I've been primarily playing mods this week. This is the one has been eating most of my time. I mean that quite literally. I've been playing this most of my time. It's eaten mornings and afternoons and evenings I really can't afford to spend beating the hell out of Rhun. See! Rhun! Who the hell is Rhun? It's a Middle Earth Medieval II mod, and I'm happily fighting just some blokes with nary a whiff of Nazgul, Orcs or Hobbits.
Even my side isn't exactly over-whelmed with Middle-Earth charisma. I'm playing Dale. That's my gran's surname. That's the level of fantasy glamour we're dealing with here. I'm primarily playing them because Dale is the single major enhancement of the patch, completely reworking what a side who were apparently pretty nob in previous versions. They look fancy now, at least, and the sight of the sky filling with fire arrows is as stirring as ever. Dale is primarily an archery faction. It's the home of Bard from famous spectrum videogame the Hobbit, of SAY TO BARD “SHOOT THE DRAGON” fame. It's the one actual bit of lore on Dale I actually know. In fact, with the amount of artifacts related to the Smaug-offing, you half suspect it's the one bit of Lore that the development team knows to.
I jest. The team – as the size of the project would suggest – know their Tolkein. This is a 50-years-before-War-of-The-Ring set total conversion of Medieval II (Requiring the Kingdoms add-on pack) and allows you to take control of any of the 12 main players, from Gondor and Rohan to Mordor and The Orcs of the Misty Mountains. If you're properly perverse, you even have two variety of elves to pick from. And Dwarves. You can't play Beornings – the best of all the Middle-Earth-blokes and bear-changing honey-cake-eating hard-cases – but you can hire them as Mercenaries, which will have to do.
While it takes all the lore and runs with it, it doesn't try and simulate the actual film. It's more sensible than that. If it wanted to do a quest to get rid of the ring – and it doesn't, though it does feature – it'd involve slowly creating an economic structure large enough to power a military juggernaut hefty enough to bash down the doors of Mordor and shove that ring down Sauron's black throat. It's basically Middle Earth... but in Total War. Since every time I've been alone with Creative Assembly since the late nineties I've found myself suggesting they should do a Middle Earth: Total War – hey, guys, the Silmarillion's license has to be cheapish, yeah? Or the Adventures of Tom Bombadil? - this glorious chunk of intellectual-property-theft is more than welcome.
And it really is well into dodgy IP-use territory. Based off both the films and the books, taking the design of the character is one thing – taking the themes of the film and using stills from it to illustrate all those splendid events quite another. Seeing past that – and hoping that the all-seeing-eyes-of-lawyers do too – it's riffing off the source material in splendid ways. It claims to have better Campaign and Battle AI, which is always appreciated. Sauron takes the form of the evil side's Pope, giving missions to the dark minions. Oh – and there's more regional and culture basis on your recruitment, which alters the tactical set-up significantly.
The future path of development also looks promising. Eriador – north-west Middle Earth. You know – Bree and all that jazz – is next up for a reworking, and they seem to be planning to do something akin to the Reforms in Total War, where the ancient state of Arnor can re-emerge if you follow a certain form of development. This is both tactically interesting and glorious Middle-Earth fan-service porn. I don't even want to explain it to you. I'll feel ashamed.
But it's nifty.
There's something about Total War which fits Middle Earth particularly well. Total War is an unusual strategy game, belonging to a different tradition to the game's it's normally compared to. It's not that it's asymmetrical – which it is, with the idea that all the nations aren't equivalent being there since the earliest days of Shogun. It's not how it switches between the tactical and the global scale map – though it obviously does that. It's... well, I'm going to coin the phrase Narrative Strategy. Sure, it looks a lot like Civilization... but the AI isn't actually playing the same game as you. In Civ, the AI abstractly win the game by the scientific victory or reaching Alpha Centauri or whatever. In Total War, the AI takes a position almost akin to the levels in a traditional single-player game. It can't win the game – it can only make you lose. Much of Total War is inelegant in design, with certain elements to tweak there primarily to increase the sensation of ruling a kingdom and setting your troops off to war. Civ, in its heart, is a game. Total War, at its heart, has pretensions to being a simulation – or rather something that makes you feel you're playing simulation.
Civ maps aren't places. Total War maps are. They are about the illusion of adventure, of going places, of being somewhere.
And, as such, Middle Earth is a hell of a place to be. It creates a sensation of exploring Tolkein's realm and making it a real place in a way which I haven't felt since the Mike Singleton demi-classic War In Middle Earth - which, for the record, is one of those games you should namecheck when Herzog Zwei is ever referenced as the first RTS. As much as I enjoyed Lord of the Rings online, it didn't get the scale, the sense of falling inside a map I suspect most childhood Tolkein fans can empathise with. And while I'm something of an admirer of the two Lord of the Rings RTS games Electronic Arts released, if someone came to me asking what Tolkein strategy game I'd recommend... well, I'd say buy a Medieval II pack and download this. It's a magnificent example of how wonderful modding can be.
That's the other reason why I feel it's appropriate delving into mods this week. I was already in there when the – well, the most complimentary words which came to mind were “small-minded” and “treacherous”- Game Informer piece broke the Internet asunder. One of the many lines which stuck out was Adam Biessener's apologia-esque unquestioning reprocessing of Infinity Ward's line: “all they lose is the ability to customize the game on a deeper level with mods and such”.
All we lose? How can someone who has even slightly involved in gaming culture say that? You can only presume that his entire experience of the form has been filtered through a console's control straightjacket. This is like someone from a totalitarian regime failing to understand why so many people in another country are so upset at losing their vote – after all, it's easy to dismiss something you've never had. Well, it's either that or blank, stupid servility. Either way, it makes me furious.
Because that's what the whole Modern Warfare 2 situation is about; it's about control. It's about a developer wanting to own its own service – something you can only pull off when you have a game big enough to leverage it onto people's hard-drive much like Rockstar's attempt to launch the social club off the back of GTA4. Because if they really cares about the transparency of the core user experience, they'd have used one of the many already existent services and not have to hassle everyone else with theirs – let alone one which, with the clock ticking down to launch, doesn't appear to have had a public stress-testing yet. Because if that falls over on launch, that piece seems even more openly duplicitous. Yes, all those apparently-casual gamers are going to be enormously happy if a fancy new system won't let them play their fancy new game.
I play Third Age, and find myself grateful they haven't won that particular cultural war yet - in fact, as my lines of troops run down a slope, axes aloft and bloodied-faces, I find myself smirking as I'm reminded of watching a fragment of Braveheart last night. ("they'll never take... OUR FREEDOM!" indeed). Mods are noble, free and brave things, and this is a noble, free and brave mod. I highly recommend it. You'll need Medieval II: Kingdoms, plus the main patch, 1.1, 1.2 and 1.3. Which, despite sounding worryingly PC-gaming, is no more hardcore than “running the files”.