Lord of the Rings: War in the North is a co-op action RPG in that takes place in J.R.R. Tolkien’s famed fantasy universe, and details the events that occur around The Lord of the Rings, but which doesn’t actually include many of the actual written events from the story. The game follows the style of the films, but also includes many settings and characters from the book. Personally, I love The Lord of the Rings series. I make a point of reading the entire series through at least once every two years or so. But those are the books. The question is: does this game capture the essence of The Lord of the Rings? Or is it best consigned to the Cracks of Doom? Let’s find out.
Since this is a video game review, you’re going to get a small smattering of video game history here, since you may not be aware of War in the North‘s pedigree. If you’re a fan of RPGs, you’ll recognize the names Black Isle Studios and BioWare, the wonderful people who created the classic PC RPG Baldur’s Gate. The sequel to the game, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, was created Snowblind Studios (the history of WHY this was the case is a little too much for this review), and to this end, Snowblind created the Dark Alliance Engine to run the game’s graphics. The Dark Alliance Engine saw most of its use on the PS2 and original Xbox (notably for the hilarious Bard’s Tale spoof RPG), but the engine has since been upgraded from it’s last-gen habitat to bring us War in the North. That’s enough history for now, though. Let’s see what this game is about.
Lord of the Rings: War in the North follows the adventures of three characters: Farin son of Norin, a dwarf warrior (a character class called “Champion” for this game), Eredan son of Baranor, a human ranger (Dúnadan in the lore of Middle Earth, and also incidentally the same class as Aragorn), and Andriel of Rivendell, the token female mage (called a “Loremaster” in this game). The plot of the game follows what events were transpiring in the north of Middle Earth while Frodo and his companions were merrily skipping along the road from the Shire toward Mordor. The game introduces one of Sauron’s lieutentants, Agandaûr (pronounced “agg-an-dower” for those of you unused to Tolkien’s usage of non-standard letters), as this game’s Big Bad. Along the way to figuring out what Agandaûr is up to, you’ll take the heroes wading through swathes of goblins, undead, trolls, and other such Tolkienesque monsters. You’ll also run into many of the characters from the films and the novels, so for anyone who is a massive fan of the series, it’s a treat meeting some of the characters in person.
I would be lying if I said that the upgraded Dark Alliance Engine didn’t look pretty, because the game is definitely incredibly atmospheric and suitably moody, as befits the scenario. Whether you’re flouncing about the Barrow Downs, or larking about on the Ettenmoors, the game depicts the settings much in the way you might have imagined it. Settings that take place in the films, such as Bree and Rivendell, for instance, are also depicted according to the film’s portrayals. And where the artists had to take bits of inspiration from both, it was faithful enough that it didn’t feel out of place. For example, it was interesting coming face to face with Elladan and Elrohir, the two sons of Elrond, early on in the game, because even if you weren’t aware that they were Elrond’s sons, their faces are so closely modelled on Hugo Weaving’s that it’s impossible to come to any other conclusion!
As I mentioned before, the game is a co-op RPG, and as you might have surmised by now, gameplay supports up to three players. If you’re playing all on your one-sy, the other two allies will be controlled by the AI. The game AI isn’t too bad, and support usually comes fast enough as needed. You can issue some basic commands—attack, defend, that sort of thing—but it’s no replacement for real people. One thing to note is that you cannot switch characters mid-game. If you need some healing done or some extra muscle to help out, you’re stuck with relying on the AI. If you want to try playing as one of the others, you have to quit the game session, go back to the intro screen, and reselect the character from there (and pick things up from the last checkpoint). If you do this, note that you will also have to change the weaponry and equipment that the character is using, since the the other characters don’t maintain what equipment they’ve chosen or what skills they’ve levelled up. Trust me, you’re far better off playing this game in pure co-op. One good reason for this is that each of the characters can perceive the world differently, and if you want to maximize the loot you get from the game, you’re going to need all three pairs of eyes represented by human players. No offence to any elves, dwarves, or hobbits out there.
Still, the action works for this game, even if the action IS a mite on the shallow and repetitive side. The game is quite brutal, and you get extra points for violent and messy kills. Enemies come at you in satisfying numbers, and at the higher difficulties you’re going to have quite a challenge on your hands. The game tries to straddle the “action” and “RPG” platforms a little too much though, and never quiet makes a success or failure of either. The game mechanics are nothing we’ve not seen before, and even the skills are fairly run-of-the-mill, with nothing to make you say “Holy wow! Did you see that!?!”
The sound, likewise, is nothing too out of the ordinary, although in my opinion it would have stood the developers in good stead to actually get the original actors to rehash their parts. It was incredibly weird seeing someone with Aragorn’s face talking, but it wasn’t with Viggo Mortensen’s voice. Likewise with Arwen. The music is composed by Inon Zur, who, if you follow video game music composers, will know as the artist who composed the music for the Dragon Age series of games, amongst a whole host of others, including Prince of Persia, Fallout, and Ace Combat. No complaint here, though. I’m a huge fan of Mr. Zur’s music, and the composition works wonders in this game, and may perhaps be one of the best things about it.
I think the worst part, in counterpoint, is the fact that it’s almost painfully clear that the story is was not written by Mr. Tolkien himself. It was perhaps written by someone who knows an awful lot about Middle Earth, but definitely not anyone with even the same level of proficiency at character and setting as Mr. Tolkien. I honestly couldn’t find myself identifying or feeling any empathy for any of the characters you play with. Even with the voice of the talented Nolan “I must voice every game” North as Eredan.
At the end of it, I felt the game was a little on the bland side, and also possibly ill-timed. It had to contend with a ridiculous number of anticipated releases, and in all the hype of the other games, this one was a little lost. Perhaps if this game had been delayed somewhat and its release timed to coincide with the release of The Hobbit later on this year, it might have seen a bit more traction, as well as give the studio time to polish up its flaws. Still, its co-op is top notch, and that alone drives the score up, provided you are playing this game with friends (it supports split screen play!). The action might be a little button-mashy and repetitive, but it’s not bad, just…average. In the hands of a more competent writer and with better timing, I think this game could have been a brilliant, worthy addition to the Middle Earth universe. As it stands, however, it’s just merely something slightly short of magical.
Final Score: 7 hobbit-sized prawns out of 10 (only reason it’s not 6 is that the co-op is actually awesome fun)
Developer: Snowblind Studios
Publisher: Warner Brothers
Platform: PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360, Windows
RRP: R599 (PS3, 360), R399 (PC)
Age Rating: 18