Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings can easily be considered one of the greatest film trilogies of the last decade, creating a new following for J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic novels. Video games based on Jackson’s films have always put the player in the shoes of the series’ major characters and in the eyes of critics, they were fairly hit or miss. In order to break away from the curse that usually comes with movie license games, several developers tried to mix things up a bit by telling stories set during the War of the Ring but with an entirely different cast.
Lord of the Rings: War in the North begins mere days before Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry meet Aragorn at the Prancing Pony in the town of Bree. Farin (a dwarf), Eraden (a Dunedain ranger) and Andriel (an elf) meet with Aragorn and relate their battle outside Sarn Ford against the Nazgul and a warlord named Agandaur. Agandaur counsels with the Witch King and reveals that he has been amassing an army of Orcs in order to aid the search for the Ring of Power. While Aragorn and the Hobbits head south to Mordor, our three heroes launch a bold attack against Agandaur’s forces in the north.
War in the North is an action role playing game developed by Snowblind Studios who are no strangers to the genre, having worked on Champions of Norrath and Baulder’s Gate: Dark Alliance and if you’ve played either, you might be familiar with the style of play. Your party will move across Middle Earth, fighting enemies in locations that did not appear in the films. The large, but incredibly linear levels are broken up into smaller sections that must be cleared of enemies and story-specific obstacles before moving on. Combat is the major focus, so expect to cut through legions of Orcs, Trolls, wizards and Uruk-hai. War in the North’s RPG component involves earning experience points from combat that will increase your character level and using skill points to build up special abilities that are assigned to the controller’s face buttons.
Loot plays a major role in developing characters and the game is packed with items to collect such as coin, potions, ammunition for bows and crossbows, weapons and gear. Certain armor, weapons and accessories are restricted to your character if they lack the required stats, but spending points when you level up alleviates this problem. The effectiveness of gear is determined by a durability rating that decreases with every hit you make and sustain. Weapons and armor will break if you allow the rating to reach zero, but it can always be repaired by visiting several in-game blacksmiths. There are certain high level pieces of gear that come with empty slots reserved for the Elf Stones you’ll come across during the course of the game. These stones will imbue your items with additional attributes, such as boosts to your health, magic and damage towards specific monsters. All this sounds good on paper, but the problem with the loot is that you’ll never hang onto an item long enough to enjoy the benefits of customization, rendering the Elf Stones somewhat useless.
The game can either be played solo, with the AI controlling the other two characters, or cooperatively both online and off. While playing with friends certainly has its advantages, the AI does a good job of providing adequate support. No matter who you play with, you’ll have the chance to trade gear with other players, a feature that makes much more sense when playing with humans. I can hand off gear and other items to my AI comrades, but the game does a terrible job of informing me how beneficial the equipment is to them because there is no way to compare. I find it rather unbelievable that Snowblind didn’t simply allow me to switch character profiles from the inventory screen like most other action RPGs.
Although the main quest will take most of your time, you are allowed to branch off the main path and tackle the game’s side missions which usually involve collecting a number of significant items for the quest giver. Speaking to NPCs is accomplished by selecting dialog options from a Mass Effect-style wheel, a feature advertised to have a significant impact on the narrative, but I never really received that impression. During any typical conversation, picking the default choice will follow the quickest path to the end of the dialog or you can ask characters to elaborate on what they have to say, which will usually develop the lore or initiate a side quest. An important thing to note that if you’re playing the game cooperatively, you are at the mercy of the host player who is the only one that makes dialog decisions. The other player will still be prompted with dialog options, but you can’t move the cursor or make selections. Weird.
During my playthrough of War in the North, there were several times I felt I was playing a Playstation 2 game. The game simply does not look good. It’s not terrible, but considering how amazing Playstation 3 games have looked last year, the visuals are disappointing. The environments are often bland and dull as many textures tend to lack any significant detail and in some cases, look as if the game couldn’t load the textures properly. There’s just an overall lack of polish and crispness one would come to expect, especially in light of how other Lord of the Rings games (such as The Third Age) have looked. The major characters, on the other hand, are full of detail. Certain NPCs, like Frodo, Arwen and Elrond, are modeled after their human counterparts with some looking better than others. Elijah Woods, for example, looks downright terrifying.
