clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A Nazgul appears to have corrupted Frodo, brandishing Sting, in The Lord of the Rings: Heroes of Middle-earth Image: EA Capital Games/Electronic Arts

Filed under:

Lord of the Rings mobile game asks players to preserve Middle-earth’s history

Recreate Middle-earth’s lore with a super-team in The Lord of the Rings: Heroes of Middle-earth

In The Lord of the Rings: Heroes of Middle-earth, which launched Wednesday for Android and iOS devices, players are tasked with keeping intact the timeline of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most beloved works. That means, generally speaking, recreating major events in turn-based battles, where the good guys prevail.

But not all the time.

“There is, actually, a part in the tutorial when we actually do unlock the ‘Shadow Side’ campaigns, where our narrator, Eärendil, actually speaks to it,” Capital Games’ Nicolas Reinhart, the game director, told Polygon. “But basically, he’s pained — he doesn’t like the fact that you have to go in to make sure that the bad guys win.”

“The bad stuff still needs to happen,” added design director Jay Ambrosini.

But the bad stuff will follow the rest of the good stuff Capital Games has imagined for The Lord of the Rings: Heroes of Middle-earth, a “collection RPG” in the mold of Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, the very successful Android and iOS title that Capital Games launched with Electronic Arts in 2015. Like Galaxy of Heroes, Heroes of Middle-earth is a free-to-play game that revolves around unlocking, collecting, and deploying some of the most recognizable characters from Tolkien’s canon, as a squad of champions sent back in time to put things right.

“A lot of what we were inspired by, being late ’70s, early ’80s kids, growing up with toys, and playing in the backyard with action figures — it’s a lot of the same thing,” Ambrosini said. “That’s what we’re trying to recreate there. You have a lovingly made figure that you really believe is a representation of Frodo or Strider. And then you’re with your friends, and you’re like, Yeah, what if Sauron was there? A lot of it is sitting and recreating those moments of playing with your toys.”

The conduit for that, narratively, is the player discovering “a ring unlike any before,” Reinhart said in a media presentation last week. “And with this ring, players can bridge time and space, bringing together characters from different ages to build incredible what if-styled squads, mixing and matching characters that have never been together before.”

In addition to these what-if team-ups, The Lord of the Rings: Heroes of Middle-earth will delve into alternate timelines, proposing scenarios that fans have long wondered about: What if Galadriel, for example, had accepted the One Ring from Frodo and become the dark queen she feared? “We’re going to explore these questions authentically, with our players,” Ambrosini said. “We’re excited to take the literature and imagine it in new and exciting ways.”

Heroes of Middle-earth has been in development for more than two years. Reinhart allowed that the game was born of business decisions — as Capital Games was looking for its next project, Reinhart said, the studio was asking what other fandoms might be served by something like Galaxy of Heroes. But instead of skinning Galaxy of Heroes units in Lord of the Rings costuming and shipping that, Capital Games’ designers knew they had to start with a narrative that justifies why an eclectic set of characters might be recreating old battles.

Thus, you get the opening sequence: Strider (Aragorn) and Frodo reach Weathertop on their journey to Rivendell with the rest of the Hobbits. They encounter Nazgûl in a combat tutorial sequence, the two characters are unlocked for the player to use, and they make their way forward to Rivendell.

But along the way, players should recognize themes from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Reinhart said. Aragorn is a tanklike unit, drawing the attack to himself and away from the Hobbits. If he lands a critical hit, any Hobbits with him will enter a stealth mode that both distracts and deals damage to the adversary while limiting their own exposure.

“You would never imagine Frodo to stand front and center [and] be like, Hit me,” Ambrosini explained, “whereas on the other hand, you get Sam[wise Gamgee], who pops in and very shortly, he’ll throw an apple at someone’s head and be like, Hey! Over here, big guy!

A Nazgul appears to have corrupted Frodo, brandishing Sting, in The Lord of the Rings: Heroes of Middle-earth
The Lord of the Rings: Heroes of Middle-earth will task players with exploring alternate timelines and restoring the canon of the Tolkien novels.
Image: EA Capital Games/Electronic Arts

The Riders of Rohan, for example, are another unit among the 46 characters that are unlockable on launch day. Obviously, Capital couldn’t bring an entire cavalry charge to Heroes of Middle-earth, whose squads are composed of four units. Instead, Rohan’s knights are represented in teamwork attacks; one shown to media involved a rider tossing a sword to a companion who catches it mid-stride to deal the blow.

Asked whether the free-to-play game would follow a seasonal or battle pass model of unlockable content, Ambrosini hedged. “There will be multiple timelines; we’re working very closely with Middle-earth Enterprises [the licensing authority for the Lord of the Rings franchise] on it,” he said.

Still, Reinhart, Ambrosini, and the rest of Capital Games are mindful of the risk of a fast flameout among mobile games, particularly licensed ones. That is: A free-to-play game launches on mobile platforms, carries a lot of interest and attention for its first few months, then seems to vanish from the mainstream consciousness once its initial content has been exhausted.

Heroes of Middle-earth’s makers already have a full year of post-launch content in mind, Reinhart said. It includes missions and encounters along three campaigns: Light, Shadow, and Guild, the latter beginning with a raid mission set in the Mines of Moria.

“Live [service] games are a dance,” Reinhart said. “You have to have that dance planned. We said in our presentation that we’ve got a year’s worth of content on our roadmap that’s specifically accounting for this issue. We’re timing them, trying to make sure we are doing the right thing by the players — are you giving them the right cadence of stuff? — but also making sure that we take the appropriate length of time to develop something in relation to how they want to play the game.”

Reinhart stressed that this is all tied together in a single experience, narratively speaking, as opposed to a menu of siloed missions that have nothing to do with one another. “Each of these is a different story to be told inside of a single concept,” he said, “which is, basically, we have a shadowy figure who is trying to disrupt these storylines, and then you are coming in with your heroes that you’ve collected in order to right that wrong, so that the storylines match up at the end.”

Lord of the Rings: Heroes of Middle-earth launched Wednesday, May 10, and is available for iOS and Android devices through the App Store and Google Play.


Magic: The Gathering’s new set is trying to capture the hope of The Lord of the Rings

The Rings of Power

Rings of Power had a ‘Ring Team’ making the show’s actual rings look good


Gollum has two personalities — I wish the Gollum game had any

View all stories in Lord of the Rings

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon