Title War in Middle Earth Game Type Strategy (Strategy-Adventure) Publisher Melbourne House, 1989 Players 1 Compatibility OCS (All with WHDLoad Patch) HD installable Yes (With Patch) Submission Peter Olafson (firstname.lastname@example.org) Review War in Middle Earth is nothing if not ambitious. It encompasses the whole War of the Ring from Hobbiton to Mount Doom in a single grand scenario. Other attempts to bring J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy to the small screen typically have been far more compact, tackling either individual volumes or sections of volumes and breaking up the story further into stages or scenarios. In fact, it is only now, more than 15 years after its release, that a rival to War in Middle Earth is emerging. Electronic Arts plans a November release for the Windows game The Battle for Middle-Earth—a 3D real-time strategy game on a similarly vast scale. But it's not just War in Middle Earth's scale that is ambitious. The game is founded on a paradox: How does a developer make a war game from a trilogy that is not fundamentally about war and still do justice to Tolkien's great work? In the books, war is largely a backdrop, a context for adventure. In reversing those positions, a game designer must inevitably risk the sacrifice or diminishment of much that gave the trilogy its indomitable spirit;—the characters, their relationships, and the irreducible will of one small, furry-footed creature under a great burden. In short, a "The Lord of the Rings" game that consists mainly of battles may wind up not being exactly "The Lord of the Rings." It may wind up more like Warcraft: Orcs vs. Humans. Then again, in the wake of two combat-heavy Rings movies, "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King," perhaps this is precisely what the game-playing world wants,—vast battles before the walls of Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith. But 15 years ago, no such expectations existed, and I'd wager that game designers Alan Clark and Robert Clardy grappled with precisely this "character" issue while shaping the 16-bit version of War in Middle Earth. Mike Singleton designed the original 8-bit version, a fairly straightforward fantasy war game that was published by Melbourne House in 1988. The 16-bit game, which surfaced early in the following year, is a de facto collaboration with Singleton (who is credited here with the game's concept) that embroiders upon his design to tone down the war and boost the adventure. That reflects more of the innate balance of the trilogy—that should have allowed developer Synergistic Software to give the battles good weight while not neglecting the world in which they are set. The 16-bit game is more open, more varied and more accessible than the 8-bit game (which plays rather like a computer translation of a board war game). It may even be more fun. But, overall, the game nevertheless is thin and ill-conceived. In fact, at one particular point, War in Middle Earth is so thin that you can poke a finger right through its fabric. In broad terms, the two games are similar. In each, the player directs the ring bearer and his companions south and east toward the dark lord Sauron's base in Mordor and simultaneously assembles the allied armies of men, elves and dwarves, represented by icons on a vast, scrolling map. However, the details are markedly different—and it must be said that some of Clark's and Clardy's changes are well considered. For example, the 8-bit game opens with the full Fellowship already assembled at the Elven outpost of Rivendell and your allies already in your camp. The 16-bit game sensibly re-casts these two fait accomplis as new challenges. The first is to reach Rivendell without falling prey to Sauron's nine "black riders," who have been sent out to search for the ring. This game starts just outside Hobbiton, with a party consisting of the hobbits, Frodo Baggins, Sam Gamgee and Pippin Took and the enemy far too close for comfort. Combat is deadly until (and maybe even after) Aragorn joins the hobbits, and your best shot is simply to stay under the radar until the ring wraiths beat a retreat. The second is to win allies. Most of the troops of Gondor and Rohan aren't yet on-board. Nor are the elves in the northeastern reaches of Mirkwood, the dwarves under the Lonely Mountain and in the Iron Hills, or the men of Dale. They won't accept your orders until you either reach "trigger" points in the game or produce "objects of power" found in the wilderness. This is a thoughtful addition that reflects the actual difficulties the wizard Gandalf experiences in enlisting the aid of Rohan's King Theoden, who has fallen victim to Saruman's intrigues, and Gondor Steward Denethor, whose family has so long ruled the kingdom that he's forgotten they're just caretakers. The resulting five quests are not unique to the 16-bit version. (They're the rough equivalent of the searches for the seeing stones in the 8-bit game.) But this version includes many more quests—about 17, by my count, that give access to a range of other useful items. These missions come both from people you meet in your journey—including the roaming wizard Radagast, who makes several borderline-annoying appearances in the early stages of the game, and visions that appear in a single "Palantir" that is itself the object of a quest. They add weight to the game's adventure side and figure in strategy as well—and not simply because success in the quests helps ensure success