gaming update: War in the North
War in the North:
Last year's holiday season saw a bounty of huge AAA titles to grab our attention as well as coax the money out of our wallets. It should be no surprise that a game like Snowblind Studio's realtime action-RPG Lord of the Rings: War in the North was lost in the mix, or simply cast aside by most consumers in favor of much bigger games. If you decided not to play this game (assuming you even knew about it), and instead picked up a game like Skyrim, Gears of War 3, or Uncharted 3, you made a good choice. That's not to say War in the North isn't badass, because it really is. I beat it recently and I'd love to recommend it. Before I do that I need to let you guys know about the shining moments as well as the shortcomings so you can make up your own mind.
I was hyped ever since the game was announced, and I picked it up right at launch. I was excited because I love a good hack & slash RPG, I love the Lord of the Rings setting, and I love the developer Snowblind. I've been a fan of Snowblind Studios since their Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath days on PS2. Those two series of console action-RPG games are what got me into RPGs in the first place, so I absolutely have a soft spot for the kind of work Snowblind does. Let's take a look at this game.
It's not completely void of color but keep in mind War in the North is very earthy and gritty. Don't expect babes with giant cleavage and lip gloss, or dudes with shaved chests and emo haircuts. This gameworld is one where people get decapitated daily and the snow is stained red with blood. If you like your aesthetic to be more trendy and sexy, look elsewhere
Visually it's a huge step forward compared to Baldur's Gate and Champions of Norrath. I think they did a pretty good job of bringing their own vision of the Tolkein universe to life
The "north" in the Tolkein world is very mountainous, so expect mountains! And dragons. Urgost, you rascal!
Onto gameplay. The people at Snowblind care a great deal about their loot, and War in the North has no shortage of it. Treasures and rewards come often, just like in their previous action-RPGs. Levels are designed so that, as you progress along your path, you will come across plenty of chests to open, breakables to smash, as well as nooks & crannies to find extra goodies in. The loot is often pretty relevant, meaning you won't spend hours finding junk that doesn't compare to the sweet junk you already have. The game does a decent job of giving you that feeling that if you play a little longer you will come across a weapon with better damage, or that armor with a cool bonus like +30 HP and +3 to Strength.
The only thing about the inventory that I didn't like was the fact that you have no way to compare all the pieces of equipment to each other, and that's a big problem in an RPG that is so focused on loot. In games like Dragon Age 2 or even Borderlands, when you are in your inventory looking at something it will bring up a seperate box showing your equipped item to let you know how it compares to the stuff you're looking at. In War in the North if I pick up a new sword, I have to go into my inventory, look at my current sword, memorize its stats, than go over to the new sword and scrutinize its stats to compare. It's not game-breaking but it is a hassle. Almost every other game on the market addresses the issue and solves it fairly elegantly. A contemporary full priced $60 game like War in the North should have those kinds of features standard, but it doesn't. In fact there's plenty about the game that doesn't justify a full price tag. I'm going to go ahead and get the negatives out of the way first.
It's definitely an RPG but it's not overly complicated. RPG veterans will be glad to hear there's no hand holding, and you will immeditaly have control over the mechanics, stats, and upgrade trees. RPG newcomers shouldn't have much trouble getting into this. Snowblind did a good job giving apt descriptions of each element, as well as offering an auto-assign function in case you couldn't care less about stats
The inventory layout works great, and the loot itself is cool. However, as I mentioned, there's no convienient way to compare any piece of equipment to the next. In this picture you can see the red triangle pointing down to indicate the item offers less armor than your current set, but you have to take into account all the sweet bonuses it gives. There's no way to compare all the fine details side by side
The campaign is weak, and so is the cast of characters. It's fairly short (maybe 10-15 hours) and to tell you the truth when I beat the game a few days ago I was totally and entirely confused. You see, the game has a world map of Middle Earth that you use to transport to new hubs and find quests. The map has at least a hundred points of interest on it from the shores west of the Shire all the way to the desolate lands of Rhun in the east. During the game you only travel to about 25 of those points of interest, and the places you visit don't give you a great tour of Middle Earth. Mount Gundabad is alright, but you can't show me all these dozens of places I've never known about and not take me there. You can highlight the remaining nodes and read the description of them, that's it. They appear to just be there for show and maybe as little pieces of lore?
