I have a craving for The Lord of the Rings, but can’t satisfy it. Ever since the Rings of Power made words like Númenor, Harfoots, and Morgoth part of my everyday language, I’ve been looking for a video game that offers the same cinematic Tolkien action. I specifically had one in mind: EA’s excellent real-time strategy game Battle for Middle-earth from 2004.
I originally had the game on disc, but it’s been gathering dust somewhere in my parents’ house for the past few years. Even if I could find the box, my PC has long since lost the optical drive it needs to run it. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll turn to Steam for my strategic Tolkien solution” – only to see a disappointingly empty search page. Valve’s storefront features plenty of Lord of the Rings games, but Battle for Middle-earth isn’t one of them.
“Why would it be?” I asked myself. “A game as ripe as this one is much better placed on GOG.” My confidence was misplaced. As it turned out, even a platform with a name as prematurely promising as Good Old Games didn’t have that one venerable good game I was looking for. Neither, as is the case, does another window shop on the Internet. Search as high or low as you want, you won’t find a pixelated elephant to buy on the retail battlefield.
Not that this is anything new. Battle for Middle-earth and its 2006 sequel have never been available digitally. Released after the arrival of Steam, but several years before game downloads started, the series came just when Gandalf says a wizard shouldn’t – a little too early.
Other RTS games from that era have enjoyed better digital preservation. Warcraft 3 was available on Blizzard’s Battle.Net client for years (until it was eventually replaced by the 2020 Reforged Edition). The Age of Empires series has long been available on Steam in various levels of remastering, and a quick scroll through GOG’s strategy section will reveal Empire Earth, Stronghold, The Settlers, and other big hitters from the mid-2000s that are for sale today.
But Battle for Middle-earth is peculiar. While EA acquired the license rights to develop games based on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy in 2001, the license returned to Warner Bros. eight years later. Since then, it’s been up to the big WB to decide which of EA’s old Lord of the Rings games will be brought to more accessible storefronts. EA has recently shown some interest in re-releasing the much-loved strategy games from the back catalog – launching the Command & Conquer Remastered Collection in 2020 – but Warner Bros. seems to have his Lord of the Rings RTS floating around as leaveware.
“Sorry to say, but as far as I know there are no plans to bring back The Battle for Middle-earth titles,” an EA community manager told a hopeful fan on the website. publisher forums in 2018. “EA no longer has the license for these titles, so it’s not possible to just release them.”
What a pity. The epic strategy of Battle for Middle-earth hadn’t been seen in a Lord of the Rings game before and certainly hasn’t been replicated since. With four factions to choose from – Rohan, Gondor, Isengard and Mordor – each equipped with different battalions of infantry, cavalry, ranged and hero units, this is an RTS that brilliantly recreates the cinematic bombast of the beloved film trilogy.
All the usual RTS tropes of the time are there. You build a small settlement to generate resources, build military buildings to recruit offensive units, and grab outposts as you crawl towards the enemy on the other side of the map. Each unit can be upgraded with stat-boosting buffs and bonus objectives completed for additional benefits. Ultimately, you must muster a strong enough offensive to deliver the deadly blow, decimate your opponent and burn their camp to the ground.
Hints from Age of Mythology shine through in its character-focused campaigns. Divided between the Free Nations and the Forces of Darkness, they follow the plot of the novels before carving an alternate history of Middle-earth as you conquer the land of men with orcs and Uruk-Hai after defeating Theoden in the Battle of Helm’s Deep.
Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn and the rest of the Fellowship appear as powerful hero units, alongside their dark counterparts – Saruman, the Balrog, Lurtz and more. Each feels mighty, but also allows the game to drift beyond the traditional RTS territory. The first level is more like a real-time tactics game where you guide the Fellowship through the Mines of Moria, coordinating each character’s special abilities to defeat goblins, trolls, and finally Balrog, the inhabitant of the mine.
The sequel just went on and on, introducing dwarves, elves, and goblins as playable factions, as well as chaotically massive eight-player multiplayer skirmishes. It reached a scale of warfare that might seem a bit clunky and narrow compared to the Total War: Warhammer 3s of today’s world, but seemed to fit the source material at the time.
A light in dark places
You don’t have to search too hard online to find less than legit ways to download Battle for Middle-earth. But leaveware never lasts. A game’s legacy is all but done when it leaves the glossy search results of official storefronts. How can new players who didn’t pick up the game at release discover its existence? Trawl the depths of Reddit; read stories complaining about online unavailability? Unlikely. The game will inevitably disappear from the vision of strategy enthusiasts as they become oblivious to its existence and become blind to what they are missing.
Somewhat amazingly, this isn’t the only Lord of the Rings strategy game left behind. War of the Ring, a 2003 Warcraft-style RTS that never found the same level of success, is similarly not legal for sale. But the battle for the desertion of Middle-earth strikes hardest. EA’s beloved RTS is truly the best strategy game based on Tolkien’s work. Few video games have been able to match the sense of fantastic scale. Hopefully, fewer are still being excluded from gaming’s biggest platforms.