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"Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again."
—Gandalf, in a rather omminous piece of foreshadowing.
The Fourth Age Total war is a full-conversion modification of Rome: Total War which works with Barbarian Invasion. As the name implies it is set in the Fourth Age of Middle-earth and aims to stay true to the lore and writings of JRR Tolkien while trying to provide an original experience by imaginging what Middle-earth would have been like in a total war setting; this means that the setting is based off the books and not the films. As is the standard for any Total War game, you get to pick from a number of factions and decide how things play out, mixing real time strategy with city and faction management and throwing in doses of religion, wonders of the world and family characters to increase the depth.
The current version of the mod is known as The New Shadow, which as the name suggests is based off Tolkien's unfinished manuscript for a sequel to the Lord of the Rings where Eldarion, the son of Aragorn Elissar and king of the Reunited Kingdom has to deal with his people turing to evil practices in the lands of Gondor. However Tolkien abandoned this after only a few pages without providing additional backstory or characters. A case of justified Gameplay and Story Segregation changes a few of the ideas that were in the unfinished tale due to the developers using their imaginations, this manages to create a realistic and true setting within Tolkien's work. In this setting the Reunited Kingdom of Gondor and Arnor has become badly weakened by political strife amongst Aragorn's descendants, resulting in half the kingdom splintering and forming the Kingdom of Adunabar in Mordor and Ithilien, with rumors that a dark cult is behind this civil war. Because of this relations between Gondor and Rohan have become strained and in the Kingdoms weakened state Dunland, the Empire of Harad and the Chiefdom of Rhun have expanded towards some of the Kingdoms teritory.
It has proven to be a popular and well recieved, if perhaps an underrated mod. This is due to the fact the developers have been working on this since Rome's release back in 2004 and their insistance of fully researching the setting and game engine as well as releasing it in complete yet playable portions, rather then simply releasing a buggy and unfinished mod of of the game. Another fact is that it is a very faithful recreation of the world it is set in, being filled to the brim with lore and references to all of Tolkien's works to make it as immersive and true to the High Fantasy setting it is in.
It can currently be found here.
Currently the mod is at Version 2.6. Which has the south and eastern parts of Middle-earth playable. Version 3.0, titled Dominion of Men is slated for a 2011 release and will unlock the north and western parts of the landscape, including Arnor and The Shire as well as making the Elven, Dwarven and Dale factions playable in campaign. As this based off a High Fantasy work where a lot of fantasy elements are removed a mixture of fantasy and realism tropes are present.
The Fourth Age Total War provides examples of:
- All There in the Manual: The manual being the Middle-earth legendarium itself, even abandoned writings!
- Adaptation Distillation: As this is based off a story that was abandoned after a few pages, a lot of imagination has been needed to fill the gaps. Some of this is forced due to unmoddable elements of the game while others were made by choice.
- Artificial Stupidity: A limit of the Total War engine used as it means AI factions are quite happy to declare war on you and won't sue for peace. Annoying when playing as Rohan and the Reunited Kingdom declare war on you. The alliance system is planned to be fixed in Dominion of Men.
- Black and White Morality: With the exception of Adunabar each faction is alligned soley to the Men of the West or the Men of Darkness. Adunabar is the only faction which lets you decide who to worship, do you build memorials to the Kings of Gondor or do you raise temples devoted to the Shadow?
- Doing It for the Art: One reason releases take so long to do. The developers decided rather then release a complete map of Middle-earth which would be more buggy, they would release it in playable and detailed chunks.
- Also, the level of detail and attention given perhaps has made this one of the better games based off Lord of the Rings compared to the ones EA and Sierra have tried.
- Easter Egg: Rohan get a unit of Dwarves in Algarond, the settlement founded by Gimli after the war. Reunited Kingdom get a unit of Elves due to the settlement founded by Legolas in Ithilien.
- The wonders of the world qualify, Othanc and the Argonath to name just two.
- A settlement of Dwarves just north of Mordor is one.
- Expy: The rebellion of Adunabar is strikingly similiar to how Sauron corrupted the Kingdom of Numenor to cause their downfall.
- Evil Pays Better: In Adunabar's case then yes if you decide to worship the shadow you get to breed all manner of evilness, in part due to it being harder to play nice as them. However butchering settlements when playing as Rohan or the Reunited Kingdom applies negative traits such as 'Orc Like' which will handicapp your influence.
- Elves vs. Dwarves: Played straight as this is a Total War game, you can have them fight in custom battles. They are not currently playable in campaign.
- Foreshadowing: The page quote, note that this is an unofficial sequel, sadly.
- Gameplay and Story Segregation: Justified because of the limits of the Rome engine and several elements unmoddable due to hard coding, there has been a few allowances made, such as:
- Places like Helms Deep or Minas Tirith being generic cities on the battle map due to the way the game handles battles. Although in the campaign map they are unique.
