Coming completely out of left field, War in the North is probably one of the stealthiest releases we have had this year. I remember getting my hands on it back at PAX East and somehow it managed to disappear from radar ever since. Now, in the thick of the fall rush, Warner Bros. and Snowblind are releasing this dungeon crawler to the masses amongst a flurry of other releases. While you may not have known it was coming, this is definitely one not to miss if you enjoy titles such as Champions of Norrath or the Baldur’s Gate series on consoles.
War in the North takes place within the Tolkien universe, and you will interact with characters from the books and movies, but you will never develop a relationship with any of these three warriors. You can choose between three characters, all of which carry specific traits. You have Eradan the DÃƒÆ’Ã‚Âºnadan ranger, Farin the dwarf and Andriel the Elven Loremaster. Each one seems built with classes in mind rather than plotline; so don’t expect to grow attached to this ragtag group of heroes. Still, the narrative is strong, focusing on Agandaur and a new threat in the north of Middle-Earth. You will run into familiar faces and it all has an epic feel, but the protagonists feel like faceless fodder far too often.
This is a hack-and-slash game if ever there was one. You can choose any of the three characters from the outset, with each one carrying their own skills to battle. Eradan is obviously built for bow combat but he can handle himself with a sword. Andriel is great for ranged combat as well as magic and healing. Finally Farin is the tank and prefers to be close quarters with his combat; he is most deadly with an ax. The combat itself is pretty standard stuff, but it works. The combos are nothing spectacular and remain similar regardless of which protagonist you choose. What is different about War in the North, though, is the carnage.
This is the first M-rated game to take place in Tolkien’s beloved universe, and the game wears it like a badge. Decapitations and dismemberment abound, and the blood flows like water. The game is brutal and the slow-motion it uses to display these attacks are aplenty. It is actually refreshing, considering most games in this universe showcase an orc being sliced by a blade and simply vanishing or falling down.
One thing to consider before diving in is whether or not you mind grinding. Areas in War in the North are vast and full of the same enemies over and over again. This is good for leveling and loot collection, but not so much for repetition. Each area usually involves being locked into place and having to eliminate hordes of enemies before progressing. The only diversity comes from turret segments and boss fights, but still, these are plagued by endless amounts of enemies. The game was designed with collecting loot and grinding levels in mind, and of course, the gore. If you can stomach that, there is a great game underneath the rough exterior.
Co-op is the name of the game here, and you can join two of your buddies online. Amazingly, flying solo comes with some issues I can’t ignore. First up, when playing alone, you are stuck with AI characters whether you want them or not. You can also only switch characters at specific points in the game unless you quit all the way out and load a checkpoint. This being a story-driven game, you are also stuck with the characters by default, no picking and choosing class and race here. Still, with all of these crutches, the game still manages to be a blast when you get a good group of players going.
The RPG elements in the game are standard fare, with three skill trees for each character based on close-quarters combat, ranged and special abilities. You can also upgrade various traits, such as strength and will, but it really isn’t as deep as some more modern RPGs. I do love that new gear changes the appearance of your character. This is one small detail that most games like it fail to implement. I love that a new piece of armor visually affects the game, as little or as stupid as it may be. Speaking of loot, there is a ton of it. New weapons, ingredients for potions and, of course, armor are constantly filling up your inventory. You can give items to your team or simply sell them at mirrors scattered around the world. For loot collecting fiends, this game delivers plenty to discover.
Probably one of the largest issues with War in the North though is its lack of instruction. There are several things, such as creating potions or enhancing weapons that the game never bothers to point out well. I also must have missed the prompt teaching me to block as it only occurred to me once I was surrounded by orcs and dying constantly. Another example is that you can give AI teammates commands in the game, not that they listen too well, but I really didn’t know the option was available until several hours into the game. There is a lot the game doesn’t tell you, and that can be a huge setback when trying to enjoy it. I think of it as the “Too Human syndrome” and wish it did a better job of showing you all of what it can do.
Visually, the game looks all right most of the time, with only some minor hiccups here and there. Textures can be a bit muddy and some physics are a bit wonky at times, but overall, the game looks fine. The close encounters with orcs are definitely a bloody good time. The environments are well designed, leaving you little room to get lost while still keeping them varied enough to keep from getting stale. The voice work is decent, but when you run into main characters from the movies, you can definitely tell the downgrade regardless of how good the impression is. The music is sparse most of the time, only flying in during battles and key moments, but when it is there, it does a nice job of conveying the action.
Lord of the Rings: War in the North is a solid action RPG with plenty of loot to collect. I really got a sense of Champions of Norrath the more I played it, and wanted to continue grinding, which is uncommon for me. I loved playing co-op even with its setbacks, and honestly, since Crimson Alliance and Torchlight, I haven’t had this much fun in a game like this in years. Sure, it has shortcomings on all sides of the fence, but when you can lose five and six hour chunks of time without even noticing it, the game is certainly doing its job right.
Review copy provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.