The Lord of the Rings, in both literary and movie forms, has been adapted into many different video game genres with varying success. The 1990 PC game was praised for being an RPG that was fun and mostly faithful to the source material while the SNES version was an action RPG that most fans would like to forget. While The Fellowship of the Ring wasn't regarded as a good adventure title, both The Two Towers and Return of the King were praised as great hack-and-slash games. War of the Ring tried to make the story into a good RTS, but Battle for Middle-earth succeeded at it. The Third Age was a decent RPG despite the lack of source material while Conquest failed to make many good impressions as a multiplayer game. Aragorn's Quest was a decent adventure for children, and the online MMO took off despite stiff competition in the genre. The license is still a good commodity, so WB Games opted for an action RPG with a more mature slant, and the result is The Lord of the Rings: War in the North.
Set around the same time that the main characters are having their adventures, the plot focuses on three new characters who are fighting battles and foes elsewhere in Middle-earth. Players take on the roles of the human ranger Eradan, the dwarven fighter Farin, and the elven loremaster Andriel as they band together to form their own fellowship. Their goal is to fight off the forces led by Agandaur, a servant of Sauron who has been given the task of destroying the major cities of the North, including Eriador, Rhovanion and Rivendell.
The plot brings to mind The Third Ring, but the story has its own narrative. Though the overall objective affects the main story since you try to stop Sauron from coming back and taking over Middle-earth, the locations and goals are completely different. You'll sometimes interact with some of the main fellowship or other major movie characters, but you'll also interact with characters who had minor roles in the books, such as the twin sons of Elrond. It's all well and good, but the game lacks real characterization, especially for your fellowship. Aside from their races, you don't get the sense that each of the heroes is anything more than drones meant to carry out the mission. They do their duty, but you end up caring less about them by the end of the game.
Like most games of this type, each character specializes in certain weapons and roles. The dwarf handles two-handed weaponry well and can take on more damage than the others. The ranger can also handle two-handed swords but feels more at home dual-wielding swords or axes while the elf deals more with magic attacks and defense. Despite these base restrictions, you could lightly customize each fighting style. The dwarf and ranger could have crossbows and bows, respectively, while the elf could use a one-handed sword or ax along with her staff for melee attacks. Each style can unleash various combos, and each player can deliver a finishing move if the enemy has been weakened enough. In addition, players can also call on the giant eagle Beleram to destroy watchtowers, remove an enemy from battle or severely damage larger foes.
The action suffers from a few quirks. While it is understandable that the enemy roster is somewhat thin, there seems to be a never-ending horde of one enemy type in long levels, and that can make the game feel tedious. Special attractions, like the trolls, seem menacing at first but become old hate by the end because you've fought them so many times. The enemy minions also reuse the same attack patterns, so while they may look different, fighting against them feels very familiar. The pacing is another concern since it is terribly predictable. You'll enter a room or magical barrier and have to fight off numerous waves of enemies. Once the final foe is defeated, you can move on to the next section, and once you encounter another barrier or siege weapon, you'll fight off even more enemy hordes. The game follows this pattern, and while the combat is fun, the routine feels tedious because there's nothing to break the monotony.
The RPG aspects are more simplified than toned down. Every time you level up, you get to build upon a skill tree and assign points into one of four different categories. As far as RPG contributions are concerned, the highlight is the presence of loot. Weapons, treasures and gear are plentiful in a level and usually hidden away in treasure chests or areas only accessible by certain characters. Like most games, loot affects your stats, and some of it can be seen when equipped to your character. Some of that gear and weaponry can even be augmented through the use of stones collected throughout the world. With a plethora of loot available and the payout randomized, the collection aspect is addictive, especially since some gear is specific to characters.
While the simple RPG structure makes the game work, some areas could've used some improvement. Dialogue trees, for example, provide you with different responses to give, but they don't change which side-quests are available. Since there is no morality system in place, you can be a jerk and still be able to do everything in the game. The loot system encourages multiple playthroughs, but the system isn't too forgiving if you enter the wrong area or immediately want to go to another area. You can pull up the world map at any time, but you have to find the store, so you can return to a safe town and then leave the safe town to get back to the map. It makes backtracking much more cumbersome than it should be, and it decreases the desire to hunt for loot in old areas. Finally, there is the ability to create potions and augment weaponry beyond the use of stones, but without many instructions, you'll do lots of experimentation before you finally understand what's needed.
