There are so many things that can go wrong with a licensed game that you could fill a whole book of failed novel to game, movie to game, cartoon to game, heck even poetry to game conversions. War of the Ring avoids all of the basic pitfalls by presenting a rock-solid real-time strategy game featuring campaign, skirmish and multiplayer play.
The campaigns themselves are divided into the sides of Good (free people of Middle-earth) and Evil (the minions of Sauron). A picturesque map of Middle-earth links the missions together. The good campaign is populated with stories of the dwarves, elves, humans and later, the unification of all three, as they march to meet Sauron. In the elven missions, for example, the developers simply disabled all the other races’ structures to let you focus on building elven units. Gradually, the game will open up to let you use more and more units until you get the full cast under Aragorn’s command.
If the evil missions were matched one for one against the good missions (as in, you have to play the defeated side), it would have been a fairly depressing campaign for the fans of Tolkien’s villains. Instead, what the developers did was string a lot of historical missions together. You’ll ride with ringwraiths to go recruit stone trolls. You’ll command Nazguls to sack cities of Gondor. Many of the missions set up for Sauron’s return.
Within the game, evil structures are powered by totem poles that defile the land. In real-time strategy terms, that means your buildings can’t be built on any terrain except the one emanating from the pole; an idea lifted straight out of the Zergs in Starcraft.
Liquid Entertainment preferred to stay conservative with the gameplay. The majority of your outings involve some form of base building and the elimination of an enemy encampment. There are some shifting objectives to keep the plot interesting but they aren’t radical alterations to the flow of the story. When stone trolls threaten to crush the Gondor troops, Boromir summons peasant workers up to disable the bridge.
Remarkably, the most exciting mission is one that doesn’t involve any building at all, and that’s the defense of Helm’s Deep – the one so vividly portrayed in the recent film. Helm’s Deep is like a series of gauntlets (yes, you do defend that little sewer grate that should really have no reason to exist) that tests your ability to maintain an ordered fighting battle strategy in multiple locations on the map. You’re given all the usual heroes -- Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas -- but they can’t all be at one location so as time counts down to the arrival of Gandalf and the minions of Saruman swarm in ever greater numbers, it’s up to you to multitask and manage your limited to resources to hold off the inevitable.
The combat in War of the Ring does not rely on micromanagement of units. Rather, you’ll concentrate on micromanaging your heroes because their special powers can help turn the tide of a battle. As they vanquish enemy units, they gain fate powers which can be used by the heroes themselves or it can turn into currency for spells cast by yourself (without any characters). One of the most useful is Gimli’s ability to stun nearby opponents; Durin’s Fury. This stops attackers cold and if Gimli’s accompanied by some friendly units, they’ll start making short work of the dazed foes.
Faramir and Legolas are equipped with the ability to inflict massive damage and knock back a single opponent. Amongst a group of archers, that should take the pressure off if a giant monster is approaching.
The hierarchy of the structures, units, technology and special powers in War of the Ring has been kept simple. Partly, it feels like it’s been kept simple for mass appeal’s sake. The two sides play off each other like a chess game. The good side has the riders of Rohan. The bad side has the orc-riding wargs. The good side has a mill for food harvesting. The bad side has a bloody slaughterhouse. The power-ups and types of units also work the same. Some grant invisibility, some deny invisibility. Some structures can produce cheap missile units while some powers prevent heavy attrition from missile damage. Frodo is able to wear the ring to become an invisible scout (one of the few characters that can do this without any research off the bat in the game). The Nazgul have a special ability to go and detect Frodo.
Overall, though, the entire scheme is straightforward. Besides sheer simplicity, the two-resource economic model emphasizes the power of the heroes, rather than structures to build a massive army or a gigantic technology/upgrade tree. This isn’t, after all, Civilization of the Ring, where you must build an entire civilization from scratch and keep the coffers full.
One look and many will think this interface bears striking similarities with Warcraft 3. It’s a bottom-heavy menu set up. However, Liquid Entertainment can’t really be faulted for using something that works. Nearly all action games on the PC use WSAD and drop down menus are standard amongst all Windows applications – could they also be faulted for using something that works?
