The Lord of the Rings: War in the North Review

By Adam Ma on November 2, 2011

Most movie-to-game titles generally share the same problem; when two completely different media for art collides, either one will oftentimes come out on top of the other. It's not that a game is worse than a film at delivering an engaging story or a memorable experience, but being two completely different media of entertainment, the transition doesn't usually end well. The rule of thumb tends to be whichever platform the franchise comes out on first is better, but every once and a while we get something that really breaks the mold. The Lord of the Rings has had a series of hit-or-miss titles all trying to recapture the essence of the popular books and films, but there's always been something directly lacking from the full scope of Tolkien's world when compressed into a video game. That is, until War in the North came around.

The first major difference between War in the North and the films (which most would directly compare any LoTR experience to) is that it takes place in a completely different part of the world from the rest of the main story. There are some loose tie-ins to overall plot but it's mostly following three new heroes, Farin the dwarf champion, Eradan the human ranger, and Andriel the elven mage. This unlikely (see: predictable) trio come together to stem the flow of evil forces that threaten to overtake Middle Earth from the North, and that's how Snowblind manages to skirt around the first major issues for movie franchise based games.

Since the game takes place in a completely unique setting with characters who only barely have an association with the leads of The Lord of the Rings, players are likely to be a lot more willing to accept the storyline as 'plausible' rather than 'not as cool as what happened in the movie.' It's a neat trick that may enrage the devoted lore masters of the One Ring, but certainly serves its purpose in driving the gameplay.

Players control one character from a party of three, with each character offering its own unique gameplay elements. While players can customize equipment and weaponry to a certain extent, each character is largely governed under a class typical of any standard RPG, therefore the same rules and breakdowns apply. Items found have prerequisites based on stats and class and the more powerful gear needs better stats in order to be used. Players gain experience from killing enemies and will earn bonuses from performing uninterrupted chains of attacks, executing brutal finishing moves and just generally being a badass. Each class naturally has their own skills and abilities to bring to the battlefield, all of which are fairly balanced. All three classes have melee and ranged attacks, although each individual character will bring their own specializations to the table, making them each important for various scenarios.

Players have the option of selecting an individual class at the very start, but can switch classes anytime a 'level' of the game is cleared of enemies. This gives those clearing through single player the option of experiencing every facet of the game, which is pretty cool as each class offers a very different play-style. Throwing yourself into the fray as the dwarf champion can be equally satisfying as picking them off from afar as the ranger, or alternatively assisting either melee class with healing fields, spells and wards. Running the story mode alone means having the NPC's take over the other two classes, and though relying on their AI can be fun there are some painfully clear signs that this game was meant to be played in a group

Scenarios where teamwork would overcome a massive horde of enemies often become a jumbled mess when the player is left to fend for themselves, particularly in boss fights where strategy boils down to letting the invincible AI distract while you take as many cheap shots as possible. This becomes distressingly apparent when it comes to the caster AI who has spells that reflect arrows and heal the group but only casts when absolutely necessary. Without the solid reliability provided by such teamwork, players can find themselves hiding behind cover in desperation hoping for a heal, or worst wildly dash from point to point in hopes of reaching the objective in time. Players are provided with a little bit of AI control that boils down to 'attack' and 'defend', in additional to special circumstantial attacks like calling in an eagle 'airstrike'. Additionally players that take enough fatal damage generally go into a knockdown state, where they can crawl to an ally to be revived, another element that is meant to encourage player teamwork but often times falls apart in the face of AI that have their own priorities.Another frustrating aspect of the game is the lack of instruction outside of basic tips. Given how many abilities, features, and interesting options that are available, there's hardly any sort of tutorial to review it all. Experienced gamers will naturally figure it out over time, although with a bit of guesswork and exploration it's more than possible to figure it all out, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating, especially when players need to spend the extra time they could be using goring orcs guessing what needs to be done.

That being said once you look past the AI flaws and take into account that this is a game meant to be played with others, War in the North is an extremely solid experience. The individual classes are balanced quite nicely, and the lure of searching for upgraded equipment and better weapons combined with a levelling system that beautifully complements an intuitive experience system which rewards players for overcoming impressive odds with professional ease makes the experience much more engaging. The better you are at killing the more rewarding the game is in more ways than one. It's a combat system that I would love to see implemented in just about every single fantasy action RPG I've ever played. It perfectly captures the sense of heroism that these characters should be capable of.

The game is fairly impressive on a visual level, although most of the time is going to be spent wandering through green and brown ruins, or brown and gray deserted castles. The main focus of the game is always on the enemies rather than just the environment. Hiding behind terrain and making use of the environment is actually second to working together with your group and covering each other in combat, so each level serves as more of a neat backdrop that keeps the world grounded in the lore via the architecture put in place by the popular films. Much of the soundtrack takes a similar stance, as all of the characters will be fighting to an epic score that encourages putting an axe through someone's face as often as possible. It's all meant to go hand in hand with the film component of the franchise, and for what its worth it does a good job.

Final Thoughts

How much fun anyone will have with The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is really based on a few factors beyond just storyline and gameplay, like how many friends you may have to play it with and how much you care about the lore of Middle Earth. Putting aside the fact that these three characters' connection to the overall plot is fairly weak, the action in-game can be fairly intense once three players take control in place of the frustrating AI. The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is a game meant to be played with friends and it thoroughly shines as a multiplayer title. New game plus features and a hardcore difficulty further enforce that, adding a fair amount of replay value to the overall package. The Lord of the Rings fans should be proud, War in the North may not be perfect, but it certainly succeeds rather well where most others have failed.

Extensive skill and weapon progression system.
Great co-op experience, couch split-screen or online.
Intense action to be had. Make sure you put that axe where it belongs - between the eyes of an orc.
Frustratingly useless AI companions.
Character development feels a bit weak.
Lack of tutorials or indexes for system explanations.
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