War in the North is all co-op, all the time. No matter which character you pick, the other two are always controlled by the AI. Luckily, the AI is good enough to take care of itself most of the time. It dispatches enemies and dishes out weakening maneuvers at the right opportunities. It also does a good job of tossing up healing spells at the right time and smartly reviving fallen comrades. They also do a good job of not stealing your kills, though they don't seem to interfere if you try to finish off their enemies.
The single-player co-op presents some gameplay problems. While the companion AI is intelligent enough to take care of itself and help you out, it doesn't do a good job of listening to your issued commands. It feels like they only listen to your orders half of the time. They also tend to get in your way when traveling in narrow corridors, and with the number of invisible walls in this game, you run into them more often than you'd like and must try to push them out of the way. You can give them items, and they do a good job of equipping said items, but you can't mess with their stats and traits without quitting to the main menu and switching characters. That oversight is cumbersome enough that you'll likely stick with your chosen character to the end instead of being encouraged to experiment with all three characters.
Once you decide to do true co-op, you have several different ways to accomplish this. You can play with another person locally in split-screen, two other people online via Xbox Live, or two other people using system link. Online performance is great with no apparent lag, and the vertical split gives players just enough room to see the action without feeling cramped. Aside from the lack of drop-in/drop out play, the only gripe with multiplayer comes when the save states of every player aren't synced up. For example, if the host is much further along than the other participants, everyone else is able to play but won't be able to save their character progress or gain achievements. It isn't too much of a game breaker if all you want to do is kill things or if you've already beaten the game, but it serves as fair warning for those who might be near the beginning and want to get items that shouldn't be available until much later in the quest.
The audio is strong in most areas. The music gives off the same vibes as the movie's score. You won't hear snippets or whole pieces of the more popular themes, but the music isn't subdued to the point of not hearing it at all. The score is rousing enough that it feels appropriate for the situation and theme. The voice actors do a great job with their characters. They sound like they were trying to channel the inflections of the movie, and it works well. The praise for the work even extends to the minor characters, so no one phoned in a performance. If there is one complaint with the sound, it would be that during combat, the heroes tend to say the same lines quite often. Some lines, such as that for the dwarf's rallying cry or the elf's healing shield, are understandable, but others, such as the activation of a killing blow, have little to no variation. It's really grating to only have about four repeated lines for this move.
Graphically, War in the North turned out better than expected. The environments look good, even though they have the same characteristics and visit the same places one would expect in most fantasy games. Abandoned city ruins, encampments in the wilderness, snowy mountains, and haunted lands are just some of the expected environments. While the locations don't break away from fantasy norms in terms of appearance and color, the places still feel like they belong to the Lord of the Rings universe. The characters don't look very spectacular, save for the giant eagle, but their animations are fluid. This also goes for the mouth animations, which aren't top of the line but look good when compared to some other games in the genre. Being the first Mature-rated game in the franchise affords it the ability to show off severed limbs and blood, but don't expect much of a gorefest. The detachment of limbs is relatively tame, and since the spilled blood is that of orcs and trolls more than any other race, you'll see what amounts to ink being splattered on the ground. Even then, it never looks like you're being drenched in orc blood, so those who are sensitive about it might not take too much offense.
The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is a fun but flawed experience. From a technical standpoint, it has good graphics and sound, but there nothing about it is utterly amazing. From a gameplay standpoint, the action is great, but the rather lengthy adventure begins to get a bit stale because of the lack of real enemy diversity and the flow from combat to exploration to combat. While there could be some more depth to the RPG aspect, the game works and the addictive loot system keeps it engaging. Save for a few issues, co-op with the AI is quite good, and the whole thing improves when actual people are playing alongside you. With the deluge of big titles almost coming to a head, War in the North may get lost in the crowd, but if you're a fan of hack-n-slash gameplay with some substance, you'll be greatly satisfied with this title.
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