- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Here’s a look at some hardware and software that are available:

The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II Collector’s Edition from Electronic Arts for a DVD-enabled PC with the Windows XP operating system, 6 GB of free space and a 1.6-GHz processor, rated T for teen, $59.99.

Electronic Arts’ many console and PC games continue to give gamers a way to visit J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy world. This sequel to 2004’s multitiered real-time strategy computer challenge places a player into the epic struggle of Middle-earth. Instead of the famous southern battles seen in Peter Jackson’s movies, the wars of the north are the game’s primary focus.

As with all real-time strategy games, the player must move and command troops, build headquarters, monitor and manage resources and conquer lands to win. Sixteen campaigns split between controlling good and evil forces and a robust multiplayer online element will consume a player’s time like few games I have encountered.

Before a player visits locales such as Sauron’s fortress at Dol Guldur, the shores of Grey Havens or the Elven stronghold of Rivendell, a 60-minute hands-on tutorial will give him a taste of the complicated struggles that lie ahead.

With instructional narration and icon help at every turn, he first must rid a pass of goblins with two garrisons of Gondorian soldiers. He then establishes a new base camp by clearing out multiple spider colonies and destroying their lairs. Using collected treasure, he instructs a builder, who scurries about to produce a castlelike fortress as well as barracks, walls and farms while adding fortifications including trebuchets and arrow towers.

All of this is accomplished with keyboard commands and mouse movements as a Palantir acts as the menu interface to help a player execute the action.

If names such as Wormtongue, Faramir, Arwen, Haldir and Lurtz ring a bell, the player will appreciate bringing all of these minor heroes and villains into battle as well as the well-known stars, each with his own powerful attributes.

That is just the tip of a Fell Beast’s tail. Other options include creating a hero to put into battle by selecting from six classes and accessorizing more than Sarah Jessica Parker, determining troops’ aggressiveness and commanding naval units.

Additionally, War of the Ring, a separate, stand-alone part of the game, is an interactive 3-D version of Risk that encompasses all of Middle-earth. The turn-based challenge on a highly interactive map has the player making choices in tactical, battle and retreat phases and then either having the computer automatically calculate the winner of battles or take part in the action.

Overall, Electronic Arts does a fantastic job of production design with stunning visuals. Likenesses and audio of the actors from the film are incorporated, spearheaded by Hugo Weaving reprising his role of Elrond.

This collector’s edition includes a bonus DVD loaded with video segments on the development of the game, narrated concept art and the entire musical score and cinematics.

To help the learning curve, players may wish to buy Ideazon’s keyboard system, the Zboard ($49.99), and its Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II Keyset ($19.99), which incorporates a 35-key overlay onto the Zboard to quickly allow for the execution of commands and viewing of camera angles.

The keyboard works perfectly and made a great game even more exciting as I worried about deeper levels of strategy instead of looking frantically to press the right key or control a sloppy mouse.

Casual PC gamers should be forewarned, however. I was unable to start the game after installation because of a missing file (d3dx9_27.dll), but some surfing solved the puzzle. The file is part of a Microsoft application called DirectX, and the way this piece of software is updated has been changed, so sometimes not all of the pieces are uploaded.

I found the file at the site of some guy named Paul Roberts (www.m3fe.com/760/), popped it into one of my computer’s folders, and the game began. It’s because of this type of headache-inducing stupidity with Microsoft that I do not go out of my way to play PC games.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail ([email protected])

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