A real-time strategy game (RTS) based on 'The Lord of the Rings' seems like such a perfect idea. At last, you get to lead your favourite heroes like Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli against the might of Sauron. A chance to enact some of the greatest scenes from the book and movie. It sounds perfect, but 'War of the Ring' misses the opportunity by a long shot, and fails as an RTS to boot.
The game is divided into two campaigns of about 11 missions each. The 'good' campaign, namely Elvels/Men/Dwarves, fills in time between some events in the books, while allowing you to act some of them out as well. You'll have to track down Gollum and defend Helm's Deep, among others. In your way stand the forces of Sauron, including the powerful ring-wraiths, as well as the Uruk-hai. In the Evil campaign, events span a few thousand years, as you fight some missions during Sauron's last incursion into Middle-Earth, and then a few during the timeline of the books.
The game is, in essence, very similar to the seminal RTS franchise - Warcraft (Unfortunately... not similar enough!). You have your basic tiers of units, and you must construct the requisite buildings to train them. Resources consist of ore, and food. To complement your basic forces, you're also gifted with a few Heroes, a la Warcraft III. These include the aforemention Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn - as well as Gandalf and (briefly) the Hobbits. On the evil side, you'll play as Uruk-Hai lieutenants as well as the Nazgul, among others. Heroes are really just jumped up melee units. They have special abilities, which can be used by spending 'fate' points. These points are acquired by winning battles. None of these special powers are really all that impressive, and you'll use them sparingly, if at all.
The individual units aren't balanced very well. For their cost, the Riders of Rohan are the most efficient melee units. The Elven archers, the most dangerous. With enough of these, you can win any mission. There's no weakenesses to these units, so strategic balance never really comes in to play. In addition, the game suffers from some weak AI. Expect to see an even dozen units sit and watch while mere paces away an ally is slaughtered by an Orcish horde. Your units also seem to have no reservations about following a retreating enemy unit directly into it's camp every now and again. Basically, the game boils down to building a ton of units, and then systematically traversing the map to hunt down and destroy base after base after base.
The Helm's Deep mission is a perfect microcosm of everything that's good and bad about the game. Re-enacting one of the greatest scenes from the Trilogy, you're put in control of Legolas, Aragorn, Gimli, and a force of Riders as well as Eleven Archers. The mission objective are dynamic, and include holding the Deeping Wall and killing a set number of Orcs within a certain time frame. The Castle is suitably large, and there's always a sense of urgency as wave after wave of Orcs crash upon its walls. There's a great sense of fun in keeping track of how many orcs Legolas and Gimli have killed, as well as rallying your riders under Aragorn for a sally. The fun however, stops there. First off, although the castle is large, the views can be confusing, and you're never sure where it is you have to go. As for the actual gameplay, there's really no strategy involved. For a succesful defense, you just have to make sure all your archers are on the wall overlooking where the orcs are attacking at any given moment, and to choke the gate with your melee units. And that's it. All you have to do is wait. It's not even clear what units are engaging what units, as the orcs are massacred on the approach, and then just hack it out with your riders under the wall. There's no strategy to speak of. The AI for your own units can also be frustrating. Given the complexity of the map, the pathfinding is abysmal. Units get lost or stuck easily, and often times find the best way to a certain rampart includes running around outside the wall, into the arms of the waiting orcs. Not quite a masterful strategy.
The graphics are serviceable, and that's it. The units look angular, and the cut scenes are badly animated. There's a good amount of slowdown during large battles on even the fastest machine, and the payoff isn't all that great. On the other hand, the Balrog looks amazing, and the particle effects are usually pretty decent. There's also some nice waving rushes, which impressively part to allow your riders through. The entire palette is usually dark, to the point where it can be difficult to determine what units are where, and what they're attacking. The entire game could use an engine overhaul, and falls far short of the benchmark set by Warcraft III.
The sound and music throughout the game are generally quite good. The voice acting is above average, if nothing spectacular. Units don't have all that many lines, and the few they do have get repetitive after awhile.
'War of the Ring' relies heavily on the story and mythos of 'The Lord of the Rings' to support it as a game. Although the elements are here, and well delivered, there's a sense of detachment present. You can't really feel like you're controlling the characters, as your basic strategy is throwing a few dozen of your best units against scattered enemy outposts. The narratives tie the missions into the books, but the missions themselves to little to explore the vast world of 'The Lord of the Rings'.
'War of the Ring' is only a decent real-time strategy game, but it's sure to please fans of the series. The mix of 'Lord of the Rings' and RTS could have combined for an epic game, If it only had something to support it aside from the tie-in. Maybe next time.