Reviewed: December 12, 2011
Released: November 1, 2011
The road goes ever on and on. . . or so any good adventurer should know. Over hill and dale and through forests and mountains, the road always runs off before you. Even at the end the road still stretches across the miles you havenít run, the turns you didnít take twist into the distance. That is the genesis for The Lord of the Rings: War in the North, the roads we havenít taken.|
By now we are all familiar with at least the Peter Jackson renderings of Middle Earth (Ten years? Seriously?), and the trail of the Fellowship is well worn for most of us. War in the North travels a slightly different path, up through the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood, across barrow land and orc infested caves and it follows an elf, a dwarf and a man united to stop a twisted arm of Sauron from conquering the north while all other eyes are focused southward after the ring. Thereís a tale to be told here, truthfully a tale or three, so sit down after a fine meal with a long pipe and fast friends for company to hear it through the telling.
Unfortunately, War in the North doesnít turn out quite as well as the phrasing above. There isnít anything to complain about as such; sure the controls are a button mash-fest and the targeting is at times less than stellar, but none of it is severe enough to be distracting. Lack of complaints has never been a selling point, though thatís the best that can be said about War in the North. The game is a competent execution of an action-RPG. . . and thatís it.
If I left the review here my editor would kill me, so letís look a little deeper. There are three characters to choose from in War in the North, a dwarf (tank/melee dps), an elf (ranged dps/heals) and a human (ranged or melee dps). Whichever you choose the three will be traveling together, either as AI in single player or with other people online (or *gasp* with a second controller). Even with defined roles, the characters are fairly interchangeable so character selection comes down to play style and skill more than needing a balanced party.
With your party assembled, War in the North plays like any RPG. You wander around town picking up random quests, venture into the wild to complete them and then return for a reward. What I will give the development team, despite how slapdash some of the questing seems (Middle Earth was a place of journeys, not one of errands), is that they did their homework. Yeah, you run into the big names from the Fellowship. Hobnob with Gandalf and Elrond in Rivendel, meet Aragorn in Bree. These are the easy hits.
More subtle is the inclusion of the Eagles as major characters and meeting with Radagast the Brown. More impressive stillÖthe Beornings. Sure, itís only a mention but it shows the team did a lot of background to try and create an authentic story for the game, which makes the inelegance of the game mechanics and, honestly, in some places just bad writing, all the more obvious. War in the North sets a fine table for you, but then fails to deliver a feast.
Getting out of town and sinking steel into orc flesh does little to ease the sting either. Combat is little more than slapping the light and heavy attack buttons as many times as necessary to kill something. You can dodge and block, and there are special attacks, but it comes down to a string of hits, a dodge and then repeat. Fights donít ever quite get boring and even on normal the game has itís challenges, but again there is nothing interesting.
Just as War in the North faithfully attempts to recreate Tolkienís world while taking you down new paths, it renders visuals from Peter Jacksonís interpretation with just as much fidelity. Armor and weaponry looks fresh off the forges from Wetaís workshops, goblins scurry and scuttle along walls, Uruk-hai charge with the fury of a landslide and trolls, well, trolls are big.
Rich as the visuals are they somehow seem unimpressive. Mountains tower above you and caverns open wide only to leave you yawning. The level design is partially to blame since youíre railroaded from the beginning, so it feels like youíre walking through an exceptionally thorough museum exhibit of Middle Earth. Even worse, nothing really moves unless itís an enemy or you interact with it. So Elrond stands at the entrance to his house. . . which is, well, a little small to be honest. . . and thatís all he does. Sure you can talk to him, but as soon as you walk away he goes back to silently staring off into the distance. Also? Itís always raining and night time in Bree.
The characters are passable resemblances to Viggo, Ian, Hugo and the gang though and most of the animation is fluid, but again it doesnít jump out and grab you. Also, while combat looks smooth, most of the hits just arenít as satisfying as you might like. Sure, you can take an orcís head off with a sweep of your staff (wow, that elf must work out), but even in slow motion it doesnít elicit the same visceral emotion as ripping the wings off a harpy as it squirms beneath your boot heel. Even the gore isnít shocking, which seems a shame as Snowblind went out of their way to make this an ĎMí rated title. There are plenty of decapitations and severed limbs, but they seem as clinically competent as the rest of the game: good but detached.
The nice touches they do have, the ability to customize your chosen characterís face and visual armor and weapon swaps, fall prey to the same problems. You have to find a mirror to change your characterís looks. Sure itís a smooth way to include the element, but if you never wander near a mirror then you arenít even going to see it. The same can be said for arms and equipment. It changes every time you slap on a new item, but not significantly. So this new robe looks much like the old one in shape and fit, just the color is a little different or itís more ornately woven. You donít have to pimp out every suit of armor in the game, but it would be nice to end up the game looking like youíve made some progress from the rags you started off in.
One of the things I always loved about Tolkien was his language. Even now, I can get ďDown Down to Goblin TownĒ or ďFifteen BirdsĒ rumbling about my head. This game has none of it. No songs sung at the inn, and the background music is completely forgettable. Youíd think they could have sampled the music from the movies if nothing else since this is licensed content anyway, but no. Voice acting is. . . actually decent in War in the North, aside from the creepy not quite original actorís voices. While some of the acting is a little wooden, at least there is some inflection and expression to the voices most often. Plus, they actually pronounce Tolkien properly (the big villainís name? Agandaur. And why canít I find the right phonetic script to write that correctly?)
War in the North takes about 15 hours to complete, give or take. Itís honestly a short game to get through the main plot with about 100% completion (I missed one quest turn in). With a couple challenge missions and new game plus (with higher difficult) there is some replay-ability, but at most thereís about 30 hours of content in the game. Wait, but what about online co-op? Honestly? Go play Lord of the Rings Online. I think itís free these days.
If youíre a diehard fan of Lord of the Rings and just have to have everything then War in the North will tide you over nicely till The Hobbit finally hits theatres. For anyone else, itís a competent rendition of an action RPG and worth the look if youíre done with Skyrim, but I wouldnít go out of my way to play this.