I have a yearning for The Lord of the Rings, but I can’t seem to satisfy it. Ever since Rings of Power made words like Númenor, Harfoots, and Morgoth part of my everyday vernacular, I’ve been looking for a video game to provide the same cinematic action as Tolkien. I had one specifically in mind: EA’s excellent 2004 real-time strategy game Battle for Middle-earth.
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 long ago lost the optical drive it needed to run it. “No problem”, I thought, “I’ll turn to Steam for my strategic Tolkien fix” – only to be shown a disappointing blank search page. Valve’s store carries many Lord of the Rings games, but Battle for Middle-earth isn’t among them.
“Why should it be?” I wondered. “A game as mature as this is much better placed on GOG.” My confidence was misplaced. It turns out that even a platform with a prematurely promising name like Good Old Games didn’t have the one venerable good game I was looking for. Nor, as it happens, any other showcase on the internet. Search as much as you want, you won’t find any pixelated oliphant to buy on the retail battleground.
Not that this is anything new. Battle for Middle-earth and its 2006 sequel were never available for digital purchase. Launched after the advent of Steam, but several years before the practice of downloading games took off, the series arrived just when Gandalf says a wizard shouldn’t – a little too soon.
Other RTS games from that era enjoyed better digital preservation. Warcraft 3 was available on Blizzard’s Battle.Net client for years (until it was replaced by the 2020 Reforged edition). The Age of Empires series has long been available on Steam in multiple remaster tiers, and a quick browse through GOG’s strategy section shows Empire Earth, Stronghold, The Settlers, and other mid-2000s greats for sale today.
But Battle for Middle-earth is peculiar. Although EA acquired the licensing rights to develop games based on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy in 2001, the license reverted to Warner Bros. eight years later. Since then, it’s been up to the big WB to know which, if any, of EA’s old Lord of the Rings games are brought to more accessible storefronts. EA recently showed some interest in re-releasing beloved strategy games from its back catalog – releasing the Command & Conquer Remastered collection in 2020 – but Warner Bros. looks ready to leave its Lord of the Rings RTS floating around like abandonware.
“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 site. editor forums in 2018. “EA no longer has a license for these titles, so you can’t just release them.”
What a shame. Battle for Middle-earth’s epic-level strategy hadn’t been seen in any Lord of the Rings games before and it certainly hasn’t been replicated since. With four factions to choose from – Rohan, Gondor, Isengard and Mordor – each equipped with distinct battalions of infantry, cavalry, ranged units and heroes, 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 will build a small settlement to generate resources, build military buildings to recruit offensive units, and conquer outposts while advancing towards the enemy on the opposite side of the map. Each unit can be upgraded with stat boosting buffs and completed bonus objectives for additional perks. Eventually, you’ll have to muster an offensive strong enough to deliver the killing blow, decimating your opponent and burning your camp to the ground.
Age of Mythology hints shine through in its character-focused campaigns. Divided between the Free Peoples and the Forces of Darkness, they follow the plot of the novels before carving out an alternate history of Middle-earth, as you conquer the lands of Men with orcs and Uruk-Hai after defeating Theoden in the Battle of the Abyss of Helm.
Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn and the rest of the Fellowship appear as powerful hero units, alongside their shadowy counterparts – Saruman the Balrog, Lurtz and more. Each one feels powerful, but it also allows the game to break out of traditional RTS territory. Your first level is more like a real-time tactics game as you lead the Society through the Mines of Moria, coordinating each character’s special abilities to defeat goblins, trolls, and eventually the mine’s resident Balrog.
The sequel only took things further, featuring dwarves, elves, and goblins as playable factions, as well as chaotically massive eight-player multiplayer skirmishes. It hit a war scale that might feel a little clunky and narrow compared to today’s world’s Total War: Warhammer 3s, but that felt befitting its source material at the time.
A light in dark places
You don’t have to look far online to find less than legitimate ways to download Battle for Middle-earth. But abandonware never lasts. A game’s legacy is pretty much defined when it leaves the official storefronts glowing search results. How can new players who didn’t pick up the game at launch discover its existence? Scour the depths of Reddit; read stories lamenting your online unavailability? It is unlikely. The game will inevitably fall out of sight for strategy enthusiasts as they become oblivious to its existence and blind to what they are missing out on.
Surprisingly, this isn’t the only Lord of the Rings strategy game left behind. War of the Ring, a 2003 Warcraft-style RTS that never had the same level of success, is also not available for legal purchase. But the defection from Battle for Middle-earth is the hardest. EA’s beloved RTS is truly the greatest strategy game based on Tolkien’s work. Few video games have been able to match its sense of fantastic scale. I hope even fewer end up excluded from the biggest gaming platforms.