on the battlefield. They raise practical questions. Should you use troops for quests? Would powerful party members like the wizard Gandalf and Aragorn be better used elsewhere? Would the hobbits be safe on their own? The expeditions often take you well off the beaten path. And that goes right to War in Middle Earth's greatest asset: The game is flexible. You can play by the books. The party is already following that comparatively safe path by default when you join it and, if you don't get any bright ideas, will continue on it all the way to Rivendell. But you're not a slave to the books. War in Middle Earth doesn't enforce more than the broadest outline of the story. You don't have to hook up with hobbit Merry Brandybuck in Buckland, Aragorn outside Bree or the rest of the happy mob at Rivendell—though this last group (including most of the Fellowship's muscle) will nevertheless fall under your control at a certain point in the campaign. You don't have to cross the Misty Mountains and can instead head south from Rivendell to the Gap of Rohan. You don't have to split up the Fellowship. You don't have to enter Mordor at one particular spot. Gandalf and Boromir don't have to die. Frodo doesn't have to survive. (If Frodo does die, the ring is handed off to another party member. If he's on his own at the time, a ring wraith is sent to the location … and, effectively, the game is over.) In fact, barring encounters with enemies, you can go pretty much where you want. The map stretches west to the Grey Havens, north to the Lonely Mountain, south to Harad, and east to the Sea of Rhûn. Beyond the victory conditions (protect key locations and recycle the ring), War in Middle Earth is largely what you make of it. Alas, this same freedom is home to several problems. One of them is the quests themselves. They consist of item-retrieval errands too similar to one another to generate much excitement, set in a world too spartan to be of more than academic interest, and performed within a schedule too rigorous for the quests to be meaningful within the larger framework of the game. Overall, they provide less adventure than distraction. The big question is time. I don't see how you'll complete even a handful of quests before war breaks out, except by stumbling across quest items by accident (you don't have to receive a quest to complete it) or searching for them on the surface map by design. (You can look at any location in a close-up view at any time.) Given the vast distances involved, the Fellowship's slow progress and limited manpower and the game's haphazard method for assigning quests, you probably won't return more than two of the five "objects of power" to the right allies before Sauron sends out his armies, which brings the lion's share of allied forces under your command anyway. And that's if you're very lucky. The problem is that the order of the quests changes from game to game. Clark and Clardy probably thought this would give lend it some variety and replayability. And it's a worthy cause, but the quest process needed to be greatly tightened up if these missions were to have useful impact. The "Palantir" is a step in that direction. Without it, you'll get the occasional quest from people you meet along your path. (Even Frodo's uncle Bilbo has been pressed into service as a quest-giver.) With it, one quest after another can be generated within the party. You'll know the location of most of the items in the game, and you can pick and choose which ones to go after. (Evidently some risks are supposed to attend over-use of the seeing stone, but the game never seems to deliver on this threat.) However, the Palantir isn't even remotely in your path. You'll be able to find it only if you hear about it from a quest-giver. And because the randomized order of the quests, it's entirely possible that you will never hear about either it or the "objects of power" or hear only when they're far behind you. No attempt has been made to link either quest assignments or item locations to the party's location—nor to bring the strategically important quests to the fore. In fact, a slew of quest items can be found in and around the Shire, where the game begins. However, at the beginning of the game, the black riders are set up to shoo you away to the south and east. They'll eventually withdraw for a confrontation at the last natural barrier on the road to Rivendell, but the cumulative effect is to push you away from the very items you should be trying to recover and to waste precious time. You probably have five or six months (it varies) before Sauron releases his armies. But it's not as long as it sounds, and you don't have time for a lot of back-tracking. This is impractical. The quests themselves are simply dull. Little art is involved in finding most items. You're pretty much told where they are. You simply head for the stated location, zoom in to a side view (which we'll discuss later) and order a character to pick up the item. (Sometimes, you'll have to walk in a stated direction for several screens first.) You'll find it lying around in the open like a discarded candy wrapper. Here, a certain amount of fog would have been handy. Why didn't Synergistic make use of the abandoned dwarven mine of Moria, the Paths of the Dead, Shelob's Lair or other locations to provide at least some degree of concealment and tension? Well, you can't go indoors in War in Middle Earth. This was the first of five games (four of them for the Amiga) that Synergistic