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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 credits.
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 points.
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.
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