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Memory Leaks: The Lord of the Rings: The Battle For Middle-Earth

⚔️ And my axe...

The Lord of the Rings movies hit theaters in December 2001 and were an unparalleled box office success. Naturally, there was a desire to capitalize on that success with tie-in video games, which started to arrive about a year later. The first few to hit the scene were about what you'd expect: over-the-shoulder hack-and-slash affairs that were just a little too dark and drab because that was the tone of serious video games, but then in 2004 we got something different: a campaign-style RTS that allowed you to play through the events of the movies as either good or evil. And it was The Lord of the Rings: the Battle for Middle-Earth.

How I Remember It...

As someone who was obsessed with The Lord of the Rings in 2004, I think it's safe to say that I played most of the games that were attached to this IP. And I was mostly disappointed, because I don't care for hack-and-slash gameplay all that much. When BfME came out, the big selling point on the box was that you could re-mix battles. You could summon ents to the Battle of Helms deep, for example. And while this was true, it was also the least interesting part of the game.

Indeed, the real selling point of the game is that the RTS format is the perfect way to tell this story. Rather than just following Aragorn as he wallops orcs in yet another dungeon, BfME is much more about moving armies around and taking control of territories. There's some hero management, especially on the Good side, but for the most part it's about managing your resources, balancing income against unit-generation so you can take down the enemy encampment. Will you need ballistas to deal with fortifications? How aggressively should you defend your own camps? What's the right mix of cavalry and infantry? How much should you explore in order to find extra resources? Should you upgrade your units or not?

This is a key decision because upgrades are expensive but upgraded units will self-heal and follow you from mission to mission. There's also an upgrade tree for your army to unlock special abilities like summoning ents or wraiths or using the Eye of Sauron to strike fear into your enemy. There's also unit composition to worry about. You can combine two simple units of the same type. E.g., a unit of swordsmen and a unit of pikemen become a single unit with pikes in front and swords behind. Or maybe you want pikes and archers. There's a decent mix of armies to keep gameplay fresh. Gondor and Rohan have more defensive structures--Morder and Isengard camps don't have walls at all. Rohan's armies are more focused on cavalry, obviously, whereas Gondor is more about infantry and siege engines. Mordor has extremely cheap units until you start buying mumakil. Isengard's probably the most middle of the road: expensive but tough units, including cavalry and decent siege tech.

Of course, the other big selling point of the game is that it has two campaigns, a good one and an evil one. The good campaign starts in the mines of Moria, fighting off the Balrog as a tutorial. You then proceed to Amon Hen where the Fellowship splits and the focus shifts to Rohan fighting off Saruman's armies. Over the course of the campaign you hit the major battles: defending Helm's Deep, sacking Isengard, defending Minas Tirith, and finally attacking the Black Gate itself, which is one of those "try to stay alive long enough to not lose" missions. This is, of course, tempered with the odd digression to Frodo and Sam sneaking through Ithilian or past Shelob. If I had one complaint, it's that the good campaign veers unnecessarily from the source material. I mean, you can't succeed against the Balrog if Gandalf dies--that's not canon! The evil campaign starts with you defeating the Fellowship in Amon Hen and then goes progressively off the rails from there. Burning the Westfold, obliterating Osgiliath, sacking Helm's Deep and Edoras, getting the ring from Shelob, and finally staging an epic siege of Minas Tirith. It's, honestly, more fun than the good campaign.

The game spawned a sequel in 2006 that's more refined and flexible. I think it's better loved overall, but I prefer the original as it's focused more on the battles of the War of the Ring rather than peripheral stuff like Galadriel cleansing Dol Goldur. Unfortunately, this is one you can't play legitimately anymore, as EA lost their license for Lord of the Rings games in 2010. Much like Goldeneye 64, the other movie tie-in video game that's actually really good, due to the complexities of film licensing, it's abandonedware. Which is not to say that there aren't ways to play it or places to download it from, and it's certainly not like I've done that, or would do that again, or am doing that right now.

In MEMORY LEAKS, Kurt is going through his favorite video games. See more posts.