constructed using its "World Builder" game system, and while interiors became a staple a year later in Spirit of Excalibur, I can only assume that, for this game, the feature wasn't yet in place. The player is shut out of virtually all the spookiest spots in Middle Earth. This sucks a lot of air out of the game. The Barrow Downs? Just a backdrop on the surface. The Paths of the Dead? An anonymous ruin and mountain pass have taken its place. As far as I can tell, Shelob's Lair isn't even represented in the game. (Shelob herself does appear. I found the great spider near Mount Doom.) And Moria? You'll find only pictures of doors in rock walls. Even the great mine's ostensible reason-for-being, as a path through otherwise impassable mountains, has vanished: A pass now appears just to the north. I did run into a Balrog, but it, too, was near Mount Doom—soon to be renamed the Home for Dispossessed Boss-Level Middle Earth Monsters. At first, I liked the side view. It effectively enables to you to travel with the Fellowship screen by screen, and these scenes give the game a face—a distinct improvement over the disembodied face of the "profile" option in the 8-bit game. (Granted, it's the same hobbit face four times over.) The backdrops are a decent match for terrain the party actually is passing through at the time. The sky changes from day to night and back again. And now and then, the party will stop, light a fire, and go to sleep. But if you stick with this view for any length of time, you'll find it's like walking through a de-populated beat-em-up. Nothing much happens. The game feels oddly empty. This is an unfortunate by-product of War in Middle Earth's lofty ambitions. Synergistic constructed a huge shell for its game world, with mountains, forests, rivers, roads and all sorts of named locations from Tolkien's mythology (along with lots of anonymous small towns, ruined castles and a couple of "evil citadels"). But it hasn't filled up that shell. Oh, to be sure, you'll encounter random enemies, find the odd item and run across the odd passer-by. But virtually none of these folks (save for Radagast, who just won't shut up) has anything to say. Conversation would have been an easy way to flesh out the game world. Let Frodo and his mates moan about missing their third breakfast and Gollum about "nasssty Hobbitsesss" Let elves talk about the Grey Havens and their passage into the West. Let refugees speak of the depredations of the orcs. The greater density of speaking characters also would have addressed some of the quest-assignment problems. (If you were to talk to enough people, you wouldn't need the Palantir.) In fact, only once in the game was I genuinely surprised. (That happened when I brought a particular Fellowship member to a particular location.) Freedom of action is no fun in itself unless those free actions lead to something. If you're going to dream big, deliver big. Picking up those items can be tricky, too. The quest items aren't a problem; most of them appear to be unique. But the game also offers an array of non-quest items—including weapons and armor with which you can equip the initial party—and these can be unintentionally squandered. The hobbits can be distinguished from each other only by the colors of their shirts. As they sometimes walk in a pack, with some un-clickably obscured behind others, and they won't stop walking for love or money, it can be difficult to select the hobbit that needs to grab a given item before the party exits the screen. And it's important to pick the right hobbit. If a hobbit who already has the item picks it up, it replaces the one he has in his inventory and hence is lost to the hobbit who needs it. (It's an odd lapse. Generally speaking, the mouse/keyboard controls are a step up from the turgid joystick/keyboard interface of the 8-bit version. Icons in the upper right corner of the screens allow you to direct units, zoom out to a full map of Middle Earth and in to the side view, speed up or slow down the game, save and load games, oddly, only one save can be stored on a disk, and check a unit's status.) Moreover, War in Middle Earth is not quite ready for its close-up. The map screens are quite nice, but the backgrounds sometimes are pixilated or muddy. Some look like retouched photos of actual scenery, and it's not an attractive effect. Enemies often look silly. I have no fixed vision of what an orc looks like, but I'm fairly sure Tolkien didn't have in his mind a red-eyed rat walking upright and carrying a violet sword. No background animation is included beyond a meager one for water, and the scenes themselves sometimes are generic or just wrong. Hobbiton doesn't have hobbit holes. Tom Bombadil's house looks less like a lodge nestled deep in the woods than like a schoolhouse in America's Old West. The White Towers look like a camouflaged missile base. The Hornburg looks like Minas Tirith. At Lorien, the Elven queen Galadriel apparently has had the decorators in. It looks like a Greek temple. And at the Iron Hills, I couldn't immediately identify what I was seeing. Now, clearly, you're not expected to travel through as much of the game as I did in this mode. It's intended for special events: encounters, retrieving items and combat. But if I'd stuck to the map screen, I'd have missed both the quest and non-quest items in my path. (The game alerts the player to significant events and even to meetings with characters who have nothing to say, but provides no alerts to the