The Lord Of The Rings: War In The North Review
Keep this to yourself, but we secretly had our eye on the promising Lord Of The Rings: War In The North. Maybe it was the Tolkien-adoration that refuses to let us overlook any game involving Frodo and his ring – excuse the blatant innuendo – but with developer Snowblind Studios in charge, there certainly was a lot of potential to this latest romp through Middle Earth.
The team made the excellent action RPGs Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions Of Norrath back in the day, after all, so it’s sad that the developer’s latest is met with a sense of disappointment.
Rather than deal with the adventures of the Fellowship as they seek to destroy the One Ring, War In The North takes place across the northern regions of Middle Earth as a smaller troupe of a Man, an Elf and a Dwarf are thrust together to prevent the Dark Lord Sauron’s minion Agandaûr from wresting control of the realms of the Dúnedain and their lost kingdom of Arnor. If any of that had you sweating with anticipation, then this is very much a game for you – stop reading, and go and get a copy.
Everyone else will find Lord Of The Rings: War In The North a little tougher to get into. Picking one of the three races and, therefore, one of the three distinct classes they represent, you’ll be dropped into the town of Bree.
It’s a recognisable location for any grade of LOTR fan, of course, but being first placed into a ‘talky’ bit of an RPG seems like an odd move on Snowblind’s part – gamers these days need to be thrilled immediately and talked at later, something Mass Effect 2 managed with aplomb.
The BioWare references won’t stop there either. It’s clear from the outset that War In The North takes plenty of inspiration from BioWare’s Dragon Age 2 and the Mass Effect series, ranging from the conversation wheel with accompanying ‘Investigate’ tab to the corridor-led level design.
Strike a finishing blow with a particularly high combo and you’ll be heavily rewarded with XP.
War In The North pales in comparison to the quality of BioWare’s efforts, though; here, the player is instantly greeted by shonky animation and even worse voice acting.
And even when assaulting the first battles in Fornost the combat fails to really rouse any kind of excitement. The issue here, however, is one of perspective.
If Snowblind had stuck to its tried-and-tested isometric viewpoint, there’d be no complaints with having only a simple attack with which to dispatch foes.
By placing the camera behind the character, War In The North resembles the hack-’n’-slash LOTR games of the PS2 rather than the action RPG it so clearly is meant to be.
Give it time, however, and eventually additional abilities are unlocked as each character levels up, complimenting combat much better after the initial tedium.
As you fight – tapping X endlessly against varying waves of enemies – you’ll spot a small triangle above your opponent’s head. This signifies a critical strike opportunity, and is the hidden depth to War In The North’s otherwise simple combat gameplay.
Activating a critical puts you into Hero mode, enabling you to rack up a combo of successful attacks. As the combo meter increases, so too does the damage from each strike, as well as increasing the ability to ignore most enemies’ defences.
These turret sections are overused in Fornost, but surprisingly don’t flood the rest of the game too often.
It’s a system that takes quite some time to truly get to grips with, but once it’s mastered you’ll be looking to piece each attack together as you dance between opponents, all the while carefully looking for ways to overcome the later, stronger creatures.
Manage to keep this combo going throughout a single fight and you’ll even be rewarded with a huge ‘Final Blow’ experience point boost; an excellent bonus for stringing your assault together smoothly.
It’s not perfect, admittedly, as it is a little too slow and ham-fisted, lacking the immediacy that such a system really needs. Yet while it’s neither complex nor innovative, what it does do is done simply and ably.
Variety is the biggest letdown, however. For the most part, War In The North throws swathes of Orcs and Goblins at you, though there are brief stints against the Undead of the Barrow-downs and the giant spiders of Mirkwood.
There are variants on each group requiring a specific tactic to safely defeat each type, but it takes far too long to introduce each new enemy to better last the length of the campaign.
Even the story arc – arguably one of the most important elements of a Lord Of The Rings game – is limited by its lack of cinematic finesse. By sending you across the northern realms, Snowblind is free to introduce locales of Middle Earth that are barely explored within the films.
While Rivendell and Bree are visited, it’s more thrilling for LOTR fans to cross the Ettenmoors or battle along the Grey Mountains. There’s a wealth a detail here, and it’s clear Snowblind has really put the effort in to include characters and lore that true Lord Of The Rings fans will appreciate.
Beleram is one of few characters with decent voice acting – and his aerial attacks are useful in tougher fights.
It’s just a shame it is all provided by some of the worst voice acting and character animation since Deus Ex: Human Revolution, really ruining a lot of the hard work that has gone into exploring this unknown part of Tolkien lore.
Call it a lack of budget; call it an overabundance of ambition; call it an impossible task: whatever it is, Lord Of The Rings: War In The North fails to achieve its potential greatness.
There are elements that will appeal to action RPG addicts or Lord Of The Rings fans – enough that we’d gladly recommend it to that very niche corner of the gaming market – but it’s a shame that the latest LOTR adventure is yet another in a long line of games that fail to match the epic grandeur of Tolkien’s world. It’s better than Lord Of The Rings: Conquest, though, so that’s something at least…