I’ll be honest: I haven’t read through any of the Lord of the Rings novels from start to finish. In fact, I have yet to finish the movies – what can I say, I just never was much of a movie guy, though I did manage to watch The Hobbit multiple times as a kid. So right away I’m forced to review Lord of the Rings: War in the North not as someone who’s all excited about the prospect of jumping into Middle Earth and exploring a magical world I’ve known mostly through books and film. Instead, I have to approach it as a guy picking up a game to have some fun with – a guy who does love to jab sharpened pieces of metal into virtual orcs and goblins, mind you – and running with it from there. So bear that in mind as you read through the rest of this review.
Let’s start with the story. You follow a trio of heroes – filling the general stereotypes of mage-ish woman, surly dwarf with a weapon and the ranger who’s got a little bit of swordplay to go with his arrow shooting – as they seek to counter Sauron’s schemes in the northern lands. Oh, and don’t expect them to be doing so by relying on the good-heartedness and gentle nature of a hobbit wise beyond his years and stature. No, these three pretty much handle everything the old fashioned way – with a whole lot of limb-chopping and decapitation. The storyline follows this small group as they proceed to stick their blades and spells into progressively more dangerous enemies, doing what’s needed to keep Sauron nicely contained to where the ultimate, more famous battles ultimately take place.
Now, I’m not so detached from Lord of the Rings that I can’t identify right away the big draw it’s going to have for fans of the series. War in the North is a kind of side-story to the actual events in the movies and books, taking place in the northern realms that are otherwise largely alluded to rather than directly covered, at least given what I know of the story. This fact alone is probably going to be enough to entice numerous fans of the series, since it constitutes some actual brand new material based in what’s so far been quite a fleshed-out world – even if, of course, it’s not presented by the original author. All I can really say about the story is that, while it’s serviceable, it leaves me with a somewhat different impression than I’ve always had – remotely, keep in mind – of the series and setting. Sure, even in The Hobbit there was a lot of fighting and bloodshed, but here the whole ‘stab and loot’ thing just seems like an odd thing to emphasize. A little like finding out The Chronicles of Narnia was made into a Diablo style game.
Alright, so maybe I can’t fully appreciate the story – such as it is – in War in the North. And that may be a failing on my part. But one thing I really can appreciate are the graphics the game delivers. If nothing else, this is a very pretty game – something I find myself saying more and more when it comes to console offerings. From the cozy little tavernish area you start out in to the village outdoors to the forests, the whole game really has some splendid visuals going on. Of course, this includes the enemies you go up against as well – nasty creatures, scrabbling around threateningly before closing in on you with intent to do harm. This is one area the game pretty much knocks out of the park as far as I’m concerned, and usually I’m one to put graphics second or even third behind gameplay.
Unfortunately, gameplay is where War in the North starts to suffer somewhat, and where I’m going to be devoting the majority of my attention. First, let’s focus on what the game does right. For one, you get a trio of decently diverse options to choose from – the aforementioned dwarf warrior, human ranger and elven mage. While you can pick to play any one of them, the three serve as a package deal while you play. So even if you decide to play the ranger, you’ve still got the mage and warrior watching your back either in AI-mode or (more appropriately) co-op mode. It’s pretty easy to learn how to play any of the three, and while you can upgrade their skills in numerous ways it’s ultimately a pretty straightforward endeavor. Chop, shoot or spellcast at the enemy, try to go for nice combos and finishing moves, loot their corpses and move on.
Straightforward, as I said, and certainly pretty. You even get some close-up and slow-down camera action as you lop off a head or a limb here and there. But, upgrades and loot aside, it’s not going to be long before the whole thing starts to feel a little repetitive. War in the North simply isn’t a very deep game, and there’s a certain amount of recycling that goes on with both the trash mobs and the ‘boss’ mobs. There’s still enough diversity in there, especially given the upgrade options, to make the game feel a bit fresh as times goes on – and of course, between the experience and the loot, you still come away from the whole thing feeling rewarded for getting past each of the challenges awaiting you. But this is certainly the sort of game where you can expect to see a new group of enemies on the horizon and find yourself thinking, “Man, alright, let’s just clear these out” as opposed to “Ha, fresh meat! Let’s rip them to shreds!”
There’s another aspect to this reptition, and that comes from the trio you’re playing – or rather, from the trio you can either play and have AIs or friends take on the role of. The game feels a bit more fun – and quite a bit easier – if you’ve got live humans at your side. The easier part can be expected, since generally AI partners in these games either come in flavors of ‘way too powerful’ or ‘kind of hobbled’. But I couldn’t help but get the impression that, while it’s certainly not being marketed as primarily a co-op game, War in the North really does better as exactly that. So if you’ve got two friends who are into both Lord of the Rings and co-op play, this actually may be a title worth checking out. On the other hand, if you’re more of a singleplayer gamer… well, are you REALLY, REALLY into Lord of the Rings? If so, then you may not even be reading this review: you could take one look at the name on the box and know this is the title for you.
And that’s where the final analysis of this game lies. Story-wise, an interesting endeavor for any Lord of the Rings fan. The presentation is solid enough, though the story strikes this more detached reviewer as a bit mundane and typical. Great graphics, and gameplay which is solid enough but shines more with friends (what doesn’t, really?) than it does in its singleplayer offering. There’s something here for you guys who like the general approach of solving problems with a whole lot of sword-swinging, experience upgrades and looting – but the gameplay gets a bit worn the longer you play. So is the story enough of a draw to push this into the buy column for you? How about the prospect of having a game experience you and your friends can share? If neither of these things would push you from the undecided column to the must-buy column, approach this one with a bit more trepidation.