Saturday, October 18, 2008

BFME? I Barely Know Me!

So I've taken some leisure time of late to re-visit Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth.

In the wake of the cinematic juggernauts by Peter Jackson, every medium, video games in particular, were suddenly awash in merchandise. Me, being the ardent devotee to the franchise that I am... well... I purchased many a game just because it had some LOTR tie-in. I've got Lord of the Rings: Trivial Pursuit (which I'm inhumanly good at), Lord of the Rings: Risk, (which I'm inexplicably bad at), and a number of games for the PS2 and PC.

The earliest I remember getting was The Two Towers, poorly named since it covered the major battles in The Fellowship of the Ring and about half of the TT story (book-wise, anyway). It was a typical 3rd-person hack-and-slash: you play as Aragorn and fight from Weathertop to Helm's Deep (I don't recall if you can play as Legolas or Gimli--I think you can, but you're definitely following their story more than anything else). It's fun, but not great--the movie tie-in nature of the game does, sort of, inhibit the gameplay, and the fighting gets a bit chaotic and a few of the boss fights are inhumanly difficult--especially the Watcher in the Water outside of Moria, which is very, very near the beginning.

The follow-up, The Return of the King, was much better--similar in style and tone, but a little bit more polished with some improvements to the gameplay. You follow Aragorn, et al, through increasingly epic battles to the gates of Mordor, at which point you're given a timer and told to just survive long enough to win the game. Every now and then the action takes a breather and you find yourself in a bizarre mini-game (often things like "kill the mumakil"), but it's generally not to distracting. And then the game turns on it's heals, and you take control of Sam and Frodo in what becomes more of a stealth game... through Ithilien, Osgiliath, Cirith Ungol and Shelob's lair, until finally you reach Orodruin and have your final battle with... Gollum... meh.

So once again, adherence to canon gets in the way of a good game--and I understand why they did it the way that they did, but it is the definition of anti-climactic. It could have been worse: there was that horrible Third Age RPG, in which your party, consisting of an elf, a dwarf, and a man follow the fellowship around (you want to talk about ankle-deep in bad gameplay, and then trying to make up for it by giving you unlockable clips from the movies). There was also a game based on The Fellowship of the Ring, but it isn't in any way related the Peter Jackson films, and is supposed to be... not great.

Part of the problem is the story. You have intensely personal scenarios going on against the backdrop of these huge battles and exotic locales. The draw of the story is the personal bit--the draw of the games is the epic carnage.  So trying to take this saga and boil it down to one-to-three people is going to be... well, tricky.

So how do you make it work?  The Real-Time Strategy game, of course--wherein you can completely sidestep anything going on at a character-level and focus on orchestrating your war.  And that's precisely what BFME is.

Make your armies and attack.  You can play as good or evil and, while the game draws it's story and character design from the films, it's completely willing to go against canon.  Not only can Boromir and Theoden survive to the end, but you can play as the orcs and defeat man.  That is my favorite campaign--kill Merry and Pippin at Amon Hen, invade Fangorn and kill Treebeard, defeat Theoden at Helm's Deep, kill Frodo in Shelob's lair and take the ring and, finally, sack Minas Tirith and irradicate what's left of Gondor and the fellowship.

Good times, good times.

Why evil?  It's not out of some particular fondness for the macabre--mostly it's just that the evil forces are better suited to my style of play.  In RTS's there are different types of forces--some have lots of powerful heroes that need to be micro-managed, some have expensive but powerful units that need to be managed, and some have cheap expendible units with which to overwhelm your opponent.  I prefer the latter.

I like to swarm.

In general, RTS's mix up gameplay through the manipulation of a few variables--resource scarcity, the extent to which you are outnumbered at the beginning, sometimes you have multiple enemies who aren't necessarily coordinating their efforts but have no problem attack you while you're trying to deal with the other.  Sometimes the terrain favors a particular type of gameplay (e.g., mountains creating natural bottlenecks)--although BFME is unique in that it doesn't have air or sea units, everything travels over land (with the exception of a handful of special units that can fly).  The maps and battles get bigger as you progress (generally) and you control increasingly sizable armies.

The other thing I like about the evil forces is that they are largely offensive--they don't build walls, and their only defensive structures are towers that shoot arrows.  None of these pansy castles to hide behind.

Okay, enough nerd ranting for one post.


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