Before describing War in Middle Earth, I should probably justify its inclusion in this blog at all, because some of you have said it's not a CRPG, and indeed I don't think it is. After claiming that I was following a Wikipedia list for over a year, I have finally updated my "rule" to reflect that the CRPG list comes from several sources. I have erred on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion--if someone reasonably authoritative thinks it's a CRPG, it will be on my list.
A couple of times I have arrived at a game, played it for a few minutes, and rejected it as a CRPG immediately. Dracula in London was a recent example. Finally, after thinking it over, I decided to set the following rule: no matter who thinks the game is a CRPG, if it does not have at least two of the following three core elements, I can skip it:
- Non-puzzle-based inventories. This means that you have to be able to find and carry things that aren't necessary to solve a puzzle, like swords and potions and such. Adventure games have inventories, but the items are meant to solve puzzles, so they don't count.
- Character leveling and development. This refers to the accumulation of experience points, the ability to increase attributes, or other types of character improvement other than better inventories.
- Combat based at least partly on attribute-derived statistics. Whether you connect with your opponent, how much damage you do, whether you avoid your opponent's attack, and how much damage you take should be based on numbers attached to your attributes, not simply on your chosen weapon and on how fast you click the mouse.
This rule gives a better framework for deciding whether a site like MobyGames got it right, and it makes my decision to reject a CRPG less arbitrary. Frankly, I just didn't like the look of Dracula in London, but that shouldn't be an excuse to violate my six-hour rule unless I have something else to base it on. Also, from now on I will periodically do a "rejected" posting in which I explain which games I rejected and give you a chance to defend them as CRPGs. I can still break the rules in favor of inclusion (Pirates! had none of these elements) but not in favor of exclusion. Got it?
(Anyone who thinks, "Hey, man, it's just a game. Do you have to have so many rules? Can't you just relax and play what games you want?" needs to spend more time pondering the consequences of giving too much leeway to an addict.)
These rules will mean that a lot of games that are primarily some other category--adventure, simulation, strategy--will appear in this blog if they have sufficient "RPG elements." This is fine with me. I'm not interested in being pedantic about what constitutes an RPG. And I still have my six-hour rule if it turns out I don't like it.
That brings us to War in Middle Earth, which is listed everywhere but the title screen as J.R.R. Tolkien's War in Middle Earth. I already don't like it, but I can't dismiss it out of hand because it has one of my elements (probability-based combat) and may have another (inventories, although just barely). In the game, you control the various "good" characters in The Lord of the Rings, who are collectively attempting to get the ring to Mount Doom while Sauron's forces are trying to seize it and take it to the fortress of Barad-Dur. Secondary objectives revolve around retaining certain key strongholds.
You control the game at three levels. The first is the full map level, where you can see all the forces arrayed throughout Middle Earth. This was actually somewhat interesting to me because I've watched the movies but never read the books (oh, all of you calm down), so I was never very clear how the different kingdoms were arrayed.
|Just out of curiosity, why couldn't the Fellowship go around the mountains surrounding Mordor? Judging by the map, it would only add another 30% or so to the journey.|
The second level is the campaign level, in which you control armies and give orders. You start with the ability to control the party of hobbits, and later you get several armies of Rohirim, and some armies in Gondor.
The lowest level is the "animation level," where you can control some individual characters, including the ability to talk to NPCs (although it appears that only they can initiate conversations) and pick up and use items.
|A healing draught?! I'm glad you told me! I was about to waste my time destroying the ring and saving the world.|
Now let me tell you why I don't like this game. First, I tend not to like games based on the plots of movies and books. Either one of two things happens: the game follows the plot too closely, and you just feel like you're riding a track from beginning to end, or the game diverges from the plot, and you experience a kind-of geek dissonance. For instance, War in Middle Earth starts with three pathetically-animated, identical-looking hobbits trudging down the road: Frodo, Sam, and Pippin.
What happened to Merry? Who knows. A better question: if you had to pick one of the two, could you pick the one not prone to starting cooking fires when you're supposed to be hiding, making a lot of noise when you're supposed to be sneaking through a ruin, or screwing around with a palantir after Gandalf explicitly instructs him not to? Merry's addicted to heroin, granted, but at least he can hold a sword.
Similar problems: Isengard already has armies of Uruk-hai as Frodo and his band set out, Frodo can die but another character can become the ring-bearer and solve the quest, you can move armies to places they don't appear in the book, and so on.
Second, there isn't much you can do in the game. Even at the animation level, you basically just watch your characters walk along. You can't direct them individually, or force them to stop and talk to an NPC, or whatever. At the campaign level, you have none of the options of other strategy games, in which the fun is carefully managing your resources, building armies, and so on. You just tell armies where to go and hope they win the battle when they arrive.
Finally, there's an awful lot of just sitting and watching in the game--not a lot of "playing." If you had more forces at your command, it might be more exciting as you tried to juggle all of their movements.
|"Four ring-wraiths are behind you. Where the other five are...is clearly shown to me on the campaign map."|
The first time I played, I tried following the plot of the film as much as I could. I directed Frodo and his band to Rivendell. They evaded a few Nazgul and fell in with Aragorn at a crossroads. Then they walked and walked for ages, even with the game speed set to "very hasty."
Occasionally, you encounter foes, sometimes random. When that happens, you see your individual characters or armies, and you have four options: charge, engage, withdraw, and retreat. If you win, the only real benefit is that you stay alive, as there are no experience points or levels in the game.
On the way to Rivendell, I was attacked by all nine Nazguls at once and somehow managed to defeat them all. Elrond mysteriously came charging out of Rivendell to assist. Nothing about Arwen and the magic river, but I hear those weren't in the books, either.
At Rivendell, the Council met as in the books and Frodo was appointed the ring-bearer and so on. Gandalf, Boromir, Legolas, and Gimli joined the band. They ran into Bilbo, who tried to give some sort of side quest and then left the mithril shirt just lying in the middle of the road. I'm glad I noticed it.
At this point, I directed the group to the Gap of Rohan. I don't care if "the way south is being watched." It still makes more sense than going under or over a mountain.
There are a couple of combats with wolves, but nothing serious. But then the group encounters a Balrog. Outdoors. In the middle of some trees. The entire party is killed, and I get a message that the third Nazgul (I thought I killed them!) appeared and took the ring.
Then Gandalf is summoned by Galandriel (I thought he was dead!) who tells him something but I can't see it because of emulator problems, I guess. I send Gandalf on the track of the Nazgul, but apparently Gandalf needs to stop and camp now and then while the Nazgul doesn't. After a brief stop for a copy protection question...
...the Nazgul makes it to Bard-Dur and Sauron wins:
If I play again, maybe I'll try to go after that healing draught first.
Later edit: My second game ended almost immediately, when a Nazgul found the hobbits and killed them:
|The thought of Pippin facing a Nazgul alone while Frodo and Sam lie dead at his feet actually gives me a little tingle.|