After the success of Peter Jackson’s trilogy, it was a given that The Lord of the Rings fever would take over the games industry. But as the relationship between cinema and video games is not yet an ideal one, the series has not received a masterpiece yet, like we could say about the Batman universe.
There have been a few good titles – The Battle for Middle-Earth series, Lord of the Rings Online, but nothing truly extraordinary. And before the “The Hobbit” mania will engulf us in December, Snowblind Studios have decided to thread the waters of Middle-earth with a cooperative hack and slash.
Anyways, you need people of intelligence on this sort of… mission… quest… thing
The Lord of the Rings: War in the North tells the story of three less-known heroes, which apparently are very good friends of Aragorn, in a story adjacent to the main one, full of dismemberment and decapitations. Andriel, Farin and Eradan – theoretically a Mage, Warrior and Ranger/Rogue respectively – begin their saga in Bree, at The Prancing Pony, shortly before the meeting between Aragorn and Frodo.
In Bree, the game’s potential seems to be pretty good. The atmosphere won’t blow anyone away with its intensity, but it’s enough to guarantee a decent RPG, the dialogues don’t make you want to get past the talking immediately and the voice acting is above average. Besides the tasks given by Aragorn, there are two more quests that amount to about three-four minutes and so it becomes pretty clear that War in the North (WitN) won’t throw big logic and ethics problems in the player’s direction.
But the game tries to dodge this impression initially. The dialogue system is inspired by that of Mass Effect/Dragon Age 2, although you don’t get complex dialogue trees or new narrative paths. On the left side are options for those who want more information about the situation of the realm and on the right the answers that continue the story… which most of the time are the classic “I will do it” and “No, I won’t”.
Not that in ME and DA2 you always get to an essential new path of the adventure, but at least the illusion generally makes way for at least a somewhat important consequence. And after about two or three conversations, WitN looks like a “Dragon Age Light”, a characteristic that will gradually extend to all its aspects, without managing to be more than mediocre in anything.
There’s no strength left in the world of men
Only after leaving Bree you discover the game’s true face and essence, the one that comprises it almost completely and without which it wouldn’t have anything to offer: the grind. Most of the fighting sections follow the lazy pattern of “restricted zone – a lot of enemies, of which many are very tough – the way out that is only available after you dispose of the horde”.
It’s sad seeing that a Lord of the Rings game has been treated like this, especially since its fighting aspects are not so advanced so as to keep boredom away for the whole 10 hours of adventure. And the novelty of the confrontations, little as it is, wears off after 2 hours at most, the rest of it being tolerable depending on the player’s tolerance for grind sessions.
I mentioned the fact that the three protagonists represent different classes mostly theoretically, because the scarcity of the game extends gradually like a disease. The heroes have two melee attacks available, a fast one and a slower, but powerful one plus an option of ranged attacks with the help of the bow, crossbow or magic staff.
Apart from these, they all have three special abilities that help delimit them in regards to the way they tackle the battles, although their numbers are also very limited, probably so as not to irritate the small number of buttons on a controller. The most interesting (available to all of them) is the ability to call forth Beleram, the imposing eagle that you liberate from Sauron’s acolytes and that should have been persuaded, maybe along other gigantic winged creatures, to throw the damn ring in the volcano.
It’s almost as if the only essential difference between the heroes is their damage capability, Farin being the most lethal when it comes to melee fights, Eradan – the one I’ve played with the most – being decent and Andriel managing her best in ranged attacks. Among everyone’s special abilities, the most important would be Andriel’s healing spell, Farin’s War Cry (technically a damage buff) and Eradan’s stealth knowledge.
The battles demand some attention thanks to a frail combo and “fatality” system that offers experience points based on their complexity. And in its pretentious RPG demands, these abilities are combined in something that wants to resemble a set of three skill-trees, which at least at first sight bring complexity to the special ways of enemy annihilation, although ultimately most of these choices amount only to additional damage.
