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The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth II, a DVD-ROM in English by Electronic Arts, distributed with a 68-page Hebrew-language user's manual by Hed Artzi Multimedia, requires Windows XP and a 1.6 Ghz Pentium 4 PC and up, for ages 12 through adult, NIS 219. - Rating: *****
This spectacular real-time strategy game - one of the best ever produced - was not modelled on any of the three popular Peter Jackson movies based on author J.R.R. Tolkien's 1,000-page fantasy trilogy. But his The Lord of the Rings books are so forceful that this bloodless epic game doesn't lose steam, even without a film behind it.
Unlike the first Battle for Middle-Earth, which was released in 2004, this sequel goes off independently on a trek across the northern realms, as Frodo nears Mount Doom and forces of darkness march toward the Western lands. At the same time, the southern realms witness a war among the Men of the West, Mordor and Isengard.
The game is a conflict between the Good Guys (humans, pointy-eared elves and stature-challenged dwarves - who, without a common enemy, did not get along well together) and the evil Sauron, who mobilizes his hordes of orcs, goblins, trolls, fire-breathing airborne dragons, giant spiders, mounted scorpions and other creatures to vanquish the forces for good.
Being a positive type, I played only the Good Guys, but many gamers will get their thrills from trying a different perspective and fighting on the opposite side as well. It's easy to differentiate leaders of the Good from the Bad, as the former speak in variations of cultured British accents and the latter in a nasty tone of voice.
After finishing the tutorial (which can be skipped if you've already played the previous version), you can choose to fight a random skirmish, play Good or Evil single-player campaigns in a linear fashion or a War of the Ring - a free-form, turn-based strategy game-within-a-game reminiscent of the the classic board game Risk. If you choose to engage in this war, you have to be a master of logistics and either fight to control territory or click on an option for letting the computer automatically decide the victor; leaving it up to the PC to be the referee is not advisable, however, as you have a better chance of being victorious if you fight it out yourself. The more battles you win, the more powers - such as creating a tornado or bringing fire from the heavens - you are given to fight with.
The sequel not only covers new ground and 40 territorial maps to play on, but also offers several new features missing from the first game, such as the ability to build cities, fortresses, archery ranges, barracks, lumber mills, mines and other facilities where and when you desire. You can also customize your own male or female heroes from a "laundry list" of powers and classes and even select a combination of headgear and armor. Before and after each quest, gamers are treated to a short but eye-catching cutscene that briefs you on that stage of the war, what you have to do and the strategic value of the mission.
The environment created by Electronic Arts is all-encompassing, with gorgeous animated graphics that make waterfalls glisten in the sun, shadows ominously darken, marauding creatures the epitome of evil and the battles authentic without a drop of gore. The rounded interface, dubbed Palantir, provides gamers with all the data they need throughout. Background music comes from the movies, while sound - from the roaring of the orcs to the goblins' jabbering and authentic battlesounds - will make you pause in the middle of the action just to listen.
True LOTR fans will spend weeks or even months playing this game, which - even after the 16 missions are completed - can be restarted at a higher level of difficulty or by using completely different strategies. Just make sure your PC is high-powered enough and has adequate hard disk space for the program, or you'll be frustrated by long waiting times for downloading episodes from the DVD-ROM or stymied by the avid gamer's worst curse - computer crashes.