- Characters of Dunedanic and Numenorean descent age and die the same as lesser men, meaning you are lucky to get them living past 80. This is due to age having an upper limit of 125 before it resets. This is why Eldarion is not in the game and his son is now the ruler of the kingdom, although Eldarion's demise has not been explained.
- Tolkien's unfinished manuscript only mentioned a dark cult was rising rather then it being a full blown faction. Although justifiable due to the limits of the game engine.
- Mouth of Sauron: Is now the real power behind Adunabar, with the King of that kingdom acting as the public face.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Aragorn of all people during the War of the Ring. When he met the Mouth of Sauron he let him live rather then kill him. The Mouth was able to escape the fall of Sauron and fled south where he plotted revenge. It's revealed that he returned after Aragorn's death now known as Heurmor and has orchestrated the events which led to the Reunited Kingdoms weakening, the corruption of the Kings brother which lead to Adunabar's founding and the state of affairs in the world.
- No Campaign for the Wicked: Subverted. The only playable 'Good' factions are the Reunited Kingdom and Rohan. Harad, Rhun and Dunland are not entirely evil but their campaigns result in destroying their ancient enemies, and are no means nice. Adunabar are unique in being the only faction with a choice, Good being Men of the West or evil for The Shadow.
- Oh Crap: Mumakil, go ahead and try to fight them without siege weapons. I dare you.
- Olog-Hai. Remember the berserker unit from Vanilla Rome Total War? Imagine a twelve foot tall version of that with twice the strength and speed charging headlong at your battle line.
- Realism: The mod relies a lot more on this by taking inspiration from Tolkien's appendicies. The Fourth Age is the Dominion of Men where most fantasy elements were disappearing, the Elves sailed into the west with Gandalf and the ring bearers, taking the three elven rings with them. Balrogs and Nazgul are destroyed, the remaining Istari supposedly sailed back to Valinor, the Ents went back to the forest and supposedly declined. The Dwarves slowly declined and kept to themselves and Hobbits kept to themselves while under the protection of the Reunited Kingdom.
- Requisite Royal Regalia: The leaders of each faction have ancillaries to point out they are in charge.
- Shout-Out: The mod itself is a big shout out to The New Shadow, and there are several instances of lore and references to the other books everywhere you look.
- Shown Their Work: Everywhere you look. Examples include:
- The King of the Kingdom of Adunabar is known as Amandil the strong-willed. Because he uses the Palantir of Minas Anor, which is only able to show two hands withering in flame unless you and strong enough to turn it it other uses.
- In Dominion of Men, Elven and Dwarven units will only be recruitable from settlements populated by them, and the settlements will have population troubles. Because they are different species and taking over settlements with men in doesn't mean you can suddenly make elven and dwarven troops. The population problems arise from the Elves sailing into the west and the Dwarves in decline, while the unit issues arise from the fact that elves and dwarves are different species.
- Adunabar gets its name derived from Westron, one of the languages invented by Tolkien. With Adun meaning "Westerner" and Abar meaning "Kingdom"
- Each faction has different houses amongst it's family members, the Reunited Kingdom for example has the houses of Galador, Telcontar and Hurin, corresponding to the Princes of Dol Amroth, the line of the Kings of Men and the Stewards of Gondor. Each has titles and ancillaries to go with their name.
- The Dev Team Thinks of Everything: Oh where to start:
- Have an army stand near Orthanc waiting to be attacked, watch as you fight in front of the tower itself.
- The Dragon: The leader of Adunabar is this to Heurmor.
- The Fellowship Has Ended: Happened centuries before, they have either died or sailed west in that time.
- The Magic Goes Away: It's almost completely gone, only elements such as the last palantir remain as hints of what once was. This is due to how Tolkien envisioned Middle-earth gradually becoming the modern world and this is continued in the game.
- Unexplained Recovery: Oh my, Herumor could be seen like this. Think you can just get rid of him by letting him disappear when the King of Adunabar dies so it's easier to play a good faction? Think again, he just comes back next turn in your new kings ancillaries.
- Video Game Cruelty Potential: As with any Total War game, capturing a settlement means you have the choice to butcher the populace, not such a good idea if playing as Rohan or the Reunited Kingdom if a family member is in command. Adunabar plays this straight, as you can turn the kingdom to the New Shadow then then tear down your rival kingdom on the other side of the Anduin.
- Video Game Historical Revisionism: Within the history of Middle-earth itself. Tolkien's work stated that the fourth age was one of peace between men, with Eldarion rulling for several centuries. However this was after he abandoned the sequel, plus this mod is done so well it may be considered Better Than Canon.
- Walk Into Mordor: Since Sauron is long gone, this is now a massive aversion. Although if fighting Adunabar you are still going to have to fight your way through it to destroy them.
- Zerg Rush: Any faction with the ability to recruit orc bands. They are just as numerous as, and cheaper than, peasants from Rome: Total War and you can make a staggering 9 units of them in one turn. While they are low quality, if you have a big enough population, which is heavily boosted by the orc pits required to build the unit, you can just send out endless waves of these and overwhelm the other factions through sheer numbers.