The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Ring – PC – Review

Lord of the Rings: War of the Ring is the first RTS foray into the world of Middle Earth. As such, it has garnered a large amount of interest among die-hard Tolkien fans, the more casual LOTR movie fan and also the strategy enthusiasts, who may or may not be into all things Tolkien. Because of high expectations and pre-conceived ideas of what a Middle-Earth RTS should entail, this game will inevitably be held to slightly higher standards, which may be unfair, but if a company decides to take up the gauntlet of setting a game inside a hugely popular realm, then they must also be ready for the closer attention.

I am a card-carrying LOTR reader. I’ve read the trilogy many times over, usually about every couple of years or so over the last twenty-five years. I’ve read the Hobbit many times, and have even read Silmarillon a few times. I’m also a computer strategy player, who tends to fall in the middle between the casual strategist and the war-mongers. As such, I’ve attempted to approach this game from both perspectives to be fair to all.

The first impression upon starting the game is the large, cartoon nature of the characters. These characters are bigger than most characters in RTS games, and have a brightly colored appearance. This lends itself well to the fantasy fiction base of this environment, but the world of LOTR is more somber than many fantasy works, and these cartoon units with their overly large weapons don’t exemplify the seriousness and gravity of the Men of Westernesse, Riders of Rohan and the High elves. However, taken by themselves, the units are fun to watch because of their sheer detail, which is easy to see due to the larger size. The buildings are the same, and show things like doors opening and closing when units are produced.

The story is set in the years right before the War of the Ring, and during the War. A few liberties have been taken, mostly to do with some of the individual characters’ adventures before the actual war, and with the inclusion of units like the Beornings and Ents. These may be fun to play with (well, it is kinda fun to have a walking tree as one of your units), but this is diametrically opposed to their mostly self-sufficient and isolationist personalities in the books. I guess we should be thankful they didn’t include Tom Bombadil from the Hobbit as a hero.

The Nazgul are also not treated as seriously as they should be, and just don’t portray well their awful fearsomeness, despite the powerful abilities given the Lord of the Nazgul, a hero unit. I also couldn’t figure out why they rode white horses instead of black.

Players can choose to play either the “good side” of the conflict, or the “bad side”, which is a neat way to get to play on Sauron’s side and decimate the earth. It’s intriguing to play with the Nazgul, Saruman and giant spiders.

The campaigns in the single-player mode are quite well done, and offer a little something for everyone. Most of them tend to be easier than most RTS games, but a few are rather tough, as in the battle for Helm’s Deep, which has the player holding a hotly contested area with just a few units.

Each mission has a list of goals, some of which are optional. Many of them consist of pitched battles between the alliance and Sauron with roughly equal numbers on both sides, which again, is not true to the spirit of the books. In the novels, Sauron’s forces consisted of hordes of grunt goblins, mercenaries from Harad in the South, and the few, but extremely powerful, Nazgul. Saruman was a side issue, really. The good guys, on the other hand, consisted of capable and expert warriors like the rangers, soldiers of Gondor, riders of Rohan and also the elves and dwarves, who didn’t actually play a major part in the battles of Gondor and Rohan, but whose inclusion in the game’s battles isn’t a big deal because of their representatives in the Fellowship. What is a big deal is the equal number of units on both side, which shouldn’t be so. The heroes of the good side should be fewer in number but much more powerful, and the warriors of the bad side should be more numerous, but weaker. To reflect this, more of the missions should have focused on stealth and strategy, rather than “build up army quickly as possible, then go kick butt”.

A neat feature is the inclusion of Fate Powers, which give heroes certain powers that can be used in times of need during the missions. These mostly give some type of protection for your units, or inflict damage on opposing units, but also do things like heal one unit instantly, capture a tower and use it to inflict damage, turn a wraith into a Black Rider, and use the One Ring to become invisible. However, I had a hard time using most of these powers in the thick of battle, because you have to click either on your hero (yeah, try to find that dude among the furiously fighting hordes) directly or search the menu at the bottom. Much better is the method employed by Empires: Dawn of the Modern World, which placed the available fantastic powers up at the corner of the screen with icons, allowing for immediate use.

There are also powerups included in the game in the Places of Power, a special location that gives off special powers if occupied. This is really not that relevant in the single-player missions, but can be highly important in multi-player mode, as it means that players must move quickly in search for these and defend them against opponents, instead of leisurely sitting back in their encampments and playing around with their unit production.

The music is for the most part well-done and fits in nicely with the overall atmosphere. The voice acting is good, too, but the same comments repeated every time you click on a unit to move it can get a little annoying.

Graphically, as stated above, this game is cartoonish in nature, which looks nice in and of itself (I actually prefer cartoon animation over most of today’s 3D efforts), but doesn’t lend itself to the very nature of Middle Earth. I did like the little critters running around, though.

The interface is informative and adequate for the most part, and allows for key designations for units, some strategic control of the units’ behavior (although not as much as most other RTS games) and easy movement of troops. The pathfinding is very good, better than most.

Ultimately, this game is a good excursion in a light-hearted approach to the RTS genre. The large, brightly colored and highly detailed units are fun to play with. The missions are also engaging, and interesting enough to hold attention to the end of the campaigns. But these characters and missions are generic in nature, and really could have been any fantasy type story or character, in an “any hero can apply” manner. The essence of Middle Earth just isn’t here, for whatever reason. I believe that the presentation isn’t serious enough, and the good and bad armies are too even in their powers and numbers, but it’s something that’s hard to quantitate. Just suffice it to say it ain’t present.

On the strictly RTS side, this game is fun enough to play, but isn’t extremely challenging in any part, nor is there anything excitingly new. It’s really more of a game for the casual strategic gamer who doesn’t want to expend a lot of energy planning campaigns, but wants to jump right in with easy to understand goals. Die-hard fans of LOTR will be disappointed with the overall treatment, but people who’ve just seen the movies will probably enjoy it just fine.

Gameplay: 7.5
The missions are fun to accomplish, and there is plenty to do. I wish there were more production activity, but not everyone will miss that aspect. Not a particularly engrossing game, but amusing enough for casual gameplay.

Graphics: 8 
I like the bright colors and detailed units, but it doesn’t really fit with Tolkien.

Sound: 7
The sound is good and the effects are nice, but nothing much above the average, really.

Difficulty: Medium
Except for a few harder missions, most are fairly easy regardless of what difficulty setting is chosen.

Concept: 6 
With such a popular setting, so much more could have been done with this franchise. Instead, the developers opted for the safe route of generic fantasy RTS gameplay. Not to say that the game isn’t fun, it is, but it could have been so much more.

Multiplayer: 7
The multi-player mode uses pretty much the same tactics as in the missions, but does require a bit more speed coming out of the gate.

Overall: 7.4
A good RTS game. A not so good presentation of Tolkien. But, if you put aside any expectations of Middle-Earth, you’ll find it’s fun to use that humongous tree to take out the other side!