Fool Me Thrice, Shame on Me

(Note: This article originally appeared at in 2006.)

Why I Won’t Buy Battle for Middle-Earth II

With the July 5 release of The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth II looming, I wondered if it was time to finally break down and buy an Xbox 360. Revisiting two of Electronic Arts’ previous Lord of the Rings titles, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, disabused me of any need to plunk down money on another game I’ll likely hate.

I should clarify that I’m a huge Lord of the Rings nerd. I saw Fellowship of the Ring 14 times in the theater. My wedding ring is a recreation of The One Ring; I bought it in the same New Zealand jewelry shop where the movies’ rings were forged.

But I was so disappointed in The Two Towers and Return of the King games that I haven’t bothered to play The Third Age or any of the other franchise titles. And I probably won’t try Battle for Middle-Earth II either. What could’ve upset me enough to write off an entire franchise?

EA had everything going for them when they released The Two Towers in 2002. The game graphics were full of detail and transitioned smoothly from the film footage. Elijah Wood and Orlando Bloom lent their voices to their game characters, as did many of the other actors from the film. Additionally, players could unlock extra features like artwork from the film and new interviews with the cast. It should’ve made for a great gaming experience.

Instead, the resulting game was painful for fans of the films who aren’t also experts in the action game genre. Progress in the game depended upon how quickly players mastered the combat system. Players earned skill points for dispatching with enemies quickly, and those points enabled players to purchase more powerful combo attacks. If you weren’t fast enough when attacking, you wouldn’t earn enough points to buy the best combos, making subsequent levels more difficult. Basically, if you weren’t good at the game right from the start, you were essentially doomed.

Special missions on several of the levels added to the frustration. Some missions had a time limit, while others required players to kill a specific number of enemies. But other levels had goals that were less clear.

In one level of The Two Towers, I repeatedly pushed invaders’ ladders off of castle walls and killed Uruk-Hai—until some unspecified, offscreen event occurred that resulted in mission failure. I played through again and again, never knowing what I was doing wrong. Eventually, I made it through the level, none the wiser about what I’d done different that time. There are few game design flaws worse than failing to tell your players what they are and aren’t supposed to do in order to progress in the game.

Access to the special interviews and features was totally dependent upon game progress. Because I couldn’t finish the game, I never got to see most of the interviews and other special features. I paid full price for a game I would never be able to fully use—or feel like I truly owned. It was the equivalent of Peter Jackson turning up the theater lights halfway through the film and saying, “Only those of you who can recite the entire Lay of Luthien can stay. The rest of you, get out.”

When the Return of the King game was released, a month before the movie’s theatrical debut, I shelled out full price for the game. I was eager to see a preview of scenes from the movie, and I hoped that the previous game’s flaws would be fixed. A new cooperative play feature meant that my best friend (who saw Fellowship in the theater almost twice as many times as I did) and I could wallop orcs together.

She and I spent a few maddening hours failing at every turn before we turned off the Playstation 2 and resigned ourselves to never seeing the unlockable interviews with Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan. And again, we felt ripped off.

What EA failed to recognize when designing its first two LOTR games was the diverse audience that buys games affiliated with existing creative properties. Obviously there’s a lot of crossover between video game fans and fantasy film fans, but it’s not a homogenous group. Even among gamers, some may only play puzzle games, while others enjoy first-person shooters and RPGs equally.

Because of the skill and interest levels of game buyers who were, foremost, fans of the movies, EA needed to include an easy mode of play to allowed casual fans to blast through the levels and get to the special features. If gameplay wasn’t challenging enough for the hardcore gamers, they could switch to Normal or Hard mode. The “Easy” level included in the released version was anything but, further dashing the hopes of anyone without the skill or patience necessary to stick with the game.

There exists in the video game industry a bias not present in other entertainment media. Most game designers seem to feel that, if you’re not good enough, you don’t deserve to experience the full version of the game. If I want to read the first and last chapters of a book, I can. If I just want to watch a certain scene in a movie, I can skip to its location on the DVD.

But I usually can’t skip ahead in a video game, no matter if it’s boring, or too hard, or if I just don’t have an infinite amount of time to play but still want to see what happens in the end. The game designer has ensured that, even though I paid for a game, I don’t get to decide how I use it.

So I’m stuck with two video games that I will never finish, and I’m out $100. Twice, EA took advantage of my love for the Lord of the Rings films, and I’m not about to be made a fool of again.


2 thoughts on “Fool Me Thrice, Shame on Me

  1. You may actually want to try Battle for Middle Earth. If you like RTS, it is a really good game. There are demo’s out for you to try too.

    Have to agree with you about the other games though, they look great, but in the end they make bad games.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, ilverai. I’m glad there’s a demo available for Battle for Middle Earth. Who knows, I might get hooked. But I’d definitely buy a used copy of the game, just as a matter of principle.

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