When I say you visit 25 areas I'm not talking about sprawling levels or cities full of NPCs. There's a few small quest hubs to explore like Bree, Rivendell, and Nordinbad, but they are very small and only have a few important people in them. In each hub you'll find a couple fetch quests, a merchant, a guy who repairs your equipment, and then the main quest giver who will keep you plugging along the main quest. Once you've finished the quests in a little area, you can pull up the map, a new single node lights up, and you can transport there. Besides the quest hubs, the only other places you will go to are dungeons and castles. To be fair, as I was playing the campaign I didn't think it was that bad, but in the end the fact that the progression is so linear and the game ends so abruptly threw me off and made me look back at the experience as a whole and realize it wasn't very good. When I beat the game I was at some castle, I didn't even know it was the final one. I was chopping baddies up, then suddenly I was in a boss battle. The boss battle ended and the credits rolled. I said, "That's the end of the game? Did I do something wrong?"
It was one of the most forgettable campaigns I've ever played in a game. Not as bad as Soldier of Fortune III, but it's pretty lackluster. It's a straitforward action-RPG quest similar to a Gauntlet title. I love Gauntlet, but I was expecting War in the North to be something way different, especially for $60. The campaign is completely linear, you have no variety of choices in where you go. In no time at all you're slaying the evil wizard and finishing the game, just like Gauntlet. War in the North is built with co-op in mind too, just like Gauntlet. I played through the game solo and it worked just fine, I never felt lonely, but I bet it's great with friends.
The character's personalities are all weak. You couldn't make the three playable classes more irrelevant and generic if you tried. Their dialogue choices don't matter (Yea, I forgot to mention there's a Bioware style speech wheel), and even in this epic quest to stop the evil wizard they just seem overshadowed by the much more interesting things that Frodo and the Fellowship are up to. When it comes to all the characters, the one saving grace of this game is the presence of the Great Eagles, namely your giant eagle companion Beleram. Depending on what you're expecting out of the game, I might have just spilled the beans on enough downers to disinterest you, but I don't want you thinking War in the North is a piece of garbage. It isn't, at all. I said in the beginning I am recommending you play it lol. Not for research, but for fun. Let's get onto the reasons why this game is worth your time and money.
Beleram in action. The game's presentation is quite beautiful, and this is especially true in the case of the Great Eagle's character models and animation
In the dull cast of characters, Beleram is like a diamond in the rough. He is extremely intelligent, eloquent, honorable, and not to mention dangerous as hell
Beleram is a Great Eagle that chooses to help you along your journey. He is heavily involved in just about every plot advance, but in a practical sense he also helps you out in battle when you call on him. As you wander you'll pick up golden feathers. There's nothing special about them other than the fact they serve as the item that allows you to engage the Beleram mechanic. You don't have to build up special meters or wait for boss battles. Just collect golden feathers, highlight an enemy on screen, press a button, and Beleram swoops out of the sky to start tearing your foe apart. It's always fun using Beleram, but it's especially awesome when fighting trolls. He will swoop in and struggle with the troll, pin them to the ground at times, and often he will rip the troll's throat out. Beleram is not only a badass, but his animation is great, he looks really pretty, and I just want to cuddle up to him every time he's around.
The combat is by far the best thing in the game, so even if you don't have golden feathers in your inventory to call on Beleram, you will still have a lot of fun chopping people up yourself. War in the North makes itself more than a simple button masher by having great animation and mechanics. You have basic attacks, heavy attacks, special abilities, and ranged combat with magic and bows. All three classes are pretty good at each aspect of combat if you upgrade in the right skills. Therefore, if you want her to be, your lady Elf mage can be just as devastating in melee combat as the manly Ranger. You can chain together basic and heavy attacks to make combos. Special abilities are moves you upgrade in the skill trees. An example of one of them is the Evade ability my Ranger has, in which he becomes invisible to enemies for a short time and can sneak up on baddies and deal massive damage with sneak attacks. Or you can use it to save your ass when you're surrounded and need a means of egress to use some health potions. The ranged combat is very useful and forgiving, meaning you don't have to be super accurate to hit targets, just aim nearby an enemy and you'll still succeed. Ranged arrows and magic attacks operate in the same fashion as a 3rd person shooter. Use the triggers to aim manually and shoot. You can even get gory headshots for extra experience, pretty nifty!
