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The Third Age: Total War Mod Review

February 22, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Tom Dann

The Lord of the Rings is the perfect setting for a strategy game. The story is set in a time of war, for a start, and there’s a selection of interesting and unique factions involved. EA Games, who held the rights to games based on the movies until recently, published three Lord of the Rings strategy games: Battle for Middle-earth, its sequel, Battle for Middle-earth II, and that games expansion, Rise of the Witch-King. The first BfME was appealing, fantastically evoking the world of the movies, and was surprisingly immersive for s strategy game. Unfortunately, it was also incredibly shallow. BfME II, making the most of the expanded rights to include the books, was a bigger and more complex game, though it suffered from poor design choices for those assets not found in the films. WarCraft-style Dwarves marched against the more realistic design of the existing factions, while the expansion added magic and sorcerers which sat very uncomfortably with Tolkein’s descriptions of his world. Vivendi Universal, who owned the rights to make games based solely from the books, released War of the Ring, which owed far too much to WarCraft 3.

Given the existence of some great strategy games, surely someone could just mod one of those to create the Lord of the Rings strategy game fans have been after?

Enter The Third Age: Total War team. Medieval 2: Total War is amongst the great modern strategy games. While it may not compare to Rome’s innovations, it’s fantastic 3D engine and complex mechanics more than compensate. Combined with the Medieval setting (on which Third Age Middle-earth is based), the perfect foundations are in place for an epic Lord of the Rings experience.

Third Age: Total War is mostly a cosmetic modification. That is, the core gameplay remains identical to Medieval 2. Which is great, because it’s an almost perfect fit. Players start the game by choosing their faction. We’re not just limited to the four in BfME or the six in its sequel. Here, you’ll find a dozen different factions, representing the splintered groups from each faction. Rather than just Elves, for example, you have the High Elves from Rivendell and that immediate area, and the Silvan Elves of Lothlorien and Mirkwood. Whichever faction you choose, you’ll begin your campaign with a few towns and/or cities, a few units and an ultimate goal, usually to hold a minimum number of settlements and to wipe out one of the other factions.

Despite a steep learning curve, immersion is almost instant. The music, some recognisable from the movies, some not, is incredibly atmospheric. Simple decorations on the UI, including things like unit cards, reflect the factions well, and assets not based on designs from the movies sit comfortably and respectfully next to the ones we all recognise. Tying these elements together is the world map. While not as stunning is the gorgeously animated world map from the original BfME, the one found here is beautiful nonetheless, despite the necessity that it be more functional than visual. While navigating the world map, you will run your cities, and build and move your armies. This is turn-based, each turn occupying six months in game time. In sieges and open battles, the game is in real-time, more closely resembling the BfME games (though on a significantly larger scale). Navigating this mode takes some practice, though progress can be paused for you to survey the situation, or if you get lost amongst the camera controls. There’s a real difference in presentation between Third Age: Total War and BfME: the Total War games, including Medieval 2, have always favoured functionality, whereas BfME is distinctly cinematic. This is by no means a bad thing: Third Age: Total War is brilliant because the gameplay holds up, even without complex animations and other tricks that BfME falls back on.

There’s also room for the inclusion of characters. Rather than the RPG-light heroes of BfME, here your characters are vital for your faction. Every town you own must be governed by a hero, who gains skills, as well as heirs, as he ages. Otherwise, you may lose control of the population. The process of building up a town is interesting, though slow. It offers an insight into a part of Middle-earth you may not have considered before, with options to build theatres and brothels to keep your populace happy. Additionally, your heroes grant troops morale bonuses in battle, meaning you have to think very carefully about where you assign them.

The mod is on version 2.1 now, meaning that all units in the game are fully modelled and textured: there are no stand-ins. Zoomed in, the detail is incredible; it’s strange to think that this mod looks better than anything in the BfME games, despite the obvious budget differences. Units are instantly recognisable as their big-screen counterparts, while new unit designs visually match the movies, while also fitting in with the fiction. There are only two graphical issues. Firstly, when fully zoomed out, most units take on a brown appearance and blend in together: you’ll need to make good use of your unit cards in the UI to command your troops, as you simply won’t be able to tell them apart. Secondly, as of yet, the real-time presentation of towns and cities has not changed from Medieval 2. That is, if you fight in Osgiliath, for example, you won’t find the Osgiliath from the movies, you’ll find a vaguely Medieval looking city surrounded by walls. This is one of the very few breaks in immersion you’ll find, and those who aren’t intimately familiar with such things (ie. Not geeks) won’t have a problem at all. Plus, if preview images on the mods official forums are anything to go by, this is a problem that’ll be rectified in a future patch.

Third Age: Total War is definitely a game for more hardcore players. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the mod: it’s the nature of the game it’s based on, plus the biggest issue with BfME was its brevity and lack of complexity, anyway. The difficulty and complexity found here, though, may be too much for casual Lord of the Rings fans seeking a better strategy experience. It’s not the hardest mod to install, and it’s definitely not the most amateurish presentation, but it also certainly doesn’t have the ease of use and the production values of a AAA title. As long as you don’t mind making a few concessions to the presentation (though, as mods go, this is one of the very best around), Third Age: Total War is incredibly rewarding.

The Third Age: Total War mod files and installation instructions can be found here.

Copyright Tom Dann 2011

 

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Categories: Mods
  1. tolkienfan
    March 4, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    It’s great to see Tolkien’s world coming to good commercial game engines in the form of mods. Third Age will be a great mod when it’s done, though I slightly prefer the previous engine (Rome Total War) overall (M2 has better buildings though). Fourth Age Total War (perhaps the most “polished” Middle-earth mod for the TW series) and Lord of the Rings Total war are for that engine.

    Total War + Tolkien is a winning combination! 😉

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