If you ask avid strategy gamers to name some of the finest games in recent memory, it's a pretty safe that 'Lords of the Realm 2' will be on most of the lists. LOTR2 (No, not 'Lord of the Rings'...) combined grand strategic elements with micromanagement, and excellent and enjoyable battle & siege sequences.
That being said, it was with great anticipation we received our copy of 'Lords of the Realm 3'. The anticipation was no doubt the most enjoyable part of the overall experience, and perhaps it would have been better if we had never got around to playing it. To get right to the point, LOTR 3 is a bad game in and of itself; compared to its predecessor, it's downright horrible.
Like the earlier game, LOTR3 puts you in command of a noble Lord, and it's your job to battle across Europe, building and pillaging as you go. It comes as no surprise that this time around the entire game is done in real time, whereas the previous installments had a turn-based map-movement/overall strategy segment, and real-time battles. The change hasn't hurt LOTR3, but it hasn't really done all that much for it either.
You spend about half your time in the overall strategy screen, managing your territories and moving your armies. Every map (Ireland, England...) is divided into regions, controlled by a central castle. Each of these regions is further divided into parcels, where you can choose to place one of four vassals. Knights (for troop production), Serfs (for food), Burghers (for money), and Clergy (to stay on God's good side). After you've achieved your desirable balance of resources/manpower, then it's time to worry about your armies. Most of your time on this screen is sent marching your armies around at a sluggish pace, and trying to protect your borders while scraping up enough troops to invade something every now and then.
You're also presented with diplomatic options, which are severely limited. You can declare war, make peace, and offer pretty useless alliances. Aside from troop movement and resource management, you also have the ability to upgrade your castles, and hire mercenaries. That's about it for overall strategy. You'll spend most of your time checking new vassals to see if they have any special abilities, and changing their assignments for the best possible mix of resources. All in all, given the amount of time you spend on this bland strategy screen, things get pretty tedious. To make matters worse, its cursed with a confusing interface with muddled icons and a distinct lack of shortcuts.
The meat of LOTR3 is in the battle system. There areseveral troop types, including knights, light cavalry, swordsmen, peasants, crossbowmen, and more. They also have some pretty cool formations. The archers for instance, can thrust shields into the ground for defense, as they loose their arrows at oncoming enemies. Swordsman can form shieldwalls and skirmish lines, among others. It's fun to watch, but it doesn't work nearly as well as it should. The formations tend to run into each other, and spend a lot of time pointing in the wrong direction. The AI problems get even worse as many times a unit is content to watch a battle from a few feet away, instead of getting their hands dirty. To compound problems, there's really no way to gauge the remaining strength/numbers of enemy troops, and often you'll find attacking a seemingly weaker opponent with twice the visible numbers and superior opponents leads to a crushing defeat. It's really quite irritating. When you do engage in battles, troop movements and extraneous combat continues - you can drop out of your current battle to oversee things, leaving the computer in control.
'Control' isn't really the word we want. Often times the enemy armies will just sit there, and coming back minutes later you'll find no change. Or even worse, the computer is very efficient at getting your superior forces massacred. As your land limits the amount of armies you can support, once you lose a force you're forced to spend a significant amount of time rebuilding armies, or hiring undependable mercenaries. Should you decide to split your armies into smaller forces so you can continue fighting, you'll just lose all your battles at a much quicker pace.
A subset of battles, and the most enjoyable parts of LOTR2, are the castle assaults. Again, you have a wide range of options. There are plenty of siege weapons and strategies for attackers, and defenders have their own weapons, towers, and a wide range of castle layouts. The problem is nothing works as it should. The ballista siege weapon has almost the same range as the archers on the wall, so you usually have a chance to get off one shot before your precious weapon goes up in flames. Defending troops get caught in doorways, and seem to ignore enemy scaling ladders on undefended walls. The entire siege is rife with strategic elements, but it's almost impossible to execute any of them to your satisfaction.
The graphics in the game are passable, and that's about it. Even with all settings maxed out, there's nothing remotely impressive about the visuals in LOTR3. The load screens are probably the most attractive pieces in the game. The camera movement can be jerky, and sometimes it's difficult to get a usable viewpoint, especially where siege battles are concerned. Audio is acceptable throughout, although some of the accents are downright hideous, while unit responses get repetitive quickly.
It's no surprise that LOTR3 retails for $20 dollars, mostly unheard of for a new release from a major publisher. The low price takes away a bit of the sting, and adds some value to the package. If you're a serious gamer who's excited by boredom, with a lot of practice LOTR3 may even be entertaining for you. It has a very steep learning curve, with absolutely useless tutorials and a pretty vague manual. If you can master the complexity of the game, are a forgiving person in general, and don't have anything else to play, then it's possible that with a lot of dedication you'll come to truly enjoy 'Lords of the Realm 3'. For the rest of us?
Just stay away.