Developers: Snowblind Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Once again we set foot in Middle-Earth, and once again we find ourselves as part of a fellowship...just not, the Fellowship.
It's not often that we see a game that interweaves its own story in amongst a popular existing narrative...no, wait, that happens all the time. It's even ground well-trodden in Tolkien fantastical universe, with EA-published RPG The Third Age doing pretty much exactly the same thing several years ago. So Snowblind's hack 'n' slash action role player isn't exactly original, but, admittedly, that's not a problem. Middle-Earth is vast enough that there are still panoply of lesser characters and skirmishes around the time of Sauron's return that are begging to be explored in some medium or another.
What is a problem is that the developers really ought to have done better than this.
Snowblind are no strangers to the world of role playing, having presented the world with Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath, and with two fine titles such as these behind them you'd be forgiven for expecting a game that's at least able to stand up with the Dragon Ages of this modern gaming landscape. But you should be warned, if you've been waiting for that great Lord of the Rings RPG for some time, this game won't interrupt your patient pining.
To be fair to War in the North, the game does have some fine ideas. Meandering its way through the existing tales of the Third Age, it does a good job of introducing us to new locales that have been previously untouched, making acquaintances with new characters such as Elrond's sons, and occasionally crossing paths with well established heroes to add some context and meaning to your own adventures. But you never really feel like you're doing much in a wider context - the game's acceptance that really this is a side-story when all is said and done permeates the whole game. It's semi-empowering, with a constant nagging little sense that someone, somewhere, is having much more fun than you.
You get to play as one of three Fellowship B members - Andriel of Rivendell; Eradan of the Dunedain rangers; or Farin, the dwarfish champion of Erebor. The 'classes' here are relatively broad and stereotypical. You have your low-slung, beardy tank in Farin, useful for melee combat and soaking up damage; Andriel provides cover from the back, zapping folks with magic and casting healing spells left, right and centre; and Eradan is basically a nimble rogue, skilled with a bow at range and able to unlock dual-wielding later on.
Combat basics are the same, no matter which character you decide to inhabit. Buttons for light attacks, heavy blows, special modifiers, aiming and blocking are all simple to grasp. chain attacks together without getting hit and you'll start doing more damage, lopping off limbs and executing finishers that gift you extra XP. Its worth pointing out, though, that combat is a bit of a mess. At the start all of the goblins are blade fodder, but the trouble is that the game levels up it's own enemies as you do meaning that although you are becoming more powerful, all of your foes are too.
It's not as if the skills you can unlock are particularly satisfying either, although they do help to make the game slightly better - the earliest couple of hours are a grim slog. There are three skill trees for each character, with three subsets within those trees and three further options for enhancement from each branch. There are some handy offerings in there - Eradan's duel wielding makes him a competent character and Andriel's Sactuary spell is utterly essential - but in a game so heavy on action, where are the cool finishers, the combos and combat enhancers?
You might expect the game's narrative to pick up the slack there, but it doesn't. Your playable characters have less flavour than cardboard and the sidelong nature of the story hardly makes for an engrossing experience. You do get to use a talking eagle as a smart bomb, but even then the impact is less than overwhelming. The loot helps - War in the North - does have a fine scavenging system that offers up a banquet of interesting and varied items and you can slot gems into weapons and armour to augment them with new powers such as electrical damage, icy blasts or flaming retribution, but when the combat is so uninspired it's rather a case of too little, too late.
Played with two others as intended, the game takes on a new dynamic. There are checkpoints where you can have others leap into the fray with you and swap characters, and it does add a nice feeling of camaraderie to the play to have another human by your side, but I'm not convinced that it actually makes the game better. The revival system echoes that of Gears of War - go down in battle and it's up to your buddy to scamper over, hold down a button and wait a few seconds. Except that the enemy AI is pretty vindictive and, in spite of being pretty dumb elsewhere, will suddenly spam attempts to revive your chums. Interestingly, then, the friendly AI appears to be a lot better at medicinal activity than any of the folks I've met online thus far.
Again, then, we're left with a game that's not entirely sure what it wants to be. It throws enemies at you, with hugely frustrating damage-sponges arriving all too soon to ruin the party, without ever really empowering you against them; the story is largely forgettable in spite of its potential; there are RPG mechanics here, but they have little effect - the looting offset by a BioWare-esque conversation wheel that has no effect of consequence on...well...anything.
Let's not forget the bugs, too. From corrupted game saves (and you can't save manually, the game saves to one spot at infrequent times) to screen washouts; you can, on occasion, impale people with hammers; there's the odd bit of incomprehensibly insurmountable flat landscape and screen tearing and (this is probably not a bug, but it's really annoying) ridiculous streams of unblockable attacks. I don't want that, no thank you.
The soundtrack is fantastic, although there are occasional audio bugs that insert static into musical proceedings too, but the feeling of epic fantasy that it evokes is never given to the player. It's telling that I dug out the old movie tie-ins and had a boatload more fun turning orcs into mincemeat with those than I did here. War in the North is a game that opens up and offers more as you persevere with some relatively epic encounters later on, but with Skyrim and Dark Souls already out, only die-hard LOTR fans will be going near this one and, even then, I'd warn them to be careful.
- Some nice ideas
- Loot items and gear are pretty cool
- Splitscreen multiplayer is always a plus
- Lacklustre story
- Unsatisfying combat
- Some hideous glitches
The Short Version: War in the North has some fine ideas and a persistent and rewarding approach to loot-finding and gear, but it can't disguise mediocre combat mechanics, a disappointing story and some game-breaking glitches. From the visual presentation to the AI, everything feels rushed, making for a game that, in spite of its co-operative offerings, is difficult to recommend.