The Lord of the Rings: War in the North ReviewRando Evans
It's been a while since we've seen a Lord of the Rings game - and for all the Ringers out there, the gaming world might feel a little dry without the presence of the franchise, especially while Star Wars gets a new MMO and a continuous slew of games. Well, never fear, because developer Snowblind Studios and Warner Bros. Interactive have brought us Lord of the Rings: War in the North.
The premise of War in the North is actually quite cool, especially for Ringers and those who are generally interested in mythos of Middle-Earth. The story takes place in the northern kingdoms of Middle-Earth, outlining the battles and struggles which were taking place at the same time as the War of the Ring (aka - the events of The Lord of the Rings book/movies). What is great here is that very little was written about these events and armies, so Snowblind took into account (mostly pulling from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings) what might have happened, and what armies and cities might have looked like. Elaborating on these vague whisperings from the original content, War in the North plays out its story. There will still be some familiar areas to explore too, however most of what you'll see is new to the eyes.
Since this focuses away from Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, and the crew, we are left with a slew of new characters. You will play a human ranger, an elf mage or a dwarf warrior - and none of these characters seem to have the passion or personality that comes off as neat or memorable as the original fellowship we all grew to know and love. The characters in War in the North are simply tools of destruction and their personalities end there - which leaves us with the other element that War in the North delivers differently than most LotR games in the past: gore. Snowblind, whether they were aiming for more realistic, or trying to appeal to the Gears of War crowd, filled War in the North with plenty of limb flying, blood spraying, and violent killing action. It's nothing that's going to make you cringe too much, and it is satisfying to watch orc limbs and gore slather across the screen - but it neither adds nor takes away from gameplay.
In War in the North, you will be either playing co-op, and if you aren't playing with human players, the AI will take over two of the three warriors you aren't controlling. From there, you'll hack n slash your way through the landscape to defeat Agandaur - another servant of Sauron ruling the armies up north. Again, the story doesn't progress much past that point, which is a shame since there is so much content and intrigue which could have been developed as the northern wars are a subject rarely trampled on, and while it might not have been official canon, the writers could have at least tried.
Combat is fairly basic third-person fantasy hack n' slash stuff - you can get up close and slash away, or aim magic and arrows from afar. The mix of ranged/melee makes up the strategy, as you will be hammering out combos to get better kills (like we haven't seen this before, am I right?) - while special abilities, which often look cool, will help out when things get hairy. The bad part of this all is, when the AI takes over your other characters, you'll essentially lose control of them - trying to organize anything with the AI is impossible because setting their strategies doesn't really seem effective. Playing with a friend or two really makes the game shine. Be warned though, things get repetitive fast. Like all hack n slashers - raining out combos gets boring since the majority of the game you are simply slamming through wave after wave of enemies to progress. Even the ability to equip new armor and weapons doesn't seem to spice things up, as equipment menus are more of a pain to deal with, slowing everything down as you try to optimize your weapons and armor.
Needless to say, War in the North could have been so much more, but ends up somewhat dry and maddening. It is the perfect game for a couple of Ringers to come home after a hard day of work or school, crack open a few beers (or sodas), and relax while they brainlessly hack their way through armies of orcs together. Of course, hardcore fans of the books may also find the mythos of War in the North a bit troubling - but that is a conversation best left for message boards and geeky arguments over coffee.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.