The characters have a nice sense of weight to them as they run around or roll around, and all the melee attacks are brutal thanks to the animation, sound design, and gorey particle effects. When you're beating on an enemy, an indicator above their head will appear. As the enemy gets closer to dying the indicator will become yellow and you will have the opportunity to perform an execution. The executions are always different and always awesome. Sometimes you will chop an arm off, a leg, or even get a decapitation. Killing enemies always gives you experience points (XP) on screen and doing executions will earn you bonus XP. The best executions are ones you do on trolls. Trolls are probably the most dangerous critters in the game, but when you have the chance to do an execution on one, the huge risks of going toe-to-toe with them pay off gloriously. It never got old climbing up onto a troll's back, driving my swords straight through its skull, hopping down, and seeing the troll fall to the ground as XP rolls in.
As far as challenge and difficulty goes, the game can be very challenging and rewarding. I played my first campaign on the normal difficulty and it was just fine but not too challenging at all. However, I just started a second playthrough on Heroic difficulty and it's way tougher. I still have to buy Dark Souls, and I've only ever watched Let's Plays of Dark Souls, but when I play War in the North on the harder difficulties it makes me think of Dark Souls a little bit. I've been dying a lot in my second playthrough and I absolutely have to use strategy, use my shield, stealth skill, health potions, and raise my game. I've died several times in a few different encounter spaces in the first castle alone and it's really rewarding when I finally figure out a way to beat the situation and move on. If you have any hopes of surviving on the higher difficulties you have to have shields, potions, skill, and strategy. I found myself walking into new places with my shield up out of fear, and it's a lot of fun. I had a boss battle with a troll last night and it took a while. I really had to grind away at him and make every attack and ability count.
COME AT ME BRO!
War in the North is heavy on savagery, lite on diplomacy
Goblins say the darndest things...and then they DIE
The mage has some really important spells like this one, which protects the players inside and slowly replenishes your health while you're inside
So the campaign and characters suck, but the gameplay and combat are badass. If I could sum up this game I'd say it is an attempted contemporary evolution of Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance, Champions of Norrath, or Gauntlet. The biggest difference is that War in the North has much better visuals, animation, and vastly improved combat. Snowblind takes their collective design experience and styles, and tries to make a classic action-RPG experience, but in the end it just doesn't fit into the AAA price tier. Also, as it tries to be modern it definitely fails some areas of its execution.
The price is something I wanted to bring up, because there are a lot of things about the game that convince me it shouldn't have been sold at the $60 price point. War in the North is really cool, but it doesn't compete technically or creatively with your Skyrims, Final Fantasies, or Mass Effects. I'm an aspiring level designer and playtest analyst, and I have no business skills, so I'm not going to pretend to know dick about business, but I wonder if this game would've faired better if it was released $30 or less. What if it was a downloadable title? If you took War in the North and put it in the same downloadable arena as a game like Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale, or anything else on Xbox Live Arcade, War in the North would probably be seen as a gem. It would be the prime rib of XBLA, no doubt.
If this game was still in its launch window at $60 I wouldn't be sitting here telling you to buy it, but right now on both Gamestop.com and Amazon.com you can get War in the North for $30 and less which seems to be appropriate. Not because it's a bad game, but rather because all games are not created equal, and not every game needs to be $60. There's enough variety in gaming experiences these days that a fixed price system just doesn't do us any favors.
Eventually some of you will probably find yourselves in a gaming drought where you won't have anything new to play and you're looking for something fresh to keep you busy. The ridiculous hype has thankfully come and gone for games like Skyrim, Final Fantasy 13-2, and Mass Effect 3, so at some point this year if you find yourself in a slump looking for something new and fun to play you should consider War in the North. You can find it on PC, OnLive, Xbox 360, and PS3. Blood soaked snow, decapitations, and badass eagles await you!