Being a card carrying Lord of the Rings nerd, I approached the new game Lord of the Rings: War in the North with a certain amount of trepidation. You see, I'm also a Star Wars nerd, and any Star Wars nerd will tell you that you have to be careful with video game adaptations. More often than not, you'll wind up disappointed not only due to sub-par products, but more so because our collective expectations are just too high. We want these interactive experiences to live up to the lofty standards we have set in our own minds. So a Lord of the Rings game set concurrent with the journey of Frodo and the Fellowship telling the story of what transpired in the northern ranges of Middle Earth should be a blast, right? Sadly, it isn’t. While the core gameplay and the general idea are fine, War in the North is beset with numerous interface issues that render it frustrating to the point that it’s almost (note, almost) unplayable.
The biggest problem with War in the North is the fact that it’s designed to be played with friends online. On the surface, this seems like a good thing. Each player takes control of one character: Eradan (a ranger like Aragorn), Farin (a dwarf, stout and strong as a tank), or Andriel (an elvish mage). You’ll face orc hordes together, communicate strategy and tactics to take down bosses, and trade weapons and armor back and forth. And if you have said friends to play with, War in the North is a perfectly passable third-person hack and slash game that has loads of loot to share and the added essence of the Lord of the Rings universe to placate the rabid fans of the franchise.
But (and this is a big, noticeable but), it almost seems like the good people at Snowblind Studios forgot that some people might actually be playing the game on their own. All of the following (and admittedly confusing) issues stem from one simple problem: you can’t switch between party members if you’re playing by yourself... and for the life of me I can’t understand why. This makes item management, upgrading, and leveling a huge pain because you actually have to exit out of the game and reload with a different character. There is no way to compare what they have with what you want to give them, so you’re trusting that the ally AI will equip the best gear. While a less than ideal solution, it seems to work well at first... unless your computer-controlled friends decide not to use the good stuff.
Hear is an example: early on I saw a beastly two-handed mace with added fire damage for sale. “This’ll do nicely for Farin,” I thought to myself. I purchased it, passed it off to Farin, who immediately equipped it. Off we went to save Middle Earth and it wasn’t ten minutes later that I spotted my dwarven comrade taking on a full size troll with a single short sword. “This won’t do,” I thought, mildly annoyed. After the next save point (another issue... no manual save option... really?), I reloaded the game as Farin so I could spend my upgrade points, and my awesome fire mace I’d spent so many pennies on was gone... as in not in his inventory at all. I reloaded as Eradan (my main character) and there was no sign of it there either.
I spent some time playing around with this during the few non-combat situations (essentially hub towns like Rivendell). Buying weapons as one character, then switching and outfitting them, then switching back (all the while dealing with incredibly long load times... another issue) led to hair-pulling, yelling-at-the-TV confusion as the money comes from one source (so once it’s gone, it’s gone), but the items I’d just purchased seemed to disappear into thin air. Apparently, the inventory isn’t shared, but the bank is. After a while I gave up, just sticking with Eradan, and decided to pass down whatever loot wasn’t top notch. But with no way to compare what I had to offer with what my companions already had equipped, it was all just a leap of faith. But if they did equip what was given, what happened to what they previously had? If each character has their own inventory, you would naturally assume that upon reloading with a different character you’d be able to go in and sell off what wasn’t used... but no, again, they just aren’t there.
I can’t even describe how frustrating these issues are simply because they make War in the North less fun to play. The inherent joy with these sorts of dungeon crawlers is sorting out the massive amount of goodies that are out there. I love loot, almost to the point that it’s indecent, but these interface issues just sapped all the fun out of finding cool stuff. Again, I can see what they were trying to do, and if each character had their own save slot then it would make more sense, but how could the developers think this design would do anything but hinder the game? This isn’t nearly as big a problem when playing with friends (provided you have open lines of communication), but the fact that you don’t even have the option to do things more easily when playing on your lonesome just baffles me.
