The Battle for Middle Earth, in limbo

The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth series – while certainly a mouthful – were fantastic strategy games set in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The first one (released in 2004) shook up strategy game conventions by eschewing standard base-building mechanics and focusing the map around permanent base “foundations” which could be built upon by any player. You could choose to build resource buildings or military buildings, but you only had a limited number of foundations, so you had to carefully balance your building choices. BFME also was one of the first games to utilize a Risk-style campaign map with persistent units. Each unit you built, if it survived, would be part of your army in the next battle, along with its experience and upgrades, so by the time you reached the final battles of the campaign you would have an army filled with elite troops – if you were careful.

The game also allowed you to build well-known heroes, like Aragorn, Gandalf, and Eomer. Each of these heroes could use special abilities to turn the tide of the battle in spectacular ways. What was even more fun was that you could play as either good (Gondor or Rohan) or evil (Mordor or Isengard), and each side had unique units and playstyles. For instance, the good factions have bases with walls, while the evil factions have none. The evil factions can pump out vast hordes of troops quickly, while good troops take a while to train but are more powerful. The campaign includes some of the most famous missions from the franchise (Helm’s Deep, Minas Tirith, and more), but most of the battles are skirmishes without the scripting of the “story” missions, which allows for plenty of freedom.

BFME was followed up by its sequel in 2006, Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth II and an expansion for the sequel, called Rise of the Witch King. The sequel did not continue the same building mechanics of the first game, but went back to a more traditional approach, with free-form bases and the ability to build defensive structures around your fortress, as players of traditional RTS games are intimately familiar with. The expansion also allowed you to build your own hero, with a unique name and custom abilities.

Wanting to play the first game recently, I scrounged around for my disks (it came on four CDs), only to realize I couldn’t find them all. A quick search of online game stores found nothing as well, despite my thought that – as an older game – it should be available for fairly cheap.

It turns out that the series is no longer being manufactured or sold, as the licensing rights expired in 2010. If you want to purchase the first one now, you can buy a used copy for $25 on Amazon, which is pretty high for a twelve-year-old game. For the sequel, you’ll be set about $145 for a new copy, or $40 for a used one. If you already own the game, though, like I do, I found an alternative!

Some enterprising fans have created a patched version of the game available for a free download and which works on Windows 7/8/10. I couldn’t get the second game to work, for some unknowable reason; it works for other people just fine. You will have to download a digital disk drive like Daemon Tools Lite as well. You’re able to play singleplayer and online.

It’s not as good as EA pulling a trick out of its hat and somehow reacquiring the rights so they could release a remastered edition, but it certainly scratches the itch. It’s always nice to see fans keep something alive which would otherwise be lost to the sands of time and licensing disputes.