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Lord of the Rings: War in the North Review

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On 11/07/2011 at 08:00 PM by Jesse Miller

If this fellowship had borne the Ring of Power, things may have ended very differently.

Die-hard Lord of the Rings fans and those looking for a solid hack-n-slash game will get a good amount of enjoyment in their journey to the north.

It’s plain to see what Snowblind Studios was trying to do with Lord of the Rings: War in the North.  They wanted to create a game that would appeal to fans of the books and films while simultaneously creating something new – telling a tale that had not yet been told.  I applaud them for attempting to strike out on a new path, but there is a big difference between expressing the intent to do something and actually following through with it and unfortunately War in the North falls short of their self imposed expectations and fails to innovate in any real meaningful way.

The story in War in the North occurs in parallel with the events in the famed trilogy that we know and love and focuses on the travels and tribulations of Eradan, Andriel and Farin (or as they are more likely to be known: Ranger, Elf, and Dwarf respectively).  I’d say more about the characters, but in all reality there isn’t much more to be said than that.  The three are as generic as old school Dungeons & Dragons character cards and have the matching skills and character traits to boot.

What I can say about these three is that each plays differently in combat.  The Ranger is expectantly proficient in both ranged and close combat and has the ability to enter “evasion” mode, making him temporarily invisible to enemies.  The Dwarf is a close combat monster and his skills concentrate on boosting his and the rest of the party’s physical attacks.  And the Elf is our token magic user that possesses some healing and defensive prowess as well as an array of ranged spells.

When playing alone you have your pick of one of the three characters.  This selection does not tie you down forever though, as you will be able to switch characters at certain points of the game (usually at the end of levels or when you boot up the game again).  Switching it up certainly helps to keep the game from getting tiresome, but it would have been better if switching could be done on the fly, allowing you to better adapt to the continual changes on the battlefield.  More specifically it would help to avoid scenarios that impede the flow of the game, such as how on more than one occasion I found myself without arrows and was unable to inflict any damage on archers that were positioned in unreachable areas, forcing me to run around in an attempt to not get shot while the Elf listlessly fired off magic missiles that would only hit home one out of every five shots.

This scenario segues into another issue with the game – the friendly AI.  To be blunt, your compatriots are just plain dumb. They’ll often get in your way in both battle and in narrow hallways, impeding your progress any chance they get.  When I would use the Ranger’s “evasion” mode to try to sneak up on the enemy and get the jump on them, my foolish traveling companions would gleefully begin unleashing all manner of attacks upon the enemy, rendering the ability practically useless.

Also, since there are only two group commands – attack and defend – there is no real good way to control them.  The addition of a few more commands such as heal, support and stay would have greatly benefited the experience since I wouldn’t have to trick the Elf into casting a healing bubble.  Another way they could have accomplished this would have been through granting each character a default behavior that could be set by the player.  This way you could have had one set to defend and another to attack.

To be fair, War in the North isn’t the kind of game to be played alone and supports the ability to be played with two other friends or a couple of random strangers.  Playing with real life humans renders my AI concerns completely obsolete and allows the game to really shine, particularly when it comes to the combat.

Combat is fun regardless if you’re playing with friends or not.  The controls are simple, boiling down to a quick attack, heavy attack and special attacks that are unique to each character.  As you land blows upon an enemy, your critical strike meter fills.  Once it’s been completely filled, a yellow triangle will appear above your enemy to indicate that they’re susceptible to a critical strike.  To perform this strike, simply hit your heavy attack and your character will quickly bear down upon the enemy and more often than not, remove a limb or in some cases cleave their head right off.  Finishing an enemy in this fashion awards you with greater experience points, so it pays to be efficient in battle.

While battle is quite fun and even enthralling at times, those that are looking for epic war torn battlefields akin to those of Helm’s Deep and Pelennor Fields will be disappointed as the fighting here is more akin to what you would find in The Fellowship of the Ring in both tone and scale.  This isn’t a complaint, but rather a warning for those looking for something more epic to look elsewhere.

As you rack up the kills you’ll level up, increasing your attributes and giving you skill points to spend in the character’s unique tree.  Characters that you aren’t controlling will also level and their points will be allotted automatically so you won’t have to micromanage each character in your party.  Since equipment is designed specifically for each character, your party members will also automatically equip the best layout as you loot along your way.  If a piece of equipment isn’t as good as what they are already wearing it will go into your inventory so it can be sold.  Again, this helps to keep down micromanaging and ensures that more time is spent on the battlefield than in the equipment menus.

