foul creature Gollum through the depths of Mirkwood forest. After the events of the Fellowship, War of the Ring features locales like Lothlorien, Osgiliath and Helm’s Deep. Throughout the game, you’ll be doing the things that all RPG fans love best. There’s resource gathering and building construction, unit upgrading and special heroes to command. There are various objectives to complete (more on that later) and allies to assist, hidden artifacts to discover and towns to rescue.
Taking the standard RTS approach, War of the Ring utilizes many of the stock aspects that you’d find in most other RTS games today. On the bottom left you’ve got the mini-map, an information screen in the center, and to the right a command menu chock full of attack/move/guard/patrol options. Towering above all three is a majestic eagle’s eye view of the playing area. Both veterans and newbies alike should have no trouble acclimating themselves to the interface, but what players should take notice of are the subtle and very cool ways in which the game attempts to separate itself from the RTS mold.
To begin with, War of the Ring offers an in-depth tutorial separated into four distinct levels, each of which are designed to ease the player slowly and gently into the game. Hosting the tutorial are Belenthrod the elf and Varin and dwarf, two exceedingly humorous NPC’s who vie with one another for your attention as they teach various aspects of the game. Belenthrod and Varin enjoy a rough and tumble Legolas & Gimli-like relationship, and the effort put into making the tutorial both educational and entertaining is a big plus. Even if Belenthrod and Varin can’t tempt you into taking the tutorial, you may want to check it out anyway because aside from the usual collect-resources-construct-buildings routine War of the Rings offers a few features not found in other traditional RTS games.
Your heroes – Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas for instance - are powerful units that can be used to great effect against Saurons Minions. Unlike Warcraft however, your units can’t level up to gain additional health or hit points. In the place of experience points, the game uses something called Fate. Like experience points, Fate can be accumulated through exposure to combat. The more a hero fights, the more Fate points he acquires. Fate can be spent on powerful hero abilities. In the “Good” campaign, the absolute coolest hero power is the ability to summon an Ent (a majestic and powerful tree-creature) to fight by your side. When summoned the Ent burst up through the ground, knocking back any surrounding enemies. The ground shakes as the Ent marches by your side and he hurls great boulders at your enemies. On the dark side of the moon you’ll have the opportunity to summon a Balrog (yes, a Balrog!) much to lethal chagrin of any who stand in your way. The only downside to Fate points is that their summoned powers and units are temporary, and despite the play balancing issues which no doubt made it necessary to limit the duration of these powerhouse Fate perks, still takes some of the wind out of the sails of an otherwise kick-ass feature.
The way these powers are implemented often differ from standard RTS faire as well. Instead of selecting the fate power and moving your icon over the desired unit, many lesser Fate powers (such as Boromir’s Horn of Gondor or Gimli’s Sunder) take effect within a circular radius of the hero, making it easy to simply move the hero into the thick of battle and click the fate power without having to worry about placement.
While we’re on the subject of game play, I do have a fair amount of gripes. The levels suffer from a lack of extra objectives. You know, those cute side quests where you rescue Little Timmy from Bandits and earn an extra reward because of it. War of the Ring has a few of these interspersed throughout the game, but they are too few and far in between, giving the levels a somewhat overly simplistic feel without much imagination or creativity (this would have been an excellent way to fit in more Tolkien lore). As it stands, if you’ve got to build an army and destroy the goblin camp, then that’s just about all you need to do, little Timmy be damned. Such a linear quality encourages you to stick with the units you have more familiarity with, such as Elven Archers or Gondor Men-at-Arms, rather than try out more exotic Beornings (healers who can morph into bears) or Huorns (tree creatures) – both time and the immediacy of the main objective seem too confining for lateral exploration.
Sometimes the game ‘creeps’ a little too close to Blizzard territory, as in the “Evil” campaign when Orc War Posts are used to create blighted ground upon which to create more Orc structures. Those who remember the Zerg campaign from Starcraft will instantly equate War of the Rings ‘Blight’ with the Zerg’s ‘Creep’ – corrupted ground that was also required to build more Zerg units. In addition, the over reliance on in-game cutscenes to further the story along doesn’t seem to do much for the plot’s impetus, and it makes one wish that Liquid would follow Blizzard’s lead on this one and apply more Cinematic cutscenes to add that visceral punch so badly needed. Having a Galadriel-like voice over helps, but more is needed to enhance the fullness of the saga.
The enemy has a vicious sense of warfare. At one point I had three towers defending my base camp, and at each interval enemy Warg Riders (Wolf riding Orcs) would ride straight pass them (taking damage from my towers) and head right in to slaughter my virtually defenseless workers. Other times the game doesn’t seem to play fair, allowing invisible units to reek havoc on your characters until a proper detecting unit has been created. True, you can train Elves to cloak naturally as well, but I experienced several instances where invisible enemy units swooped in and killed all of my workers before I had the opportunity to create detection units. Not cool.
