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The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth; Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines; Keyhole 2 LT

Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page F08

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE BATTLE FOR MIDDLE-EARTH, Electronic Arts

If you haven't gotten your fill of Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy world, this inventive interpretation should yield many more hours of pleasant distraction. The game lets you take charge of any of four powers -- Rohan, Gondor, Isengard or Mordor -- and lead your forces through such events and battles as Mines of Moria, the battle for Helm's Deep and the Paths of the Dead.

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Resource and force management are kept simple (it's not as if the books spent much time on logistical concerns, either), leaving you free to follow your armies through a gorgeously detailed "Living Map" as Nazgul swoop, Ents march and voiceovers by Christopher Lee and Ian McKellen guide you. You can play through two complete campaigns in the single-player mode or switch to a more open-ended, multi-player option that lets you challenge other Tolkien geeks online.

Some of your missions require you to defeat swarms of enemies with just a few heroes, but it's more entertaining to watch massed forces on both sides claw for victory. When you select a battle to focus on, you are presented with an overhead view of the land that allows you to select multiple battalions or siege weapons, then order a group attack or defensive maneuver. But you can also zoom in, getting up close and personal as your Trolls battle the Horsemen of Rohan. Being in the heart of the fight shows off terrific details and makes it easier to select individual heroes and unleash their special abilities -- for example, Gandalf's stunning Wizard's Blast or Boromir's fearsome Horn of Gondor.

One note about tactics: Since units won't run unless ordered, skirmishes can turn into contests of attrition unless one side plays a trump card, such as using the One Ring to summon a Balrog. With success, your armies gain in experience and, in some cases, hardware; if you can hoard resources and gain a good balance of battle skills, you'll do well in the later scenarios, where far more is at stake. -- Michael Tedeschi

Win 2000 or newer, $50

VAMPIRE:

THE MASQUERADE: BLOODLINES, Activision

Few things in the game industry should be shocking these days, but the blood, gore and violence in this game are. This first-person-perspective sequel takes place in a far grimmer world than its predecessor -- a dark and cruel 3-D rendition of modern-day Santa Monica, Hollywood and Los Angeles, in which even the supposedly innocent mortals are largely evil.

Among them, you will meet a serial killer who imprisons victims in his basement and slowly cuts them up alive; vampires who practice "fleshcrafting," in which they carve their victims into hideous monsters; and a pretty ghoul who feeds on corpses in the morgue to survive. The game's graphics certainly do a good job of portraying this ugly environment -- littered with cigarette butts, trash and copious amounts of blood -- as vividly as possible.


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