About the Author: Berenduin wears waistcoats and works in New York City as a freelance writer for sites like IFC.com among others. He loves the world Tolkien created. http://mymiddleearth.com/members/berenduin/profile/
“There are many powers in the world, for good or for evil. Some are greater than I am. Against some I have not yet been measured,” read the first loading screen of Third Age 3.1: Total War, “But my time is coming.” Thus the mood was thickly set with a quote from Gandalf the Grey and this began my experience with the latest release of the popular LOTR mod for the Medieval II: Total War engine. If you’re a fan of either strategy or war gaming, and love Middle Earth, read on because this is the game for you.
I’ll assume at least a passing familiarity from here on, but if you’ve never played a Total War game, let me sum up: for more than a decade, beginning with the groundbreaking Shogun: Total War in 2000, they have consistently been the finest war games ever released, eschewing the arcade aesthetic of other offerings for a design that favors realism. As great as the series is, the best part is the modding community that arose around it, whose talents often far exceed that of the original game designers – and they release their work for free. As a consequence there is no greater bang for your buck in gaming terms than buying a Total War game. Like the engine it’s based on, the Third Age mod is a unique combination of turn based strategy with the real time tactical battles. The overall “strategic” part takes place on a gorgeous living map, on which you build infrastructure for your cities, develop cultural projects, engage in diplomacy (for good or ill), and take actions with various characters and armies. The real time part comes in whenever there is any kind of battle, at which time you are zoomed into that exact point of the world map and loaded into a 3-dimensional battlefield. In this case that battle field is Middle Earth, faithfully recreated from Tolkien’s maps down to some of the smallest details. Third Age was groundbreaking from the get go, but this latest release is it’s coming of age and has truly given new meaning to the label, “total conversion modification.”
Nearly every superficial trace of Creative Assembly’s original medieval game, along with its rudimentary unit design, have been wiped away like so many snagas caught in the open light of day. Third Age presents all the major factions of Middle Earth, Elves, Dwarves, Men and Orcs, all of which you can play as. Each have their own cast of characters represented in the game, and like many visual aspects of Third Age, the unit designs wisely owe much to the films of Peter Jackson.
There are two Elven factions, both dangerously under populated: the Sylvan Elves and the newly redone High Elves who are split between Lindon in the west and one Last Homely House hidden away in the Trollshaws. The Dwarves are all one faction with their capitol tucked safely away in Erebor, but they too must contend with a split domain, also holding their Blue Mountains in the west. Dale, Gondor and Rohan are just as you would expect, recreated with armies based rather faithfully on Tolkien’s writing, and echoing the films where lore leaves gaps in the roster. You can also play as six evil factions: Isenguard, Harad, Rhun, The Orcs of the Misty Mountains , The Orcs of Gundabad, and Mordor. The evil factions may have a precarious relationship with the Dark Lord, who will from time to time call for a broad alliance invasion (deftly using the original engine’s crusading mechanic) or suggest that you accomplish some small mission or other. There is also the matter of a certain ring he’s after, whose whereabouts you may occasionally gain information on. Should you find it first, it would be wise of you to hand it over to him. Unless the temptation to keep the precious thing for your own will be too great?
The most interesting faction might be The Free Peoples of Eriador, a somewhat ragtag alliance which encompasses Annuminas, Fornost, the Weather Hills, and all of Breeland east to Staddle. Their unit roster is impressively designed, allowing you at first to field troops like Breeland militia, Lumbermen, Greenway guards, Bandits, a well armored wealthy Merchant class from Bree, and the very rare Dunedain Rangers. To my great joy Hobbit’s are well represented with three different units including the Hobbitry in Arms, and Bandobras archers – the stoutest Hobbits fielded in a long tradition of famed Hobbit martial prowess, lest we forget the Battle of Fornost, or the Battle of the Greenfields for that matter! Eriador gets Gandalf as a general character along with Aragorn, both with special powers they can use in battle. In fact, all the named starting characters have some power or other, but you won’t find fireballs and lightning bolts here, the powers are subtle and wonderfully lore appropriate. One of the (not so) secrets about the game is that there is a way to trigger the re-emergence of ancient Arnor. It involves sending Aragorn to Annuminas and leaving him there for something like 100 turns, a steep price, but once the conditions are filled your faction will actually change to The Kingdom of Arnor, complete with a new roster of units including Dunedain knights, that rightly rival the potency of their cousins in Gondor. I have not yet accomplished this myself, but during a campaign I was playing as Dale, there was great fanfare around the year 3015 as news of the Kingdom was announced. That’s some impressive AI, managing to trigger the right scripting, all by itself. I’m glad they were my allies.
It’s the mark of a great game that anything is possible the moment you load it up, and on this Third Age delivers. Some side effects might include playing as Lord Elrond and making trade agreements with a guy named Lugbash, but these hilarities can happen in any game – considering this is a free one, you are likely to give it some slack.
I played Third Age about a year ago, but with the latest 3.0 release (quickly patched to 3.1), the game has blown the doors off of modding. It’s one thing creating little custom models for the campaign map, but here you’ll find the “life sized” cities and fortresses of Middle Earth rendered in three dimensions for you to fight over. Minas Tirith is there in all its splendor, surrounded by the massive walls of the Rammas Echor. To the east the old capitol of Osgiliath, both West and East straddle the Anduin. And beyond Ithilien, Minas Morgul glows a fell green in a blackened landscape. Isengaurd, Barad Dur, Dol Guldar, Lothlorien, Amon Sul, The Lonely Mountain, are all there to play with. And if a battle takes place at them, get ready for a siege of epic proportions. Elven cities look like proper woodland realms, no more vanilla medieval towns for the Eldar. Rivendell in particular is beautifully recreated with trails winding down alongside the falls of Imladris, though it’s paths are somewhat frustrating to navigate. Orc camps look like Orc camps, complete with the random body impaled on a spike here and there. Minas Tirith is probably the crowning jewel, but Third Age’s best innovation in settlement design might be Moria – a city rendered inside a mountain. You can attack and defend it just like any other settlement in the game. Just don’t be surprised if a Balrog of Morgoth spawns (literally, Durin’s Bane awaits).