presence of items.) Without those items, I'd probably have died crossing the Barrow Downs. When I started finding things on my own, I tended to play in this leisurely mode, so as not to miss anything important. I started to pay attention to the game's strategy side only after the party reached Rivendell. Sadly, it's as thin as the adventure side—with no appreciable artificial intelligence, little tactical depth and, indeed, no real strategy. It starts when Sauron's erstwhile ally, the corrupted wizard Saruman, sends 150 orcs east from Isengard. Presumably, this represents the mixed band of Uruk-hai (a man-orc hybrid) and conventional orcs that kidnapped the hobbits Merry and Pippin at Amon Hen; and was subsequently wiped out by the forces of Rohan as it hotfooted back to Isengard. This is both a plus and a minus. The plus is obvious enough: Overlooking the dispossessed monsters, the game makes a good-faith attempt to be true to the trilogy and other Tolkien source material that covers the events at the end of Middle Earth's Third Age. You'll find virtually every material character with a Fellowship or military connection represented here in some form—including King Theoden's daughter Eowyn, under her male alias of "Dernhelm." And when war breaks out, the fighting is not focused entirely on Gondor and Rohan. Sauron will also strike at Lorien from Dol Guldur in southern Mirkwood, and will send forces from Mordor to attack the settlements of elves, dwarves and men in the far north. Though these battles are not well documented in the trilogy—I'm not even sure they're all mentioned,—they do reflect events that are supposed to have occurred. The minus? Well, it doesn't make sense for those 150 orcs to head east unless Saruman knows the Fellowship has crossed to the east side of the Misty Mountains. But those troops will head east even if the party remains west of the mountains and makes for the Gap of Rohan—which suggests the enemy forces aren't guided by artificial intelligence at all, but by a script that moves them to a given position at a given time. As we'll see, the enemy in the 16-bit version of War in Middle Earth just doesn't think. I don't know whether the enemy in the 8-bit version thinks. (Initially, you can't see the enemy in that game.) I do know that the strategy side of the 16-bit game has been simplified a great deal from the 8-bit, so it's not inconceivable that the AI's been taken down a peg as well. Some of the simplifications are for the greater good. In the 8-bit game, each unit is rated for, among other things, energy, determination, steadfastness, virtue, bravery, strength and allegiance. Actually, I liked this. It's a distinctly Mike Singleton touch that makes the units seem more like people with personalities than like military units. However, it's a lot to absorb, let alone interpret in gameplay terms (where its practical value is unequal to its seeming complexity), and the 16-bit version's just-the-facts approach is for the best. Other changes work less well. The 15 difficulty settings from the 8-bit game, which control the strength of enemy troops, are gone. So is the ability to stop the passage of time to redirect troops or take in the big picture. In the 16-bit game, the clock never stops unless you pause the game. And with the game paused, you can't even scroll the map. The simplified controls work much as in the quests;—fairly well in broad strokes and less well in the finer points. Units are relatively easy to direct and, given the distances involved, the "path finding" is pretty good. Most troops get where they're going in good time. But not all. Some forces in northern Gondor and southern Rohan, close to the mountains that separate the kingdoms, moved as if driving with the emergency brakes on—not skirting the mountains but seeming to scrape against them. A more alarming example: Once I'd broken the back of Sauron's armies, I sent my remaining forces at Minas Tirith to Mount Doom. Most of them were smart enough to dip to the south and thus avoid the pass between Minas Morgul and Cirith Ungol—guarded as it was the western end by 10,000 orcs. But some did go through the pass. I don't know which bothers me more—that they went this way, or that the orcs in their path didn't even blink.. Moreover, movement orders sometimes didn't "take" on the first tries. (The game seems a bit pernickety about where you click on a unit.) At other times, orders seemed to be misinterpreted and the unit would set off in an unintended direction. For instance, ordered to move south from Rivendell, the Fellowship spent a lot of time walking in circles in the woods to the southwest, as a result getting into multiple tussles with wild animals and trolls, which eventually killed off Denethor's heir, Boromir. And the game effectively locked up if I tried to issue a movement order to a unit that wasn't yet in the allied fold—telling me, ad infinitum, that the unit wouldn't accept my orders. Sometimes I could break out of this cycle by clicking on an allied or enemy unit, but such units weren't always available, and even when they were, this didn't always work. Clark and Clardy have also removed the "fog of war" to reveal the dispositions of enemy troops. (In the 8-bit game, as you collect three "Palantiri," you learn the disposition of more and more of the forces arrayed against you.) At a guess, the designers wanted to make the game less intimidating and easier to play. (After all, you can't avoid black riders if you can't