Where the real-time strategy game genre was once thought moribund and repetitive, the 3D achievements of games like Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War and the Total War series in particular have pushed the RTS into new areas. And unsurprisingly, where smaller, more innovative developers have led the way, the behemoth EA is following in their wake, throwing money around like Scrooge McDuck in his big swimming pool of cash.
EA's first attempt to shoe-horn RTS gameplay into one of their eye-wateringly expensive licences was Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth, which was fairly well received. Now, to approximately no one's surprise, there's a sequel, and Crave's played a demo. This uses the same plotted, mission-based campaign style that allows a loose connection with the films and Tolkien's books, as well as multiplayer skirmish play.
In an upgrade from the first title's four armies, there are now six, with elves, dwarves and men on the 'goodies' side, and uruk-hai, orks and goblins (no, we don't know the difference either) as the 'baddies'. The demo has two small skirmish maps with dwarves and goblins to choose from. These turn out to be surprisingly different to play, with the dwarves able to construct massive battlements and the goblins using tunnels to get around the map in secret.
The other major innovation here is the ability to make your own heroes. A hero is a super unit with a number of special abilities that are unlocked with experience earned in battle. You can customise a number of different types, allocating points to attributes such as speed and power, and choosing what they look like, with lots of options for armour and weaponry.
Choice is abundant throughout the game, with overall experience unlocking various useful magical powers and allies. This gives skirmishing a pattern of slowly building the mines you use for resources and unit cap increases, protecting them, holding off the enemy and earning experience, and upgrading the units until you have a respectable force to chuck at the opposition base. It's undemanding, good-looking fun -- precisely what we expect from EA. You can download the demo from GameSpot now (be warned, it's a whopping 1.3GB), and it'll be in the shops on 3 March for about £30. -NH
Update: a full review of Battle for Middle-earth II for Xbox 360 (rather than PC) is now live.