Most war games favor a relatively balanced approach to unit design. But by the nature of the forces involved in Middle Earth, this is not true of Third Age. There are still some rock-paper-scissor conventions involved – archers are generally vulnerable to cavalry, which are usually vulnerable to spearmen, who tend to be vulnerable to heavy infantry, etc. But you can forget about all that when a cave troll comes charging through your line wielding a club the size of a tree trunk. No amount of spears will prevent you from taking catastrophic losses at the Mumakil’s whims. And though you can actually kill them temporarily, pray you don’t have to stand and fight a Nazgul. Conversely, there are few of the enemy’s minions who will remain standing after a charge from the splendorous Swan Knights of Dol Amroth, long endure a barrage of arrows from The Grey Company, or dream of routing Gandalf or Galadriel from the field. And if you should be lucky enough to rally Treebeard to your cause, you may want to avert your eyes from the march of the Ents. What these fantastical variables add to gameplay is hard to measure. They can be extremely frustrating to deal with, but on the other hand there is no RTS battle experience quite like it. Overall, it’s spectacular to behold and tremendous fun to attempt to control.
Mood is important for any game, but it’s often overlooked by war games more concerned with screen cluttering statistics and little effort put into sound design. Not so with Third Age, and even though it is a completely free game, it has better music and sound design than most commercial counterparts, though that is in part due to their borrowing some soundtracks from the films. In game you’ll be treated by bits of those scores mixing with atmospheric ballads, the style of which is dictated by what faction you’re playing, all of which is reactive to what’s going on moment to moment. Loading screens can be bothersome, but as I noted, in Third Age you are greeted with a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien – some 800 in all if I read the source file correctly.
The 3.1 patch was quickly released to fix a few bugs, and you can expect more hotfixes to come as various issues arise. Already I’ve noticed the custom city models that they worked so hard on, randomly reverting to the default ones on the world map in the fog of war. My initial complaint about the game is it’s difficulty – Third Age was not designed for the novice gamer, or even the veteran Total war player, but for the fanatic. I believe in challenging games, but the recommended “Very Hard” settings, are just punishing. All too often the result is an epic beginning that quickly turns to despair as heroic battle, after battle fail to prove decisive, and the enemy just keeps coming. Thankfully, you need not play it at the recommended settings and can easily dial down the difficulty for more decisive outcomes to your actions. Secondly, in the current release it takes a tremendously long time to really get going into the best content — which in a game like this is the fighting units. Most factions start with a couple high tier units, but end up relying mostly on militia and levies for literally decades of game time given the progression of the scripted story events. There is a solution here too in the scores of sub mods available for download, some of which address these concerns. There are even sub mods of sub mods, all adding more content and/or new features to the game.
Not that Third Age is lacking in features, as you may have surmised. One particularly nice touch are the exploration cinematics. As you explore the world map with characters and armies expect to be greeted by pop up cut scenes (from the films) which highlight the area you’ve just discovered. There are numerous diplomatic events which must be responded to, some more complex than others. One such feature involves granting autonomy to independent realms like The Shire, with various consequences (hopefully a company of Hobbit archers and a few barrels of Old Toby). Unfortunately the downside of the way this was implemented, is that The Shire begins as a rebel faction, instead of part of Eriador as it was in previous versions. Now, you must first conquer the Four Farthings to bring them into the fold. This is the single greatest flaw of the game and an offense to Tolkien’s lore so grave I cannot give a pass to it, no matter what feature is involved. There are six evil factions to play if you want to scour the Shire, setting up a good faction in this way is nonsensical. I assume this was a quick fix to the feature and that this mistake will be remedied in the next patch. Sending Gandalf off to murder Hobbits kind of spoils this role player’s sense of immersive gameplay, and douses that joy I mentioned earlier over the various lore-appropriate Hobbit units.
There are unique objects of power, such as the Mirror of Galadriel and Palantir exist in appropriate locations which can be used by certain characters to gain knowledge of places that might otherwise be out of reach (ie. lifting the fog of war over random locations). Of course, the use of such seeing stones may have unforeseen negative repercussions beyond the trauma you may suffer as a result of hearing Sauron whispering, “I see you,” as you use them.
Some side effects to the team’s innovations cannot be fixed with a simple patch. Creating a Balrog with an engine that had no precedent for such a thing is a great feat. The problem with creating just one of something in a game where fighting units are scaled and organized into groups of many, is perhaps insurmountable. So you’ll actually find two Balrogs in Moria if you play on the smallest unit size, even more if you play with huge unit sizes. There are downsides to some of the other neat features like this, which Third Age may find its way around in coming releases. In the meantime a few things may require a little suspension of lore/disbelief (apart from the aforementioned crime against The Shire, which just has to go). Sometimes gameplay must be considered before lore too, and in this regard Third Age is very well balanced, barring a few quirks. When you put it all together, Third Age is a wonderful game created by fans for fans, and we’re nothing if not a bit quirky.
You can read more and download the latest release of Third Age: Total War here.
*”Snaga” means slave in the Black Speech and usually refers to lesser orcs and goblins. It is also the name by which the weakest goblin units are called in Third Age: Total War.