The interface is uncomplicated and uncluttered. Most of the amenities you expect in other real-time strategy games can be found here: idle worker unit indicators, posture tweaking, waypoint-driven patrols. Hero units are stacked on the right hand side, so you save some time by not having to group them individually to monitor their status.
While War of the Ring supports groupings of units, it doesn’t support sub-groupings. So if you have more than one hero amongst a group, they can’t all be part of group one and also be individually part of groups two and three. I only raise this as a concern because while special powers for heroes within a group stand out – you can only access one hero’s special powers amongst a group of heroes.
Most of the effects in the game revolve around using the cryptic ring inscription as wallpaper. It’s used in the loading screen. It’s used as a cursor to highlight which units you’ve selected. The visuals in War of the Ring don’t have the same look as the movie, although that doesn’t necessarily mean everything is unrecognizable. An orc is an orc is an orc. And for once, the orcs have a real reason to exist as the antagonists.
Speaking of orcs, the visuals do resemble a little like Warcraft 3, but because War of the Ring draws on the depth of the novels, it’s able to stand strong by itself. The developers were able to add some weather effects into the game to make the whole battlefield look less flat from a bird’s eye view. Sunlight creeps in amongst the tall trees in the elven lands. Amongst Mordor, lightning periodically flashes across the screen.
Too many units flashing on your screen can be a concern. On a modest (but not minimum requirement) machine, there was significant lag and slowdown when you approach the population limit of one hundred. Particularly bad were the scenes during Helm’s Deep or any other scenario where there is a horde present on the map.
Scattered throughout the maps of the game is a thing called places of power. You’ll notice because of the narrated speech. It’s an attractive magical looking area that you come across by exploring the map. The concept is similar to a permanent version of Command and Conquer’s magic crates, only the bonuses are tied to holding that specific location and they can sometimes give an overwhelming advantage. Regeneration is one of the best things you could have on your side during any sort of game; single player, multiplayer or skirmish.
One of the multiplayer game types entails fighting for these places of power. The usual deathmatch scenarios exist and you can substitute computer players for any spots missing. The limitations that the developers put on War of the Ring aren’t as noticeable in the single player campaigns as they are in the multiplayer. Picking between two sides and adjusting your tactics on a one to one scale isn’t the sophistication most real-time strategy veterans are looking for. Consider that Warcraft 3 made four very distinct races and Command and Conquer Generals had three with over a dozen sub-variations using their newest expansion pack. In that arena, that of strategic depth, I can’t see War of the Ring measuring up, even with its emphasis on fate-powered heroes, special effects and spells.
Vis-ŕ-vis effects, all of the speech and spells sound great. The characters aren’t voiced by the same actors as the film, but the developers were able to line up some competent voice actors. The most surprising piece is the soundtrack. War of the Ring is accompanied by a fantastic orchestral score. At the right moments, the music is able to imply a sinister tone or stir up the beat to a courageous battle.
Besides sounding great, War of the Ring feels like a solid real-time strategy title. It looks like a product where the creators definitely know something about making it. It has some sturdy foundations to it and appealing graphics set on top of an unmistakably popular backdrop. In spite of its modest design tendencies, (this game never becomes more ambitious than being a real time strategy with Lord of the Rings), I personally found it very charming and came off it with the same affection I had for Disney’s strategy rendition of Treasure Planet– an underrated title that unfortunately became mired in poor press for the movie.
That shouldn’t be a problem for War of the Ring. Being one of the first strategy titles based on Tolkien’s locus classicus, War of the Ring should introduce a good many movie fans to the strategy genre -- and most likely, no greater percentage of Ring fans exists than amongst the gaming demographic -- but veteran real-time strategy players might want to look elsewhere if depth is what they’re seeking. No amount of hobbits, elves, dwarves, humans, orcs or goblins will be able to provide the kind of complexity they seek in War of the Ring.