Lord of the Rings: War in the North (PC)
Lord of the Rings: War in the North is the latest incarnation of all things Middle-earth. Developed by Snowblind Studios and distributed by Warner Bros, this RPG is a new story that runs in parallel with J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy and is a game that centres around 3 playable characters. These are a human ranger, an elven mage and a dwarven warrior. These heroes form their own little fellowship (dwarf? - pun intended!) and are tasked by Strider/Aragorn to take on Agandaur, one of Sauron's Lieutenants who can be found in, well - the North...
War in the North features real time combat, impactful character progression and a total focus on co-op play so this action RPG has all of the familiar trappings of the genre wrapped in the unique context of a classic fantasy novel.
When playing War in the North, we take control of a group comprising 3 warriors, either in multiplayer mode where two friends to take control of the other two fighters, or for those who have no mates, a single player game were the AI will control the other two fighters. Regardless of which of these options we choose, single or multi player, the game play is identical.
Once our sociability is decided we start the game with character selection. As stated above we have the choice of a dwarven warrior, an elven mage and a human ranger. As we expected this is a choice of a melee specialist, magic specialist, or range specialist Though it is worth noting that it is not possible to customise our characters at this point.
The main game then starts with a lengthy but charming cut scene which explains that Sauron's war against Middle-earth effects all parts of it. Following on from an attack at Sarn Ford by the 9 Black Riders we go to Prancing Pony
where we meet Strider/Aragorn a few days before Frodo arrives. We tell him of the attack and that the Black Riders met with Agandaur, one of Sauron's Lieutenants. Our party of three is tasked with delaying the gathering of Agandaur's army to the north, which gives Aragorn, Frodo and the rest of the hobbits a distraction that will help them to escape the Black Riders.
Plot established, quest given, we make our way out of the Prancing Pony
into Bree, Fornost and beyond. On this journey the environments that we experience fall into two types, a safe hub, like Bree and a mission hub. In the safe hub we have access to shops, enabling us to buy new equipment or sell loot and this is also that place where we discover most of the side quests. Every safe hub has at least 1 side quest and like the commerce aspect of War in the North side quest are discovered by utilising the RPG aspect of the game and interacting with the NPC's. It is also possible to chat with NPC's simply to find out more information about the back story.
The mission hubs are revealed after some dialogue in the safe hubs andin this area we find ourselves mainly fighting with little character interaction taking place. The enemy are of classic Middle-earth variety, Goblins, Orcs, bigger Orcs, really big Orcs, Trolls, Giant Spiders, the Undead and a Dragon. Other than fighting, which is the main way to gain experience points, these places also have a lot of loot to steel and a large number of secrets place to find, some of which unlock side quests. Generally speaking the mission hubs have an on the rails dungeon crawler feel, while the safe hubs have a slightly more open feel.
Traveling between locations is done by accessing a unique in-game glowing light object and then clicking on desired location on a map of Middle-earth.
As mentioned before during all this jaunting around Middle-earth we are part of a three person group. We directly control a character and have the ability to switch between the others at set points, unless we are playing as multiplayer, in which case the other characters are occupied. Each character has a unique set of abilities as well as attributes that can be augmented by the equipment that we carry. Additionally our abilities can be improved upon by gaining experience, which is achieved in combat or by completing quests. Once we have gained enough experience we go up a level and then spend the points on stats and abilities. Characters that are not under human control do not automatically assign the points.
Graphics and Audio
The visual aspects of War in the North take their inspiration from the LOTR films and the vistas have a breath-taking cinematic quality. The main NPC's like Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, Frodo, Bilbo, Legolas, Elrond and Arwen all look at lot like the actors that play them in Peter Jackson's films, though Liv Tyler's representation looks a bit rough.
Even the enemy we fight have a strong likeness to the recent Lord of the Rings films. The character modelling, faces and movement are excellent and the details and background are also extremely good, though static screenshots do not do them justive We were struck by the details of the falling leaves in one part of the first chapter and also the snow effects later on in the game as two particular highlights.
That said, visually, all is not well and could have been improved in two places. Firstly the characters have a tendency to put weapons and limbs through apparently solid objects and in some case levitate, fly (not a magic ability) and jump over huge areas. Secondly; while the details of the environments are great, they are repeated too frequently. The same tree or clump of grass will be next to five identical items orthe same broken step will be placed upon itself just round the corner from another identical set. While this didn't bother us at first, as we don't expect every aspect of the game to be uniquely rendered, by the end of the game it was very noticable. It meant that none of the environments felt much different from other which was a little disappointing.
Moving onto the audio, we found it to be near flawless. Voice acting is superb, again key characters sound a lot like the film actors and the music is enhancing but not distracting. The environmental sound effects are great; combat has a meaty crunch to it and the weather sound effects actually caused us to look out the window and check. On the down side, each special ability has an associated sound effect, this has its uses however can be somewhat annoying when frequently repeated.
User Experience and Conclusion
The great success of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, in our opinion, is the connection of the reader with the characters plight and social interaction. While War in the North attempts to emulate this we found that our characters revealing very little in the way of any personality or reason for their quest. Therefore any sense of levity that appears in the books and subsequent films is all but absent in War of the North. This coupled with the game's consequence free conversation system make it feel like a game focused more on the action aspect rather than the RPG.
This would be fine except for that fact that combat system is overly simplistic. Essentially it is a blend of melee and ranged combat, the ranger more adept at bow and arrow combat while the dwarf an expert axe wielder.Though they'll each be able to lean the other way when necessary. Combat, both ranged and melee has three unlockable abilities, a light attack and a heavy attack. This means that combat consists of repeatedly pressing left mouse button, occasionally pressing 1, 2, or 3 and sometimes pressing right mouse button to finish the enemy or break their guard. It's not all bad though because if we put together a string of hits we are rewarded with a limb severingly bloody deathblow that results in extra experience and explains the games 15 rating.
The other aspect of this game which we felt needed expansion is the lack of multiplayer or should that be single player? In essence multi or single play is the same and might well have benefitted from more of a distinction between the two. One example would have been to allow more control of the AI characters during the gameplay as this aspect is very limited.
Despite the niggles and occasional graphics glitches there is no denying that the overall experience in War in the North is one of enjoyment, especially for fans of the franchise and as a result we still played this game until 4am and spend a couple of days existing on alarmingly brightly coloured corn snacks and coffee. It does have an engrossing playability despite the repetition and lack of character expansion so if you like action RPGs or are a fan of Tolkien and the fantasy genre then you will like Lord of the Rings: War in the North. 83%