If you can get past the confusing, nonsensical interface problems, the ally AI performs decently in combat. You have your standard light and heavy attacks that you can mix up, a ranged weapon, and a slew of special moves to unlock and upgrade. Battles are intense affairs with loads of orc scum, trolls, spiders, and other nasties lining up to be run through.
It’s worth noting that War in the North is actually rated mature -- some of the finishing moves are surprisingly graphic, but the more visceral tone works. Your companions hold their own for the most part, and will come to your aid if you fall... albeit slowly. They make good use of powers and special abilities and don’t need a lot of babysitting, despite the fact that your foes can take a phenomenal amount of punishment before succumbing. This is another problem with War in the North -- your enemies level with you. This drives me nuts, especially in a loot-based game, because you never feel like you are getting ahead of the curve as it were. Finding a badass super-sword should make you feel appropriately badass, not just having another butter knife to chop away ineffectually at endless hordes of damage sponges.
For the most part, Tolkien’s iconic universe is well realized. Graphically, War in the North is decent, but nothing extraordinary. The environments are quite detailed despite some texture loading issues. Animations are also pretty good, even if they are limited and become repetitive. It’s only when things get really hectic that you might notice some lag or freezing issues, but for the most part it runs well.
The story takes place at the same time as that of the Fellowship (you even get to meet the crew in Rivendell before they head off to Mordor). Eradan, Farin, and Andriel are charged with defending the Northern regions of Middle Earth from Agandaur, a human sorcerer who studied at Sauron’s side. The twisted fiend is gathering orcs (and worse) from the northern mountains, building an army to attack from behind while the focus lies to the south.
You get to visit a lot of locations from not only the movies, but the books and wider universe as well. As I mentioned, I’m a full blown LoTR nerd so I have a frame of reference, but it was nice to see such attention paid to the mythical history and geography Tolkien created. Meeting up with the more well known characters was a nice touch, despite the fact that the proper voice actors weren’t involved. This shouldn’t be a surprise, but it is noticeable. Still, I’m happy to report that the cast does a decent job of capturing the tone of the series despite some overly stilted dialogue. But for me the bigger joy was meeting new (or briefly mentioned) additions to the cast. Beleram, one of the giant Eagles of Middle Earth, will aid your party after you save him early on, acting as a sort of feathery guided missile you can sick on foes. Even crazy, old Radagast the Brown (who provides some much needed comic relief, although he doesn't mean to) makes an appearance. Agandaur is suitably menacing as the Dark Lord’s disciple, and there is a big surprise towards the end that I won’t spoil, but made me giddy with nerdish glee (especially with the eventual release of The Hobbit movie).
However, what is disappointing is that you never really feel like you’re having an effect on the story, or the universe as a whole. Your cast of playable characters don’t have a whole lot of personality, made no easier to stomach by the overly effusive dialogue they spout, albeit in true LoTR fashion. You have the option to ask questions and interact with NPC’s, but the conversation trees don't actually have any importance to the outcome beyond picking up a few side missions. It's all purely for backstory, which is awesome in it’s own right, but giving me the illusion of choice doesn’t actually mean I was having an impact on the proceedings. The entire time I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was just tagging along.
And that, in a nutshell, sums up how I felt about War in the North: like I was simply along for the ride. The story, while engaging to someone who knows more about LoTR than just the Peter Jackson movies, is pretty bland and doesn’t hold the sense of wonder and awe you get from either the books or the movies. Given such a foundation, you’d think they could do better. When it works (and when you have friends to play with), the game is a perfectly average hack-and-slash RPG. However, the laundry list of aforementioned issues not only hold the game back, but inhibit it to the point that it’s not fun. And if it’s not fun, then what’s the point? The phrase “squandered potential” comes to mind. It’s almost as if there was some malevolent force mocking us... I don’t know, perhaps it's Sauron. Instead we are, yet again, left to lament what could have been.