The three heroes are always together, whether the game is tackled cooperatively or not, the AI applying a very mechanical control to the ones that don’t have a human puppeteer. The attack and defend orders that can be given to the AI teammates don’t really matter: Andriel is always rushing to cast Sanctuary when death is near, while Farin blesses the battlefield with a War Cry as soon as the ability is available. If the situation has really taken a turn for the worse and you’ve been defeated by orcs and goblins, the AI tries to get to you immediately for help, no matter what else explodes on the battlefield.
Be on your guard. There are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep places of the world
There’s one thing I would have liked the game to warn me about before starting my adventure and that’s the fact that the Normal difficulty mode is adjusted for co-op sessions. I had huge bad luck in my first days because I couldn’t find any online games and so I had to fight Tharzog, the first boss you meet, for about eight-nine times, at which point I was close to losing my patience and restart the story on Easy. And since big problems usually don’t come alone, the first time I created an online session and got some much needed help against Tharzog, the game crashed before saving my progress and so I was left staring at the cold sun of the North trying to keep my calm.
As a result, the adventure gains immensely in attractiveness when you are joined by human companions than can cast Sanctuary and War Cry more efficiently. Without them, from Normal upwards, the game turns into a boring grind session. In most of the battle locations you are assaulted almost indefinitely by dozens of enemies, many of them having ridiculous health, with no other choice than to engage in a click-fest that rapidly becomes boring.
You can thankfully trade items between the protagonists and so you can thank the ones that came to your help with the new, shiny sword you just found… and which generally doesn’t benefit anyone, since most of the time they are all at a much higher level.
However, a small, but persistent number of problems constantly pollute the co-op play. For example, because the game insists on closing you in restricted zones when a horde of monsters prepares for attack, the chances of defeat increase considerably when one of the heroes is teleported outside of said zone or when one of the special attack abilities disappears for a short time.
One of the oft-mentioned characteristics of this title is the fact that for the first time a Lord of The Rings game had received an M rating, but the celebration reasons are over when it becomes clear that this is only thanks to a handful of decapitations.
We are talking about the “American M”, so the discussion is not about a game with a truly hard backbone like The Witcher 2, that can treat any type of violence with calm, not only the visual one. And no nude female elf or truly heavy (but with common sense and justifiable) dialogues will honor that apparent M.
Concealed within his fortress, the lord of Mordor sees all
Beginning with Aragorn, the three unknown heroes of Middle-Earth will gradually meet with most of the important names in the trilogy, but the famous faces are not accompanied by the voices of their actors from the movies. Thankfully, the efforts of their replacements are substantial compared to the rest of the game’s elements. Not extraordinary, but surprisingly good.
And those of you with a more sensible listening sense will recognize actors that have passed through a lot of games in the last years, like Nolan North, Courtenay Taylor and Liam O’Brien.
The lack of resources and the barebones approach also show themselves visually, with the game being technically decent, yet without being able to challenge other big names of 2011. Bree is the only place I can remember fondly, but that’s because of the decent atmosphere, which is helped by the starry sky and the rain to hide the lack of color and detail. In the absence of the redeeming rain, most of the locations, including the hubs, appear very barren. On the other hand, things are partially better in the clothing department, with the armors being thoroughly designed and varied enough for the 10 hours of play.
Be at peace, Son of Gondor
The curse of the war in the North doesn’t seem to come from lack of talent – although the game clearly has game-design issues – as much from the lack of confidence. I don’t know if its parents were exactly aware of what they wanted and could do, but somebody did not have enough faith, whether in Snowblind or in the number of fans who surely expect quality from a Lord of the Rings product.
War in the North is a hack and slash with some RPG elements and co-op, all assembled around one of the most beloved media licenses today, but with all this going for it, it simply doesn’t manage to stand out. Sadly, it’s just another product that tries to blend some popular elements, but with no true support or personal identity.