On Dec. 31, 2010, an unfortunate thing happened: Electronic Arts shut down the online servers for The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth, as well as its sequel and the sequel’s expansion. What’s more, EA’s licensing deal with New Line Cinema, which had allowed the former to develop games set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy world since 2001, expired as well. Warner Bros. assumed the mantle of steward for The Lord of the Rings video games, The Battle for Middle-earth series disappeared from digital storefronts, and one of my favorite real-time strategy series vanished into licensing limbo.
The Battle for Middle-earth games aren’t impossible to play in 2023. Officially speaking, you can purchase pre-owned physical copies of each game on eBay, and play the whole series online via custom servers. There’s also a massive Unreal Engine 4 fan mod in the works (although it’s still unclear when, or if, the project will be finished).
Even so — it’s a shame that modern strategy fans can’t simply visit the Origin storefront, GOG.com, or even Game Pass to try out the simple yet compelling clashes between the Men of the West, elves, dwarves, goblins, Mordor, Isengard, and the forces of the Witch King.
The Battle for Middle-earth isn’t the best strategy series ever made. Combat relied on standard rock-paper-scissors unit weaknesses, factions were grossly imbalanced in multiplayer, and enemy AI repeated the same strategies custom game after custom game, leading to predictable skirmishes for anyone who preferred to avoid online multiplayer.
But as a means for marching an army of Gondorian spearmen, Ithilien rangers, and Riders of Rohan to Osgiliath, only to clash with an opposing force of uruks, trolls, and war machines in a pitched real-time battle, in which you defend two bridges over the Anduin river before launching a surprise attack with upgraded cavalry over a third? These games ruled. I spent hundreds of hours playing Warcraft 3, Company of Heroes, and Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 in the years leading up to the first Battle for Middle-earth, and I consider each of them to be more nuanced and better-balanced strategy games. But for someone obsessed with the martial conflicts detailed in Tolkien’s books, and the way they came to life in the hands of Peter Jackson, The Battle for Middle-earth was breathtaking in its ability to demonstrate how a war fought with dragons, giants, wizards, tree people, and superhuman heroes might unfold. And at the time, there was nothing else like it.
That’s probably why I gravitated so strongly to Total War: Warhammer when it was released in 2016, and its sequels in the years since, crescendoing in what I’d call a healthy obsession with Total War: Warhammer 3. Set in Games Workshop’s “Fantasy Battle’’ setting (which existed before the company reset the tabletop lore with the Age of Sigmar universe in 2015), the grand strategy trilogy takes Tolkien’s fantasy archetypes and embellishes them with cartoonish storylines, anime-like clashes, and ridiculous superpowers. Sure, you can reenact the Ride of the Rohirrim at the Pelennor Fields. And yes, you can recreate those wonderful Osgiliath choke points against droves of orcs, goblins, trolls, and war machines.
But you can also battle undead Egyptian pharaohs with shape-shifting dragons; vampires can square off with armies of tree people; ancestral dwarven ghosts can dodge the meteor-infused Gatling gun bullets of subterranean rat soldiers. I imagine Fantasy Battle as a universe created by some sort of Tolkien obsessive who got a little too lost in the ’80s. By extension, Total War: Warhammer 3 is The Battle for Middle-earth dialed up to 11.
Last year, I wouldn’t have written about Total War: Warhammer 3 for Sub Gems, Polygon’s column reserved for our most glowing subscription-service recommendations, because it wasn’t technically available on any service in its full form. But in February, Creative Assembly made Immortal Empires, the expansion that combines the maps and factions of all three entries in the trilogy, free to all base-game owners and Game Pass subscribers. Players no longer need to own each game in the series in order to command armies on the crowded, massive, fantastical map; they can play the expansion with Warhammer 3’s launch factions, and buy new ones piecemeal as they encounter them. Total War games are complex creations, and PC Game Pass provides a great way for players to test the waters before committing to the steep purchase of the entire trilogy.
In a time when video games set in Tolkien’s fantasy world are either disappointing or mostly unknown quantities (there are a handful of studios making Lord of the Rings games at the moment, but none of their announcements have turned my head yet), Total War: Warhammer 3 is a salve soothing the absence of The Battle for Middle-earth and its sequels. It’s an unparalleled joy to watch Games Workshop’s larger-than-life heroes clash on lava-brimmed battlefields while giant ethereal polar bears wade into formations of vampire pirates and eagles collide in midair with wyvern-riding sorcerers.
Creative Assembly has proven, over the course of three games and more than a dozen DLC packs, that it can recreate a beloved fantasy universe with the scale, scope, and creativity that the setting deserves. If only there was some other gargantuan fantasy license, awaiting its next great video game adaptation, that Creative Assembly could get its hands on…