“We’re headed back home,” wearily announces one of my Gondor Swordsmen. The ranks of armored soldiers line up and travel in orderly rows, marching over the sad, numerous bodies of the wretched goblins who dared to attack one of my outlying farms. As the moody orchestra swells in my ears and I watch my small army make its way over the forlorn, verdant fields of the map, I can’t help but be reminded of the awesome films that inspired this game.
My base is majestic looking, consisting of a white, round, intimidating wall that encompasses the various buildings I have raised within. My archers dutifully patrol the walls as I command the gates to open, the massive doors slowly swinging outwards so that my formations of battle-worn veterans can return inside. A magical well bestows soothing blue spells upon the injured and restores their wounds; I notice with some satisfaction that, though beaten and battered from the previous battle, they have accumulated enough experience points to reach level two, and will be doubly effective when they engage in combat again with their numbers refilled. It’s isn’t long, however, before I hear a voice shout “There they are!”, and notice that swollen mobs of sickly goblins are now approaching my city’s defenses. My archers will surely whittle them down before they can do any real damage, but I’m feeling sympathetic for the ugly little bastards, and so I allow the gates to yet again open, ordering my columns of armored infantry to engage in a defensive fighting stance before they descend upon them with extreme prejudice.
I was not among those privileged enough to have played the Battle for Middle Earth games back when they originally came out. I was only 13 years old when the second installment reached store shelves, and though I had an Xbox 360, I was far too interested in the likes of Halo and other games to have given the game any notice. I also was too young to fully appreciate Peter Jackson’s legendary trilogy-rendition of the Lord of the Rings, and it wasn’t until college that I re-watched the films and was captivated by their magic.
Please forgive that pun.
Basically, it was only about four years ago that I discovered what made J.R.R. Tolkien’s work so breathtaking and became an admirer of his creations. He personally conceived the tropes that make the modern “fantasy” genre what it is today. Pointy-eared elves and their affinity for nature, stout, bearded dwarves, wizards in big hats, and the brutish, ugly orcs — these widely recognizable archetypes and countless more were ideas that he came up with, and are fully showcased in his books and the movies that take after them. Because I’m such a late-comer to the Tolkien bandwagon, though, most of the swollen fruits that have grown from the movies’ massive success have long fallen from the tree and already rotted and faded into obscurity. Some notable videogame examples that immediately come to mind are the (in my opinion) amazing MMORPG, Lord of the Rings Online, and the well-received Battle for Middle Earth I & II. Though these titles are still great, there just aren’t many players making buzz about them anymore, and their glory days are obviously behind them.
That’s where the Edain Mod comes in.
Voted Best Mod of 2015 by the renowned ModDB website, it was stumbling upon this article about Edain that originally drew my interest back to The Battle for Middle Earth II. For a mod to be voted the best of the year is already an astounding achievement — even more so if it’s a mod for a game that was released an entire decade ago. When my friend suggested we download the game and play together, I decided to also install Edain and see what the fuss was all about.
Firstly, getting this ancient game to run any further than the startup splash screen was a nightmare. It took me four or five tries before I realized the patch to bring the expansion pack, Rise of the Witch King, up to 2.02 was what was breaking my game, and that I simply had to do without it. Those of you who wish to also give Edain a try, I recommend skipping the 2.02 patch as well, although you will be missing some spiffy widescreen resolutions apparently if you deign to heed my advice.
But i finally got to the main menu of the game, and tried out a skirmish match.
Visually, the game doesn’t hold up as well as I expected it to, but this game is ten years old, so it gets some slack. It doesn’t look bad by any means, but the colors aren’t bright or clear, and the visuals seem strangely muddy and somewhat blurry. I found myself zooming in frequently just to try to make out the action far below the camera, and though I suspect the 2.02 patch would have provided clearer resolution, the impossibility of performing the patching process on my Windows 10 PC means that the visuals are what I’ll be stuck with. Still, the game is nice to watch, I just wish it was more crisp looking.
Mixed feelings about the graphics aside, the presentation is impressive. The game menus are sleek and glossy, and the opening menu showcases some impressive cinematics despite their age. In particular I’m impressed with the in-game HUD the player is presented when starting a match; most RTS titles hog the entire bottom third or fourth of the screen to show you the statistics needed to understand what’s going on in a match. In BFME2, the only HUD elements are a couple of unobtrusive bubbles, one detailing the condition of your units and the other displaying the minimap, and a row of tiny buttons hugging the left side of the screen. This gives you a wonderfully unhindered view of the game’s action, and I wish more titles in the genre (and in gaming at large) would follow this minimalist design for HUD implementation.
While the graphics are sadly muddied, the game’s style is great. The movies set the precedent for the franchise’s grim, darkly beautiful design, but BFME2 takes it up another notch. Unit portraits feature a faded, illustration-like quality, and complement the moody atmosphere of the series. The steadfast, wary faces of the human soldiers clash dramatically against the frightening, warped visages of the monsters they do battle with. The models of the evil creatures and steadfast heroes exude a classical fantasy look, simple in appearance and design while also appearing original; humans are almost entirely encased in unadorned, shiny plate armor; elves have long, lovely hair and wear colorful cloth tunics; orcs and goblins are crooked and disfigured, with blackened, crude armor and weapons. This particular kind of fantasy look is a far cry from the cartoonish, wild theme of Warcraft, possessing an ancient and primeval persona of Tolkien flavor that was doubtlessly influential on series such as Dragon Age and the Elder Scrolls. It’s an authentic approach to the appearance of characters and setting that feels native to the novels that pioneered the fantasy genre, possessing an aura of mystery and olden beauty the movie trilogy originally presented. It might seem bland to some, but those who understand the source material will *get* that the simplicity is part of the beauty.
But that’s enough waxing poetic on what I think of the visual design. The gameplay of the Edain Mod is what sets this RTS apart from the others, rivaling the likes of legends such as the the Dawn of War and StarCraft series. The modification borrows and reincorporates much of the style of play present in the first Battle for Middle Earth game, in which battles are very much focused on besieging the opposing armies’ bases and wrestling over the control of various capture-able points scattered across the map. Each playable faction in the game — there are so far eight available, with more on the way — starts each match with a different kind of base that features varying levels of defenses and upgrade potential. The Arnor and Angmar factions, for instance, have highly defensible starting bases, possessing gates and multiple avenues for improving defenses. Lothlorien and Mordor, conversely, are lacking walls almost entirely, and must rely on different kinds of tactics to ensure the enemy never reaches their base to exploit their lack of defenses. This feature alone makes the various playable factions stand out from one another, with some more obviously suited to rushing tactics and aggressive offense, others relying more on turtling and slow advances and others that fall somewhere in between. It’s exciting to have an RTS with so many different choices for play, and Edain definitely has you covered.
This impressive variety of play doesn’t stop with faction selection. An important part of gameplay comes in the choice of build plots. There exists in each kind of base a set amount of locations where the player may choose to spend resources in order to create a new building, which can provide any number of benefits. For instance, when playing as Gondor, I could select one of these blank building plot spaces to create an archery range, which allows me to buy archers and related upgrades, such as flaming arrows. I could also make a town house, which boosts my resource income, or I could instead construct a well, which heals nearby units. Most of these buildings can be upgraded as well, providing even more benefits to the player. There is a limitation to these systems, however — you don’t have enough slots at your base to make every type of building, and you cant choose every kind of upgrade available for your buildings either. This makes base building a deeply strategic process, in which you must give up one benefit to obtain another, forcing you to be more careful and involved than you would be in other RTS games. I thought this was an exciting design choice, and it encourages players to experiment with different kinds of base builds and army compositions.