see them.) But this also reveals the game's artificial intelligence to be sadly mediocre. A good AI should prod and challenge the player to prevent him from falling back on fixed tactics. The enemy in War in Middle Earth doesn't prod. It operates like an out-of-control assembly line. Enemy forces rarely bypass allied troop concentrations to hit your forces where they are weakest and only occasionally concentrate their own forces, seek out undefended approaches or interfere with the flow of reinforcements. Instead, their armies are battering rams. Again and again, they hurl individual units of orcs, men and worse at your key strong points: Minas Tirith in Gondor and the Hornburg in Rohan. In fairness, the strategy side does have some tactical nuances. But, as in the situation with the Palantir, I doubt you'll get to experience these fine points. I found that, much of the time, I didn't have to finesse things. I could simply pour troops into strongholds and let the enemy waves break around them. In this way, Sauron squandered a vast army on the Pelennor Fields, and Saruman another in repeated attacks on the Hornburg. That's where the difficulty settings would have come in handy. The more or less passive strategy game that was released would have been the low end. At higher levels, with stronger enemies capable of capturing the allied strongholds through attrition, the player would be forced to take the initiative and make use of the game's unexploited tactical dimensions. Finally, the actual battles have been toned down so far that they're barely battles anymore. As in the 8-bit game, you can either fight them in detail or allow the AI to fight them for you. In the 8-bit game, each detailed battle is a battle royale. You direct each soldier individually on a narrow scrolling playfield and tactics do count. When a fair number of troops are involved (and there usually are), these affairs can be slightly longer than interminable. By contrast, in the 16-bit game, the detailed battles are a frosty abstraction. The two sides go head to head on the side-view screen, as if this were "West Side Story," and, via a menu, each unit or hero can be directed to engage (the default), charge, withdraw, or retreat. It doesn't feel right. You're not directing a battle so much as a mechanism, and the mechanism exhibits little feel for the vast forces in play. The side-view screen does show troops on both sides dying as casualty reports flash at the bottom of the menu. But in a battle with many units and heroes in play (most of the battles, in my games), the menu covers up most of this screen, making these animations pointless. I can well understand simplifying the battles from the micro-management of the 8-bit game, but I'd much prefer a display that better represents the event, like the real-time combat of Lords of the Rising Sun (a contemporary of War in Middle Earth) which was both crisp and fun. With so many transparent problems, it's hard to see how the game surfaced in this form. Perhaps Synergistic wanted just wanted to make a nice, airy Middle Earth game that was easy to play and easy to win. In that, I'm afraid they've succeeded only too well. For, as it happens, you can ignore all the fine points of gameplay and, with a little common sense and careful use of the speed control, conduct Frodo from Hobbiton to Mount Doom in well under an hour. This spoiled the game for me. It effectively reduced winning to a trick, and devalued what I had achieved by legitimate means. This is always a potential problem with open designs of this kind. (Something similar can also happen in Carrier Command and in Singleton's own Midwinter.) But a good thing came from it: Synergistic learned from its mistake. All the developer's subsequent "World Builder" games were episode-based, and the end wasn't within reach until you had worked your way to the last episode. In fact, the developer's next game, Spirit of Excalibur, addressed with varying success virtually every problem in War in Middle Earth. Of course, an episodic War in Middle Earth wouldn't have had the same threadbare grandeur. But it wouldn't fast-forward. And perhaps Synergistic, liberated from the game's clock, might have felt free to explore the world in greater detail. But it's unavailing to consider what the game might have been. Ultimately, War in Middle Earth is an imaginative but shallow first step toward a destination Synergistic would not reach until seven years later in Birthright: Gorgon's Alliance. And yet, for all that, I have a grudging affection for the game albeit for reasons that have little to do with the game itself. In early 1989, I was so incensed by the ease with which I completed War in Middle Earth that I wrote a review—my first of a game, and sent it to Amiga World magazine The magazine had already assigned one, but the piece earned me a review assignment (Sega's grueling Alien Syndrome, which I liked) and things took off from there. Thus, War in Middle Earth can be credited for helping set my career on a different course. This time around, I wasn't incensed. In fact, I don't feel much of anything toward the game beyond a hazy gratitude for it once having made me angry. As much as it has been thrust into the present by the recent movies and The Battle for Middle-Earth, it belongs to the past. War in Middle Earth's virtues now seem submerged in its problems and its problems seem rather quaint, like the misfirings of an antique machine. But I have to admire its ambition.