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Lord of the Rings: The War of the RTSes

Vivendi launches demo, EA announces competing title.

Vivendi last night launched a two-level single-player demo of Lord of the Rings-based real-time strategy saga The War of the Ring. As of this morning, it's available from numerous outlets, weighing in at 120MB. The full game is due out in November this year.

But while we were busy finding a speedy download mirror, we spied a fresh press release from Electronic Arts, detailing the development of The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-Earth, a PC-based real-time strategy game from the team at EA Los Angeles credited with Command & Conquers Red Alert 2 and Generals. Apparently it's due out in summer 2004.

Confused? In case you aren't quite up-to-date on this epic tale of war and treachery, it all began way back when the Lord of the Rings film trilogy was still an unknown quantity being pieced together by an excitable furry man in shorts. As it turned out, EA had acquired the rights to create and publish games based on the LOTR movies with New Line Cinema. Hurrah, they thought. No-one can stop us now.

However, Vivendi had other ideas, ignoring New Line and striking up a deal with Tokien Enterprises, granting them exclusive rights to develop games based on J.R.R. Tolkien's best-selling novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings over the next eight years.

Since then, EA has done decidedly better than Vivendi. While VU flustered over the Fellowship, building a pretty mediocre adventure game full of characters filmgoers wouldn't recognise, EA created a masterful "film companion" in its winter 2002 release of The Two Towers, a game which took players on a glossy hackandslash through a minefield of movie extras including cast interviews and other trinkets. The fact that it was actually great fun was sort of a bonus.

But with the cinematic trilogy drawing to close this December, both publishers are scrambling to take advantage. EA is finishing off their Return of the King tie-in - which wowed onlookers at E3 mostly thanks to its film footage - and Vivendi is busy prepping The Hobbit, The War of the Ring and Middle-Earth Online, having reportedly canned The Treason of Isengard.

It's into this widespread conflict that The Battle for Middle-Earth strides. Utilising the Generals game engine, it will offer both 'good' and 'evil' campaigns, in which players will have to fight some of the most epic battles of the Lord of the Rings films for themselves. And given the ROTK preview featurettes we've been watching on our Two Towers DVD, the battle for Helm's Deep is probably just a tutorial...

In-keeping with the previously successful formula, The Battle for Middle-Earth will use digital assets created for the films and voiceovers from the real actors, spliced with actual movie footage as well thanks to that surprisingly fluid technique EA has been showing off in its TV adverts. However unlike its Two Towers and Return of the King titles, beating the competition on this front will require some balanced, inventive gameplay. We'll let you know how the first blows fall when we get our hands on Vivendi's War of the Ring in a couple of months' time.