Home | News | Reviews | Previews | Hardware
The Lord of the Rings: War in the North
Score: 70%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Snowblind Studios
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1 - 2; 2 - 3 (Online)
Genre: Action/ RPG/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
Middle-earth has seen many incarnations in films and video games. Unsurprisingly, The Lord of the Rings: War in the North takes almost all its cues from the Peter Jackson trilogy, and also unsurprisingly, it's all the better for it. It can be gritty and violent at times, but it has its own understanding of the fiction's extended universe. War in the North isn't a technical marvel, but neither is it an eyesore. Characters from the books and films look about right, though the leading heroes are unacceptably bland in design. The biggest disappointment in the visual department is the lack of surprises regarding areas that have, until now, only been visualized in Tolkien's auxillary texts. War in the North looks best when you're locked in combat. You'll be performing the same maneuvers time and again, but the gory finishing moves almost make the repetitive stuff worthwhile -- especially when the game treats you to a slow-mo decapitation.

Other parts might polarize. For example, you spend a good deal of the game accompanied (in one way or another) by Beleram, one of the Great Eagles. These winged wonders are only briefly seen in the Jackson films (once in The Fellowship of the Ring, and twice more in The Return of the King), but they are much more of a presence in the books -- most notably in The Hobbit. I found Beleram to be a bit cartoonish, but I still enjoyed his company on the merits of the surrealness of having a badass talking eagle on my team. Others may find his presence distracting and goofy.

War in the North is largely a missed opportunity in the audio department. The soundtrack is functional, but it can't touch the seductive mystery of Howard Shore's evocative original score. The voice acting has its highs and lows. Gandalf isn't voiced by Sir Ian McKellen, but he sure sounds like he is. Aragorn sounds absolutely nothing like he does in the movies. Everyone else's performances lie at various points between those two extremes. The combat is where the audio design gets highest marks; I can tell you what never gets old: the moment when all the sound drops out except the unmistakable sound of a blade making strangers of an enemy and any one of his five major appendages.

The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is a real head-scratcher. It mostly succeeds as a video game, but completely fails as a licensed product. It can be quite fun to play, and often at that. However, it suffers from a bland cast of characters and a story that doesn't exactly beg to be told. At the beginning, you choose your part in a fellowship of three characters: Eradan, a Dúnedain ranger; Andriel, an Elven Loremaster; and Farin, a Dwarven Champion of Erebor. A fellowship comprised of representatives of the main three races of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth? You don't say! This could have been forgiven if the story bothered to explain how and why these companions teamed up. But it doesn't. All you need to know is that these people are close friends and they are on a quest to bring down one of Sauron's cruelest lieutenants, Agandaûr, whose sinister exploits are localized in the North. The story actually intersects with Frodo's; in fact, you have the opportunity to have a meet-and-greet of sorts, which of course, comes across as cheesy.

So yes, the main idea is great, and a lot of this stuff is indeed touched upon in Tolkien's expanded works, but the execution doesn't amount to much more than fanfiction. The characters aren't interesting in the slightest; they rarely do anything other than pump their fists, lop heads and limbs off, and compliment each other. Granted, I never thought the quality of J.R.R. Tolkien's writing was anywhere near that of the tales he wove, but it would have been nice to see something truly original. This game shamelessly rips off Bioware's signature dialogue wheel, but doesn't take full advantage of it; there are no choices to be made, usually only questions to be asked. In the end, it seems as if the developers were too afraid to take any major storytelling risks, and unfortunately that resulted in a rather bland Lord of the Rings experience.

So War in the North fails as a Lord of the Rings sidestory. That doesn't mean it fails as a game. Quite the contrary, in fact; I had more fun playing this one than any of the other LOTR games I've played. It's admittedly simple and lacks the depth of other games like it (most notably Dragon Age II), but it's full of exciting action and enticing loot. To be honest, though, it's the latter that provides the game with its biggest draw; if you're not into that kind of progression, War in the North will probably leave you cold.

The Lord of the Rings: War in the North makes a pretty bad first impression in this department. You start off with weak equipment and very few combat skills in a surprisingly brutal first set of levels. Enemies attack in numbers, and usually with an extreme amount of force; however, they never take their time attacking. Nor should they, really; these are inhuman monstrosities, after all. For the most part, the legions of Agandaûr are unorganized, and they usually focus on creating chaos rather than preserving their ranks.

If you don't have the option to play online with people you trust, don't worry: the A.I. is more than capable of hauling your sorry ass out of the fire when you go down for the count. And you will go down for the count, too -- at least until you learn that the defense button is extremely handy and protects you from almost all possible damage.

Game Mechanics:
One of the most highly-touted features of The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is the inclusion of three player co-op. It's highly-touted for a good reason, too; it's probably the best part of the game. Still, almost everything is better with friends. To be fair, though, Eredan, Andriel, and Farin complement each other nicely in combat; Eredan is adept at drawing aggro, Andriel is capable of creating a healing sanctuary bubble, and Farin is capable of a war cry (read: buff). Additionally, ninja looting is often a stupid notion here, as much of the gear is character-specific.

Snowblind Studios is particularly well-known for making button-mashy role-playing games, and that's exactly what The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is. Combat is a two-button affair, with a defense shoulder button and a Power Attack modifier thrown in to liven things up a bit. You'll spend most of your time peppering enemies with light attacks until a special symbol appears over its head. Pressing the heavy attack button at that time will either knock the enemy down or end its life -- often quite violently. Even if the attack merely knocks the enemy down, you can close in and deliver a fatal stab by pressing the heavy attack button again.

Projectiles are also part of the gameplay, and there are indeed times when you have the option of thinning out the herd a bit before they close in on you en masse. Arrows and magic bolts alike are capable of taking heads clean off, which makes it more satisfying than it could have been.

Each character has a stat board and skill tree for you to build from zero. As you level up, you earn stat points that can be distributed into a number of key attributes. You also earn skill points, which can be slotted into apertures that lie along three major skill paths. It's certainly nothing revolutionary, but at least it's telling that if nothing else, War in the North certainly has the basics down.

The Lord of the Rings: War in the North comes achingly close to success, but fails to fully commit primarily due to its bungled storytelling. Yes, the premise is fantastic, but the delivery just isn't there. So, if nothing else, here's a serviceable hack-and-slash role-playing game. But let's face it: serviceable just isn't good enough; especially for this franchise, and especially considering the company this game finds itself in. The day may come when we see a Lord of the Rings game that expands on the established fiction in deep and meaningful ways. But it is not this day.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

Related Links:

This site best viewed in Internet Explorer 6 or higher or Firefox.