Lord of the Rings: War in the North is one of those sad cases of wasted potential that you can enjoy for a time. From the gameplay to the developers, Snowblind Studios, to the story it tells, War in the North rises moderately high just to be dropped back down by its many flaws.
Some of you may remember Snowblind Studios from excellent past games such as Champions of Norrath and Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. Both games were excellent examples of just how fantastic western RPGs could be, so expectations were high when Snowblind announced that they were making a Lord of the Rings action/RPG. Sadly, this game pales in comparison to its predecessors in terms of ingenuity as well as gameplay. Though enjoyable at times and a fun experience, War in the North falls short of achieving anything past “okay.”
War in the North puts you in control of one of three characters. Each one has their own way of approaching combat as well as their own special abilities and buffs. You can choose between an elf for ranged spellcasting, a dwarf for up close and personal melee, and a ranger that is a good mix of both. After you decide how you want to attack the threat of Sauron, you take your character on a series of missions through several different places, all the while leveling up your character and becoming more and more of a force to be reckoned with as you hack, slash, and blast your way through hordes of orcs and goblins. On a grander note, you are playing out the behind-the-scenes, unsung stories of the unknown heroes from the epic Lord of the Rings tale.
As mentioned above, you and your two companions are the unknown heroes who fought behind-the-scenes of the Lord of the Rings. As the story we all know unfolds just out of reach, you are tasked with fighting the titular War in the North against one of Sauron’s dark enforcers, Agandaur, a man who wields great and unnatural dark power. In order to aid the Ring Bearer and the Fellowship, you and your two companions must disrupt Agandaur’s forces and defeat him once and for all. Along the way you will meet characters from the story that will converse with you, sometimes aiding you with useful information.
The story itself is interesting and fits well with Lord of the Rings lore. Well written, the story is possibly the highest point of the game. It flows well and develops at a good pace throughout the game. As you make your way from the town of Bree towards Rivendell and beyond, you hear and learn about the main characters from the actual story and their exploits happening right around you. I found myself looking forward to many of the cut-scenes and story progression just to find out what was going to happen to my characters and Middle-Earth as a whole. With such a good plot and story progression, the actual story the game tells would be more suited for a better designed game.
The mechanics and gameplay are where the game creates enjoyment and falls apart, all at the same time. The controls are easy enough to get the hang of. You have your normal attack which you will be spamming most of the game no matter who you choose, your heavy attack to deal large amounts of damage or to finish off opponents. The shoulder buttons open up a few extra choices, such as an aiming mechanic for bows or magic, and an extra menu for special skills. Still, the normal attack button will take up the majority of your hacking and slashing.
The combat, though simple, does a good job of getting your blood pumping, partly due to the simple control scheme. Every encounter has you mashing buttons furiously as you watch (and enjoy) your devastation through the enemy ranks. This is most evident when you finish off your opponents by pressing the strong attack button at the right time. This allows you to deal a final blow to the opponent in a brutal and satisfying display of some form of dismemberment or bludgeoning. However, this game as several issues. The combat looks rewarding and feels that way in the beginning. War in the North’s battles will have you loving every bit of carnage you do to your enemy as you slash them left and right, dismember them from head to toe, and splatter their blood amongst the dirt and stone. The problem with this rewarding combat is that it gets old very fast.
Each area drives the same formula into the ground pretty quickly. You come to a new area in the game, watch an important cut-scene/character interaction, maybe run through some dialogue, then you proceed to fight exceedingly and annoyingly large numbers of foes before proceeding to the next area where you can and will do it all over again. The sheer number of enemies you have to fight at times is ridiculous. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could do more than just mash one or two buttons for the same combat animations over and over. The tedium is kept at bay at times by the option to switch between playable characters in between levels. It makes for a refreshing turn in gameplay, allowing you to hang up your melee (somewhat) for a bit and try some ranged spellcasting.
As you progress, you earn experience which you can spend on your character to raise their health, power (for special attacks), and effectiveness with melee or ranged combat. You can also spend skill points to access certain special abilities (attacks, buffs, etc.) in 3 separate skill trees. As you level up, some of the monotony is lessened as you access new abilities that allow you to play a bit differently. If feels good to stop hammering on one button over and over, but the special techniques can only take you so far before you’re back to pressing the attack button in rapid succession.
Like the combat, the graphics leave a lot to be desired. The environments aren’t bad looking (though you’ve seen better), and they still give you that Lord of the Rings/Middle-Earth feel, from the broken down castle ruins to the open fields and snowy mountains. However, one can’t help but think that, in this day and age, more could have been done. Lord of the Rings is known for beautiful and sprawling landscapes, but War in the North doesn’t seem to capture that on screen. The character models seem a bit out of date as well and some are just downright weird looking. When they speak, it seems as if their mouth is disconnected from the rest of the face, as it shows little emotion. Aside from the enjoyable looking battle animations, nothing here is going to blow your skirt up in the realm of character design.
The music is almost what you would expect from a Lord of the Rings game. It blends well with the places and the actions, but stops there. Music was always a big part of the movies and even the novels, so to hear the background music be no more than just that, background music, is a little disappointing.
The voice acting is pretty well done and each voice complements the character. This makes the occasionally tedious dialogue all the more bearable. Conversations play out like those from the Mass Effect series, in that you have a dialogue wheel where you choose what to talk about. This makes for a great deal of dialogue and exposition, which can get a bit overwhelming at times. Thankfully the decent voice acting eases this burden. The sound effects, from the explosions to the guttural orc and troll growls are also well placed and nicely recorded as they all add to the intense nature of the fighting and do well to keep your mind on the battle.
I won’t lie and say I didn’t have fun playing Lord of the Rings: War in the North. I enjoyed a lot of my time with the combat and liked the story it told. I also got tired of the combat after just a few encounters every time I played. As I battled my way through the endless swarms of enemies, I could almost see the wasted potential this game had. It’s fun for you and your friend to hack and slash through a few levels in co-op (which exactly how you would expect it to be), and it has some enjoyment from annihilating countless orcs, but the formula just gets too monotonous and isn’t even that great to look at while you’re doing it. If you’re a fan of the movies or novels, then you will probably enjoy this game for a bit. However, it will pass with time.
FINAL GRADE: C+