Lord of the Rings games have been noticeably absent from the gaming industry for some time now. What’s that? Aragorn’s Quest you say? Never heard of it. Moving on. Once the movies came to an end, the games followed suit. Now, here we are in the year 2011, and a new Lord of the Rings RPG/hack ‘n slash game has made its way out (coincidentally, LotR will be back in the movie industry as well with The Hobbit releasing next year). The best part? It’s made by the same studio that brought us the wonderful titles Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norath.
Lord of the Rings: War in the North pulls a majority of the focus from the fellowship we all know well from the books, movies, and other game tie-ins. While you’ll still see original and recognizable characters, three new heroes make up the tale being told this time around: Eradan, Farin and Andriel. The three must journey North (as the title gives away) to face a new threat to protect the other adventure happening with Frodo.
Snowblind Studios set out to separate this title from previous Lord of the Rings games. This is clearly evident by the M rating, a first for the series. Sexual themes and strong language are nowhere to be seen in the rating description. Only two reasons for the mature rating are found on the back of the box: “Blood and Gore” and “Intense Violence.” The sheer brutality of this game is something unseen for LotR fans that have played the previous installments and, I must say, it’s about damn time. This is a war full of death and destruction, as made clear in both the movies and literature, and as such the game should reflect that. War in the North takes your basic hack ‘n slash gameplay and adds the ever-so-satisfying dismemberment aspect to the formula. Strike an enemy with the dwarf’s axe repeatedly and he’s bound to lose a leg, arm or head. Shoot on ocr in the face a few times with the ranger’s bow and it’ll take some weight off their shoulders. As previously stated, this is a hack ‘n slash game. The combat may become repetitive for some over time, even with the upgrade system (more on that in a bit), but the joy of piling the severed bodies of your foes is something this war has been missing when it visited consoles before. Does this sound a bit sadistic? Maybe to some, but this is a WAR. Wars are violent, especially when a majority of the combat ends up in close quarters with nothing but sharpened steel. This is the presentation Lord of the Rings’ games needed.
Moving on past orc blood and limbs, the combat can be personalized depending on the character you pick. First, there’s Eradan the Human Ranger. He can take quick, consecutive shots with his bow as well as devastate opponents with his two-handed sword. Later on, he can be upgraded to dual-wield two one-handed swords. His play style forms the way you want it to through the dispersion of experience points in a skill tree. Andriel is an Elven Loremaster and plays just like you’d expect a mage to conduct battle. Fire off spells from a distance or provide an aura of safety (known as Sanctuary) to provide cover from incoming projectiles. Finally, there’s Farin the Dwarven Champion. He likes to get up close and personal with his axe (or hammer if you find one), dealing large amounts of damage. He also has a crossbow for those distant enemies. That’s what makes each character great. They all have their own strengths, but they are still able to partake in all forms of combat. It just depends on which direction you want to take them and where you want to specialize in terms of combat.
Return to Middle Earth
Middle Earth is a setting we haven’t seen much of lately in games. Actually, let me reiterate. Middle Earth is a setting we haven’t seen much of lately in GOOD games. The time has finally come to immerse yourself once again in the wonderful lore of Lord of the Rings. The settings all reflect the kind of environments you’d expect to jump off the pages of Tolkien’s great works. Better yet, this all takes place in a different setting than the books (for the most part). Your group of three will be going to the North while the well-known iconic conflict is simultaneously occurring in the South. Although there will be instances where you cross paths with the original fellowship.
Eradan, Farin and Andriel have decided to venture to the northern lands to stop a growing evil. These fiendish forces are led by Sauron’s chief lieutenant, Agandaur. Now, you may be wondering where all of this came in and how it could possibly be labeled as “canon.” It’s pretty simple. Gandalf briefly speaks of an evil in the North that was thwarted by a handful of heroes. That’s the basis of this game. From there, the developers fill in the gaps.
The entire game has been built around 3-player cooperative play. Playing with friends, online or offline, is the optimal way to experience War in the North. This is partially due to the computer-controller AI being somewhat lackluster. Having human players enhances the action on-screen. Plus, you can really get tactical. Have the Loremaster set up the safety aura to protect the group while the Ranger picks off orcs from afar and all the while the Champion closes the distance to dice up foes. Players can collaborate and level up their individual characters in such a way as to create the most effective trio of combatants.
Loot, Loot and More Loot
What RPG is complete without large amounts of loot? War in the North has you covered here. Snowblind Studios implemented that joyous system of treasure we all love so much. Enemies drop health potions, coins, weapons and armor. Treasure chests and random piles contain these goodies as well. You’ll be swapping out armor and weapons non-stop, craving the next best thing shortly after equipping your newly acquired items.
War in the North is a cooperative experience, a cooperative experience that can be played alone. Everything that works well with two other real players falls apart a little when the CPU AI takes over. You can issue the “Attack” and “Defend” orders, but it makes little difference. Your allies will go about their orc-slaying business the way they see fit. They get the job done for the most part and even play their roles properly at times, but their flaws still shine through. The biggest flaw stems from the poor management options for the other two followers. Actually, it’s the complete lack of management options. You are allowed to give weapons and armor that you are unable to use to the appropriate teammate, but they won’t really do anything with your gracious gifts. In order to equip the higher-level weapons/armor you’ll have to switch characters at the designated points and equip everything yourself. This is why human players are far superior as they negate this complaint.
The entire game is based off a single line. This leaves a ton of plot options open to the developers to craft. With the game taking a more mature route, one would hope that more deviations from the usual would be present. The characters don’t fair any better in this regard. This is a ride you’ll go along on just to be a part of the Lord of the Rings universe again. An intriguing story and deep characters take a back seat this time. Neither will ever truly grab your attention or make you feel the same as those scripted events from previous games that tied into the movies. Even the sections that cross over with Frodo’s path don’t feel all that powerful or exciting.
Lord of the Rings: War in the North finally achieves the brutality the series has been missing thanks to the M rating. This new found brutality comes as a result of the simplistic and satisfying combat. Poor AI, an uninteresting plot and bland characters are the only blemishes on this package. Otherwise, you’ve never needed more of a reason to re-enter Middle Earth and venture through the enemies and locations that Tolkien created. Fans and RPG fans alike should make some time to check out this title, even with all the big-hitters releasing this year.
[Editor’s Note: Lord of the Rings: War in the North was reviewed on the Xbox 360 platform. The game was provided to us by the publisher for review purposes.]Lord of the Rings: War in the North Review,