I also missed the ability to slow down gameplay, ala Warcraft’s Slow, Medium and Fast gameplay speeds. Sometimes combat in War of the Ring seemed to move much too fast, and before I had time to send in my archers or summon an Ent the battle was nearly over. Because War of the Ring offers so many other RTS customization features (camera zoom, left click/right-click interface, unit grouping, detail settings) the omission of a game speed variable seems odd.
A game that brings Tolkien’s rich world to life demands a graphics engine that is just as vibrant, and War of the Ring does a good job by all accounts. Taking a page out of Warcraft III’s playbook the game offers a world rich in bright vivid colors inhabited by people and objects whose unit animations are exceptional. War of the Ring is a 3D RTS in every sense of the word. Pennants high atop barracks flap proudly in the breeze. Doors swing wide open to emit freshly trained units. Idle dwarves slam their hammers against their shields. Archers reach back into their quivers before notching their arrows. Woodland creatures scamper about lush green forests dotted with flower patches and framed with gentle clear water streams. Perhaps most impressive are the environmental animations. Shimmering long grass appeared to sway with the motion of the wind, and when a unit ran through the reeds would part as if being stepped upon. Additionally, the water found in rivers, streams and ponds glimmered with a realistic sheen that’s way beyond Warcraft III, Age of Mythology or any other RTS.
All of this eye candy comes at a cost however, and much to my chagrin I found that the game simply wasn’t playable on my 1ghz machine outfitted with 512 mb of ram (the box recommends 800 mhz or better). Conducting additional tests on higher end machines yielded better results, but even on an Athlon XP 3200+ I noticed some slight stuttering at times while running at high resolutions with all the effects and multiple units on screen.
The music in War of the Ring utilizes some of the most breathtaking orchestral selections that I’ve ever experienced in a PC game. Composer Lennie Moore used a full orchestra and professional studio to record over twenty unique tracks (ten each for the good and evil campaigns) for the game. In addition to the enveloping sound provided by the horns, violins, percussion and flutes, the game utilizes the sounds of some very unique instruments, such as Uillean Pipes, Irish Low Whistles, Pennywhistles, Contrabass Trombone and Cimbasso. Acoustic Guitar is although thrown into the mix. Particularly effective was the use of flute, harp and what I believe is an oboe to weave a musical tapestry that imparts a sense of the otherworldly and magical.
Sound effects are also top notch. Hoofs clamper upon the roads, reeds rustle when disturbed and perhaps most noticeably, bows emit a wooden creak just as Elven archers prepare to let their arrows fly. The sound of steel clashing against steel is also impressive, as were the various grunts, screams and battle cries of all the combatants. The voice acting was enthusiastic and appropriate to every character, with heroes waxing bold and fearless and villains emitting menacing and guttural sounds. Gollum’s voiceover sounded very convincing.
Outside of the single player campaign War of the Ring offers multiplayer matches over the internet via Gamespy or local matches via LAN. There are several Multiplayer game types – Survival, Razing, Famine, Control and Catapult – each of which has unique victory conditions. While each gameplay mode offers a twist on traditional RTS gameplay, I had the most fun with LAN Catapult and Razing matches. Razing offers traditional crush and destroy objectives, and Catapult allows you to vie for control of an extremely powerful catapult that has the ability to devastate huge areas of an enemy’s camp. The fun lies in trying to keep control of this monstrous weapon – a bit like King of the Hill – and hearing the cries of your opponent when your King Kong sized boulder lands in the middle of their Stronghold. All in all, War of the Ring offers plenty of bang for your buck – a good variety of gameplay challenges await after the completion of the single player campaign.
If there’s any other game that War of the Ring would thank on Oscar Night, it would undoubtedly be Warcraft III. The palpable influence of Blizzard’s RTS tour-de-force is felt throughout the War of the Ring’s experience, and from the menu interface to the bright colorful world it assists you in interacting with, it’s clear to whom War of the Rings owes its debt of inspiration. However, this particular debt runs along a two way street, for the entire Warcraft series in turn owes much of its thematic groundwork to Tolkien’s magnum opus. You didn’t think all those orcs, dwarves, trolls and elves just popped out of a Blizzard exec’s pizza induced nightmare did you?
In the end, this mix of tried and true RTS gameplay along with the polished production values added by an outstanding soundtrack and visual effects engine does much to enhance this game, but leaves the entire experience a little lopsided. In this case you’re presented with a game that pairs exceptional graphics and music with gameplay that offers a standard RTS experience that nearly breaks through to excellence, but falls just short of the mark. Summoning an Ent and a Balrog is beyond cool, and fighting at Helm’s Deep is a thrill, but when the objectives display a rigid linearity that offers little room for mini quests and exploring different strategical approaches you’re left with definite room for improvement.
Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings War of the Ring offers a fun and exceptionally entertaining experience that fans of Tolkien and the RTS genre will want to experience for themselves. Congratulations to Sierra and Liquid Entertainment for making Middle Earth’s debut onto the RTS genre a premier performance.