Scattered in between bases are various sites where you can create additional structures, and you are again forced to choose how to utilize these precious, limited areas for growth. Smaller plots allow you to build economic choices like farms, which boost income, or more militaristic constructions, such as watchtowers. Some of these scattered plots allow you to build powerful citadels, which allow you to gain a foothold on a particular front, or perhaps create a smaller version of your base, utilizing more economic additions to your empire. Control of these smaller, isolated territories is a big part of the early and mid game, and you’ll find yourself frequently fending off incursions against various parts of the map — and sometimes, early attacks against your base. The skirmishes between territories eventually evolve into massive siege battles as the various players grow their economies, and its exciting to see the vast ranks of units advancing on each other and clashing to devastating results. It’s by no accident that matches inevitably focus heavily on siege battles — this was an intentional design choice by the mod devs, as they believed this better reflected the nature of the Tolkien universe, wherein the story’s major pivotal points were determined by grand siege battles. (Battle for Helm’s Deep, Battle of Osgiliath, etc.) It’s both exciting and terrifying to watch enemies armies assault your walls and fortifications as they pit themselves against the defenses you’ve been preparing for most of the match.
The combat itself is robust, with a basic approach that becomes more complicated as the match progresses. All units belong to a particular type, such as infantry, pikeman, cavalry, archer, etc, with different types being more effective versus the other. This kind of rock-paper-scissors mechanic is nothing new in a game of this genre, though I must commend how the tool tips and unit information clearly tell you what types of units can counter each. This is made more dynamic by the special abilities of units, who can utilize unique attacks, spells or formations to give them an edge in specific situations. Gondor and Arnor’s generic infantry units can assume a defensive stance that grants them bonuses to armor but severely penalizes their speed, for example, and most pikemen can assume a porcupine stance to similar effect. It sounds easy to keep track of, but once more and more units populate the battlefields, it becomes a challenge to make sure your units are where they need to be to maximize enemy deaths while keeping your own casualties to a minimum.
On top of the deep dish casserole that is the base building and strategic battles lies a seasoning — a leveling system, in a similar fashion to a Company Heroes game. Units gain experience points the longer they survive combat, boosting their survivability and damage output as they ascend to higher levels. Even more importantly, your entire faction gains points throughout the match which you can spend on special global perks and abilities. There is, again, a staggering amount of abilities unique to each faction, such as an AOE heal that also restores a fallen member of each targeted unit, an ability that outfits an entire unit with legendary swords, or my favorite, one that summons a fully-armed king on horseback along with his entire army. These abilities are unlocked in a skill-tree like fashion, with a low tier ability costing less than those of the top tier, and previous purchases unlocking the way to more powerful abilities. I loved these features, and thought they brought even more variety and depth to an already sophisticated, choice-driven game.
Unfortunately, the gameplay is greatly hindered by poor transparency of what’s happening to your troops. When selecting multiple groups of soldiers, it’s tough to pick out the ones you want to give specific orders to. It’s harder still to tell the troops apart in the heat of furious battle, forcing you to hunt for a single member of a specific group among hundreds of flailing bodies just so you can try and issue a new order. I think this is the biggest problem I have with Edain, and its slightly damning, especially when I’m used to games like Company of Heroes 2 that give you concise methods to select and manage your units. Many a time I lost soldiers in a battle simply because I couldn’t pull them out of the fray in time, or even tell that they were dying at all. I’ll come out of certain battles to the sinking realization that I lost a unit, because its so tough to tell which soldiers are a part of a particular unit, and I’m not racist I swear, but all of these fucking orcs look the same from far away.
I found this very frustrating, but it doesn’t necessarily ruin the experience. Rather, it is more likely a result of the game’s age showing, and I’ve been spoiled by advances in transparency in modern RTS titles. If I had to say what makes Edain so exciting, it would be that it boasts so much content, while simultaneously providing solid, deep gameplay with lots of room for exploration and replayability. Each faction offers dozens of different units and heroes for you to choose from, with matches often playing out much differently from one another. The mod provides a vast wealth of maps that build upon those provided with the original game and it’s expansion, with just about all of them calling upon locations or specific battles that occurred in the Tolkien mythos. There is an absolute treasure trove of fun, deep, visually appealing game in Edain mod, and one that can be enjoyed with a large group of friends if you can stomach the tedious install process. If you like either Real Time Strategy or J.R.R.’s work, I encourage you to download the game ISO’s and the mod, and give it a go.