Digits & Dragons
Making the Game for the Game's Sake
It's pretty easy to see with some games that the only motivation for its existence is
to ride the wave of popularity that has come with whatever movie, TV show, or athlete
has reached teens' interest. With this motivation, it really shouldn't come as any surprise
that the game is going to be cool only until you actually try to play it.
Really, who actually expected to take Shaq-Fu home to their SNES and have a quality
interactive experience? Or more recently, what about Da Vinci Code, the game based on
the movie based on the book? As fun as the book was, this reproduction process is like
making a bad photocopy of a bad photocopy of your Mona Lisa postcard… it just isn't
going to be pretty.
Yet these games continue to get made and somehow they make up a huge portion of the
games that get produced and sold (though probably a much smaller proportion of the
games that get used more than once). The reason isn't too difficult to figure out: it all
comes down to the almighty dollar. Seeing the hordes of fans caught up in a frenzy over
whatever hits the screens has publishers rushing into development to get
something--anything--out there to the shelves.
Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that every game based on a popular movie, TV show
or persona is going to be completely worthless. Just most of them. There are probably
some decent games that come from this process and maybe even some downright good
ones… though I really can't think of any. (OK, on further thought, LEGO Star Wars was
Even Amazing Books Don't Guarantee Gaming Goodness
So, with this sort of background, I think it was understandable that I picked up The Lord
of The Rings: The Battle For Middle Earth 2 with some apprehension. This PC and
Xbox fantasy-strategy title came out in the spring, but it took the summer gaming
doldrums mixed with a bit of fan-based curiosity to bring me to the checkout counter with
it. While I can't recount Dwarven genealogies and couldn't speak Elvish to save my life,
I still loved the books and thoroughly enjoyed the movies. This love of the LOTR series
combined with the good things I had heard about LOTRBME2 (Is an acronym with eight
characters still an acronym?) was enough to get me to try it out.
The result? Well, if you haven't played any complex strategy games, you would probably
think the tactics in BME2 were pretty good. If you've never played a game with an
interesting story, you may think the plot strands in BME2 are pretty riveting. Sadly, I've
played a lot of great strategy games and seen excellent storylines in all kinds of games,
which left me feeling pretty bland about this Lord of the Rings product.
The Battle For Middle Earth 2 is arranged like just about every strategy game: you have
resources to collect which allow you to build up buildings and units which you then send
forth to crush your foes. My real frustration with the game comes from its hinting at
greatness but falling short every time.
For example, take the War of the Rings mode. This option allows you to play on a Risk-like board where you spread out to control various regions of Middle Earth which give
you resources and armies that you can then use in battle to defend or attack new
provinces. Pretty cool, right? Almost. Unfortunately for the player, every time you ever
go to a province you have to start just about from scratch. Even though you may have
created an amazing army while defending Helms Deep, next time a battle is fought there
you will be back to your couple of lowly peasants. The expansion pack due out for the
holidays is apparently going to fix this, but it seems a pretty lazy, and perhaps even
Idiotic AI will never break through Helm's Deep!
Another problem I had with the game was the lack of scale. Peter Jackson's movies did a
great job of showing ridiculously huge battles with little hobbits, massive war elephants,
and everything in between all on the battlefield at once. BME2 completely fails in this
department, locking the player down with a narrow point of view (even at the maximum)
and attempting to imitate scale by giving the player groups of units even though they are
produced as and act as one. Middle Earth was not meant to be seen from a shallow
perspective. Maybe the movies spoiled it for us, but I was disappointed by the Frodian
War of the Rings: An endless ring of build, battle, repeat.
Despite the shortcomings, the game turned out pretty well for a popularity milker. In the
end, I got to reenact Helms Deep and even ransack the Shire, so it can't be all bad. If
there would have been more emphasis on "How can we make a good game" and less on
"How can we better incorporate our Orlando Bloom quotes," this could have been a
One to Look Out For
For a complete change in direction, have a look at a lesser known release, Darkstar One.
Darkstar One is a recently-released space combat/adventure game that has proven to be
surprisingly enjoyable. Now, if you haven't seen this game on shelves, don't be
surprised; just getting a hold of this game proved to be a challenge. The best way to get it
is probably through someplace like Amazon. As a smaller PC-only release, it could be a
while before it trickles down to EBGames and other game stores.
When I was a kid, we got a CD that contained Ultima VI and Wing Commander--my first
"real" PC games. I have played a lot of Ultima products since those days but my days of
dogfighting through space in Wing Commander were only fond memories… until
Darkstar One has all of the Top-Gun dogfights, futuristic weapons and save humanity
missions that Wing Commander did but adds a fresh variety of ship configurations and a
decent story. This makes for a pretty complete and fun package that although a little
repetitive, is extremely fun and addictive.
A typical day for you, Kayron Jarvis, entails escorting cargo ships, shipping goods
between trade stations, or heating things up with bounty hunts. Fulfilling these side tasks
will get you the resources to upgrade your ship, which is essential as you progress along
the story to find out what happened to your late father.
It doesn't take much to dominate a genre that only gets notable releases every few years,
but Darkstar One is easy enough to pick up that just about any gamer would enjoy the
flight. There is a demo available for download, but if you really want to experience the
full range of upgrades (including mountable automatic turrets), you'll have to get the full
You'll spend a lot of time checking in at trade stations like this.
Darkstar One doesn't have the hype and publicity that pop-licensed games get but it
succeeds because it focuses on being enjoyable. It certainly has its faults and can get
boring after a while (space tends to be a pretty lonely place), but it gave me the chance to
relive my ace days in Wing Commander, for which I'm grateful.
Next time you are looking at games on the shelf, remember: just because you liked the
book or think the celebrity endorser is cute doesn't mean the game is going to be worth
playing. Do yourself a favor and do a bit of research first; with our powers combined
perhaps we can save our planet from pop-inspired rubbish.