Long time fans of the series will be happy to see some locations that they had only read or heard about in the books, but the presentation of said locations is sorely disappointing.  Middle Earth is a visually striking world and that needs to come through in the set pieces.  What we are given instead are largely generic landscapes that will underwhelm even those that are completely unfamiliar with Tolkien’s realm. 

The paths from the beginning of any given stage to the end are completely linear with no exploration necessary.  This isn’t a detriment to the game given its nature, but that means that it’s chock full of one of my biggest pet peeves in gaming: invisible walls.  You’ll be amazed at how pervasive they are in War in the North, frustratingly blocking any attempts at even the slightest amount of exploration.

War in the North is a solid game that benefits from the source material, but fails to reach its true potential.  Technical issues and ridiculous friendly AI blemish this title at almost every turn, but when played with friends, War in the North shows the true potential that lies within and hints that a Lord of the Rings game need not necessarily follow on Frodo’s heels.


Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

We use a five-star rating system with intervals of .5. Below is an outline of what each score generally means:

All games that receive this score are standout games in their genre. All players should seek a way to play this game. While the score doesn't equate to perfection, it's the best any game could conceivably do.

These are above-average games that most players should consider purchasing. Nearly everyone will enjoy the game and given the proper audience, some may even love these games.

This is our middle-of-the-road ranking. Titles that receive three stars may not make a strong impression on the reviewer in either direction. These games may have some faults and some strong points but they average out to be a modest title that is at least worthy of rental for most.

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Though functional, a game that receives this score has major issues. There are little to no redeeming qualities and should be avoided by nearly all players.

A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.




11/08/2011 at 12:32 AM

I noticed all the screenshots that are shown are very brown. I thought Middle Earth had more color than that... Still, this sounds like it might actually be pretty fun once it's a bit cheaper. I expected something much worse to be honest!

Julian Titus Senior Editor

11/08/2011 at 05:50 PM

I love, love, love the Norrath games for PS2, and I was hoping for some of that Snowblind magic to hit in this generation. Sad to hear about this, but I may pick this one up on the cheap to play with my Champions of Norrath partner in crime.


11/08/2011 at 07:30 PM

I agree with Jules, I love Norrath, but as far as this game goes it'll be best to wait till it's a bit cheaper. I don't think they capitalized on the potential they had with this game, but it's not a terrible game. I've been having fun, but just know that the flaws the game has are very obvious and it's obvious where Snowblind could improve in their brainstorming, conception, design, and implementation. I think it works pretty great as an action RPG in most of the encounters. The combat animations are pretty cool at times (they are the only interesting animations I might add), there's tons of loot to find, and I tend to like the skill trees even if they are predictable. Looking through the skill trees I see a lot of useful skills and things I actually want. When I play through Borderlands the skill trees are hard to understand and I never know what will actually benefit me or how I could use a skill. In War in the North the benefits are obvious and useful.

I love the Great Eagles, they are the only characters I care about in the game so far. Every time I see Beleram I just want to cuddle up in his feathers and look into his big shiny hazel eagle eyes lol. The eagles are a sight to behold, but with that said they don't have much competition. The animations are so dry with most character interactions that I can't wait to just get a dialogue sequence over with. For example you go to show Gloin some gems and have him appraise them. Well you press the input, immediately his task is done and he's telling you about it with some mediocre dialogue lines. Quest complete, move on. During the game you see lots of people like Aragorn and Frodo, but they are always so lifeless. The animation is so skimpy that it doesn't do the Tolkien world justice. The poor animation sucks the life out of this game world no matter now pretty the eagle are or how sweet the loot you just grabbed is. I agree that I don't appreciate the invisible walls Jesse. There's plenty of them to be found in each level. Another example of the dryness of the game is the boss battle I had last night. I was in the Ettenmoors and fought the main boss, a rouge stone giant. He looked pretty cool, and he was damn huge, but the battle itself was as dry as it could be. I'll prove it. To beat him I had to hack at his shins like a little ankle biter, than he'd stumbled slowly down on all fours and we'd hack at his arms. That's how you win, grab your XP, and move on. The game's not broken, it's absolutely playable, and I'm honestly having fun with it but I'm very forgiving and understanding lol. I still love Snowblind with a passion and I can tell they had passion behind this project, but the execution was really bland in all but certain parts.

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