Developer: Snowblind Studios / Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature (Intense Violence, Blood and Gore)
The Lord of the Rings is among the greatest fantasy epics ever told, and after the success of the movie franchise a bevy of tie-ins products, side stories, and other media was created to expand the universe. Snowblind’s newest action title is set in the land of Middle Earth but does not follow the paths of Frodo, Aragorn, or Gandalf; instead it tells an entirely new story. The Lord of the Rings: War in the North acts as a side car to the main storyline, telling of the heroic deeds of three brave warriors whose actions directly impacted the success of the Fellowship. Grab your axe, sharpen your swords, and get ready to kill some orcs.
The human ranger Eradan, dwarven warrior Farin, and elven spellcaster Andriel receive a perilous mission from Aragorn while staying at the Inn of the Prancing Pony. Sauron is after the Ring of Power, and an unknown force is amassing an army in the northern reaches of Middle Earth. Fearing this resistance will spell doom for Frodo as he ventures into Mordor, Aragorn asks the three warriors to investigate the northern regions and act as a distraction to keep Sauron’s looming eye away from the Hobbits. Though the mission is assuredly a death wish, the Ring must be destroyed, and the three willingly accept. As their adventure progresses, Eradan, Farin, and Andriel encounter and recruit the Great Eagles, journey to the elven city Rivendell, and discover Sauron’s henchman Agandaur to be the culprit. The story runs parallel to the story from the books, so you’ll frequently hear updates on the Fellowship’s progress to Mount Doom, which is pretty cool. Though not as epic as the main storyline, War in the North does offer intriguing morsels of narrative that fans of Lord of the Rings will surely enjoy. Ever wonder why Frodo didn’t just fly on the back of an Eagle to get to Mount Doom? Well, you can find out why in this game. War in the North does a great job capturing the feel of the movies (not the books) in terms of atmosphere: you’ll feel like you’re in Middle Earth, but you won’t feel a lot of tension. Agandaur is indeed evil, but there’s never a feeling of looming destruction like there was in the source narrative. Interesting segments will pique your curiosity but all too often you’ll feel like War in the North’s story is entirely inferior to the Tolkien-authored classic.
Snowblind Studios is no stranger to the action RPG genre, having created PS2 greats such as Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath. War in the North plays similarly to these other titles. As you eviscerate countless orcs you’ll find better loot to equip and gain levels to grow stronger. Increasing in level allows you to advance further in a trio of skill trees which grant special powers such as firing multiple arrows at once, or healing spells restoring more life. The drive to find more loot and gain more levels is satisfying and acts as the main motive to keep playing. Seeing your character decked out in new armor and knowing a better helmet or sword could be around the corner can be addictive.
Eradan is the most versatile of the three characters and can use a range of weapons and armors. Farin specializes in axes and hammers and is more of a tank class, while Andriel focuses on healing and support spells while using staves. Though there’s variety in the way each character handles, combat gets repetitive. Killing hordes of orcs is fun at first, but after the first ten waves of slaughter the game feels stale. The new abilities unlocked by leveling up only dampened the monotony for a short while. Even playing with two friends can feel boring at times, as you mindlessly mash the attack buttons, dodge roll from a troll’s club, and mash attack buttons again, occasionally calling for help or healing yourself.
Some other gameplay weaknesses mar things further. If you fall in battle your allies can bring you back to your feet (sort of like Gears of War), but getting hit once while trying to revive an ally stops the process of healing altogether. This can make reviving others near impossible once they fall because you’ll be surrounded by enemies. The AI for your teammates is actually quite good, but the same can’t be said for enemies. Oftentimes they will just walk into your attacks, and only block attacks after getting hit a few times first. Enemies execute the same attack patterns throughout the game, so recognizing attacks becomes simple and dodging them is too easy. Also, the game has a handful of boss characters, like a massive troll, powerful sorcerers, and even a huge spider, but many of them implement the same attack strategy. Overall the gameplay is mixed: a good loot and leveling system are taken down heavily by bland, uninspired combat.
Visually War in the North has some of the best looking game environments I’ve seen this year. The draw distances in certain locations (like the top of the Grey Mountains) are stunning, and the amount of detail that has gone into creating each environment is a big highlight. From the muddy and wet town of Bree to the great Dwarven city in the mountains, War in the North’s backgrounds is easy on the eyes. Characters look good as well but getting up close reveals some rough edges, particularly with hair. Beards and hairstyles move as if they’re one solid piece and don’t flow naturally. It’s a minor complaint (honestly, which game has ever gotten hair completely right?), but one you’ll assuredly notice. War in the North is also very brutal, with hacked-off limbs and blood flying everywhere. As you slice up foes your characters will be covered in blood, which is a nice touch. Snow sticks on your armor and clothes as you climb through the mountain stages, and it’s these fine touches that make the game’s visuals standout.
War in the North can be played solo or with up to two other players taking control of your other party members. While playing solo you level up your entire team and can switch between them before each new mission, but playing with others requires each player to have their own save game and profile. What this means is if you’ve started a game and want a friend to join you in local split-screen co-op you’re out of luck, because that person will have to have a separate save game. This really cuts down on the co-op appeal as you can’t just pick up and play. Online multiplayer lets you join friends via Xbox Live, but you have to be close in level and story to join them, otherwise you won’t be able to save your content or progression. If you can get a group together though, playing with friends is easily the best option for the game. Having a human ally instead of a computer one is invaluable when a formidable gang of orcs, or worse yet a duo of trolls, show up . Unfortunately some bugs hamper the multiplayer experience, both offline and on. While playing splitscreen, I encountered enemies that stood still while we attacked them and freezing during load screens. While online the same issue with enemies arose, as well as enemies appearing from nowhere and considerable lag with some players. Strangely these problems only arise during multiplayer, as my experience through the near eight hour game by myself went by flawlessly.
The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is a game of ups and downs. The story is decent at times but fails to compare to the magnitude of the original books’ story. Leveling up and getting new gear is fun, but the combat becomes repetitive quickly. Multiplayer should be the definitive method of play, but requiring profiles for each player and a few gameplay bugs don’t help. I’d recommend War in the North for anyone who simply loves The Lord of the Rings, but if you’re searching for a co-op action title you might look elsewhere.