War in the North’s major advertising point was the level of violence and being the first licensed Lord of the Rings video game to earn an M-rating. When enemies become weakened, you can perform a critical attack that usually results in limbs flying off and blood spraying in every direction. However, I can’t help but feel the violence was completely overstated. First of all, Orc, Troll, and Uruk-Hai blood is black, which tempers any feelings of gruesomeness the developers were going for. Second, the Lord of the Rings films were PG-13 and, for the most part, were more violent than this game. If young ones were able to handle seeing Boromir with a thousand arrows in his chest or seeing the Mouth of Sauron getting his head lopped off, they can easily handle the images in War of the North. They could have easily pulled off a Teen rating (since there is no foul language, nudity or sex), but I can’t help but feel they were aiming for an M-rating in order to drum up interest. Compared to other M-rated action games, like God of War or Call of Duty, the content is incredibly tame.
While the game may sound interesting at first – a Tolkien inspired adventure that shows the War of the Ring a two front assault – the problem with War in the North is how quickly it becomes repetitive and uninteresting. First and foremost, the fellowship’s adventure isn’t as epic as the Fellowship of the Ring, lacking sequences that are on par with Minas Tirith and Helm’s Deep. The game’s formula certainly doesn’t help as the “enter area, fight enemies, move to the next area and fight more enemies” gets stale. It may be different for harder difficulties, but there is no element of strategy to combat as you can mindlessly spam the attack buttons. Although you can block attacks, the animation is slow and seems a bit out of sync, making the maneuver all but useless. Its better to use the roll tactic which will quickly get you out of harm’s way. Boss fights are as mindless as regular combat and defeating one boss in particular involved hacking at its legs repeatedly until it died.
Another gripe I have is how often the game gives up loot. There is so much gear to be picked up from treasure chests and fallen enemies that having an in-game store to purchase weapons and armor is a complete waste of space. You’ll never wear armor for more than a few minutes, as there is always something better around the corner. Why buy items when it will get replaced with something faster than you can say “Tom Bombadil”? This gets especially aggravating when elf stones are considered, because once it is placed on an item, it cannot be removed. At this point, you’re just throwing them away.
The last bone of contention I have with War in the North is the game’s short length from a narrative standpoint. The game itself can be completed in about two afternoons (longer if you adjust the difficulty and do side quests), but by the conclusion of the story, it is implied that Frodo successfully destroyed the Ring at Mordor. In the context of the game, this is simply ridiculous because the game ends too quickly for it to properly mesh with Frodo’s story. The game should have ended with a) the heroes accomplishing their task, but noting it was a small footnote in a larger war or b) after defeating Agandaur, give the player a chance to participate in some of the film’s major battles. Chalk this up as another one of my crazy critiques, but this bugged the hell out of me.
In many ways, War in the North is a Gears of War version of Lord of the Rings. In fact, the game introduces an enemy type that looks and functions identically to the Ticker and there are wave-based Horde modes to play through. Like Gears of War, however, the game’s saving grace is the three player co-op because it is much more fun to slay Orcs with friends. Because the adventure presented here is considerably less exciting than that of the Ringbearer, I imagine only the most die hard Lord of the Rings enthusiast will find something to enjoy here, especially if they are interested in meeting characters who did not show up in Peter Jackson’s films. If anything, at the very least it functions as a serviceable explanation as to why the all powerful Eagles couldn’t simply pick Frodo up and fly him to Mordor to drop off the Ring. Speaking of Eagles, I will point out the best thing about War in the North’s combat: when battling in open areas and have a feather in your possession, you can call forth an Eagle onto an enemy and watch in delight as the giant bird swoops in and tears poor fool to shreds. That, my friends, is awesome.