This latest real-time enactment of the Middle Earth conflict is a healthy improvement on its predecessor. As the game of the film it has considerable inherited potential to work with, and while it might only have waded through the shallow edge of the genepool in its first iteration, it is now completely submerged - and growing stronger like an orc gestating in verdant sludge.
While never genuinely challenging or surprising, BFME2 does deal its blows with feeling. It's a nice big cave troll of an RTS: never too fast or clever, but awesome when beating drums or upgraded with armour. After seeing how weakly Empire At War delivered its now-familiar subject matter, it's gratifying to see an RTS that openly revels in itself.
Battle For Middle Earth 2 takes the Tolkien universe and shakes it roughly by the trousers, just to see what shiny things fall out which might be of use. What appears from its deep dark pocketses are spiders and goblins riding giant scorpions, orc chiefs leading hordes of their lurching brethren, tentacle monsters summoned from below, blazing balrogs, shiny heroes clad in mithril and light, and even some plump little Hobbits. Rather than being a limp film-license, it is a vibrant, colourful exploration of the terrain (PC games are all about good terrain) - it's an exploration that delivers pleasing alternative Middle Earths to us for pillage and plunder, or for pious defence.
The two solo campaigns (one for the good folk and one for the forces of evil) are each eight interesting scenarios in length. Artistically delivered and wrapped in a fine sheen of spidery background detail, these campaigns are vintage RTS, which all fit over the classic mould like spiky goblin-forged gauntlets. And I mean vintage: they feel fine on the palette, but damn, are these are old formulae. This is base building, unit pumping, resource sucking like it was in Old Grandpa Pentium's day. It's all dressed up in Tolkien's finest, yes, but nevertheless The Same As It's Ever Been. Those searching for innovation amongst the Misty Mountains of contemporary strategy won't find it here.
Not to worry, because those of us who like a bit of the build 'n' bash are lavishly catered for. The Evil campaign is particularly invigorating, with betrayal and sieges and the rather startling experience of sacking the Shire and watching the Green Dragon Inn burn before your pixel-glazed eyes. See Tom Bombadil dance - and crush him. Just don't cackle along with the Goblin King and no one will ever suspect how much you are enjoying murdering the Elves.
When these two campaigns have sundered the continent this way and that, you can try the many skirmish options, or the rather more formidable War Of The Ring mode, which, like Empire At War's Galactic Conquest, gives you scope to take things to the tactical map and fight the war in a fresh and organic manner. This larger skirmish-style option allow you to drop different factions in, and to play as either men, goblins, dwarves, elves, Isenguard or Mordor itself. You even get to decide their starting positions across the map. Of course, you can play as any of these factions, each one with its own heroes and mega-units. (You can even create your own hero, for fully-customised multiplayer ponciness. Hat and beard choice is limited, but you'll probably want to go for black anyway - I hear it's quite hip in the dark times.)
Playing out the War Of The Ring can be a long process, with each battle lasting as much as an hour, and at least half a dozen battles before the fate of The Ring, and Middle Earth, is sealed. Of course the combat itself looks fabulous, and the upgrades available to almost every unit add enormously to the way the fights play out, but it bloody well should - it's not like EA is short of a few quid. As mentioned earlier - the forces of evil are glorious, and filling the battlefield with their spore is satisfyingly monstrous. The armoured troll and wraiths of Mordor fill us with a particularly keen sense of point 'n' click evildoing. Bodies sent flying by the larger units crash down with horrible inevitability - but it's still not quite as vibrant as Dawn Of War. Having played far too much of the Relic masterwork I can't help but draw some comparisons, and while it's very similar, the possible variations in battle bring Dawn Of War out on top. Battle For Middle Earth 2 will replay as the same battle over and over - it's difficult to want to go on after just a few fights. Nor is the single player campaign far-reaching enough to keep dragging you onwards - as it is in, say, Warcraft 3. Finding your own way in the War Of The Ring campaign is the obvious option for hungry generals, so it's a shame that the tactical map sections are clunky, ugly and without any intuitive interaction at all.
The balance and cash-spend on units does influence things, since without decent armour your basic troops go down very quickly - and they won't even make it into hand-to-hand with against a decent troupe of archers. Meanwhile, Cavalry act splendidly, slamming into ranks of soldiers and pushing their way through. Unlike so many mounted units across the history of gaming, these chaps have real weight. Such nuance of balancing is excellent for multiplayer, but there are problems aside from repetition. The messy AI often leaves units attacking a building or nearby hero when you really want them to concentrate on a more important target, and while there are loads of special powers through units - and also available to you as the general - few of them seem particularly vital or decisive. Pretty magicks, but that was never what Lord Of The Rings was about.
Nevertheless, Battle For Middle Earth 2 is going to trip up and find itself crushed under a catapulted eight. I award that numeral grudgingly, because there's really nothing here that truly deserves great reward. But I had legions of fun. And, for this game at least, that counts for, oooh, pretty much everything.