Eradan, the human ranger, drew back his bowstring and
unleashed a flurry of arrows at the charging orcs. His shots hit their target,
though the foes continued to rush. Some stopped to fire off ranged attacks of
their own, but their missiles bounced harmlessly off the elven Loremaster
Andriel’s protective magical shield. Finally, once they were close enough, the dwarven
champion Farin met them on the field of battle, hacking apart the orcs. He spun
around, slicing down the smaller goblins in a powerful swing, before finishing
off the larger enemies with the help of his allies. As their bodies fell in a
heap of blood and limbs a large, angry troll burst out from behind a cave wall.
It took the combined forces of all three warriors (and the aid of a giant eagle,
summoned by the trio) to take him down.
All right, now repeat that for about ten hours. Roll
Above: We're hoping for a spinoff entitled "Eradan: Blood on the Ice."
War in the North is an unorthodox Lord of the Rings game.
While it takes place during the events in the books and the film (and uses
materials from both), it doesn’t actually follow the fellowship carrying the
ring to Mordor. Instead, it tells the tale of a band of three warriors fighting
an important battle in the northern regions of Middle Earth against Sauron's
top lieutenant, Agandaur.
While the narrative isn’t that strong and the characters
aren’t incredibly well developed, War in the North has several features that
help make us feel connected to the world and our characters. It features fairly
typical dialog trees like those found in Mass Effect, but instead of pushing us
into making moral choices, they let us decide how immersed our characters are
in the Lord of the Rings lore. We got to choose whether or not our characters
knew other popular icons of Middle Earth like Bilbo, Gandalf, and Legolas with
simple dialog choices, as well as deciding how much they know about the world
itself. When someone says that the party is to travel to Mirkwood we could
either inquire about the details of the location or spout them off ourselves –
it’s an interesting choice, and one that paid off.
Above: That goblin is going to go flying through the air.
In order to stop Agandaur, we needed to join a fellowship of
our own, made up of Eradan, a human ranger, Andriel, the elven Loremaster, and
Farin, the dwarven Champion. As we leveled up we not only leveled up the
character we played as, but the other characters as well, and we had the option
to switch between them whenever we started the game – an option we never really
took advantage of, but appreciated the existence of.
We preferred to stick to
one character and travel through both well-known and often forgotten areas of
Middle Earth while chopping apart foes. And when we say chopping apart, we mean
chopping apart. Another way War in the North sets itself apart is with its
rating: it’s the only M-rated Lord of the Rings game to date and features brutal,
bloody violence. Heads, arms, and legs are sliced off, and blood will often
coat the characters after a battle.
Above. Armless. Get it? Ha!
The combat might be simplistic, but it’s also incredibly
fun, as is customizing our characters with skills, abilities, and items. More
than bodies would fall to the ground once an enemy was killed – weapons and
armor also drop, scratching our loot-farm itch by giving us plenty of excuses
to switch out armor and weapons to perfectly customize our character. Each
character can be built in a number of ways, and we enjoyed exploring the
different options and growing in power as we fought more trolls.
Therein lies the problem: as we made our way through the
game we didn’t find that we were coming up against more interesting battles,
just larger versions of battles from earlier in the game. We’d fight two trolls
at once or three big enemies at a time. There are actually only a handful of
enemy archetypes to begin with and almost all of them are introduced by the end
of the first level. There are the small enemies that die in two hits; the
slightly larger foes that take a few more; the big, rough bad guys that need to
be beat on for a while before they drop; and trolls. There are some minor
variations here and there, but it doesn’t matter if they’re orcs, skeletons, or
spiders – they all fall into these four categories. Sure, some have bows and
some use magic, but there’s never any new types of battles, just the same
fights over and over again.
Above: Get used to fighting trolls, you'll be doing it a lot.
The lack of enemy variety wasn’t as detrimental when we
played with friends, and that’s absolutely the best way to play the game if
you’re able. Playing it alone is still fun, even if there are some weird issues
that make us think the developers didn’t intend for it to be a solo experience.
The best example of this comes from the AI-controlled teammates, which are
competent allies if not for one, glaring issue. As we played through the game
alone we noticed that our teammates seemed to be less and less effective. Once
the end of the game rolled around we changed characters and found out what had
gone wrong: the computer-controlled characters couldn’t equip any of the items
we had given them because they didn’t spend any of their attribute or skill
Armor and weapons sat uselessly in their inventory as the
game waited for us to quit the game and load up the teammates individually to spend
their skill points – something the game never even hinted was necessary. It
makes sense, in a way, because changing between characters wouldn’t be as fun
if the computer leveled them up for us (and spent skill points on abilities we
didn’t care about), but we should have been able to make changes to our
fellowship without leaving the game. Nearly every other RPG lets us manage our
party this way, why doesn’t War in the North? There are other strange design
choices as well, such as mediocre, optional side-quests that fly in the face of
the plotline’s urgency, and an interface that can make even the simple task of
repairing items feel cumbersome.
Above: Three warriors against an army of orcs. We like our odds.
While it doesn’t reach the heights we wished it would, War
in the North is still a solid experience with more than enough content to
justify checking it out. The combination of action-packed combat, RPG elements,
and iconic Tolkien vibe make it worth a look for anyone looking for a bloody
good time, even if they don’t typically care about the stories of Frodo,
Gandalf, and the rest of the fellowship.