One of the great things about Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings cycle is that it is, almost literally, just the tip of the rather large iceberg of work he generated when he created Middle Earth. Standing in the mists of time before Frodo and Aragorn are three long ages of history, gods and monsters that would make Sauron positively piss himself, and a rich cultural tapestry that is profoundly deep. If you, like me, are the kind of fan that loves to immerse him or herself in the other parts of Middle Earth and you’re a gamer (which is a safe bet if you’re reading this), then Snowblind’s Lord of the Rings: War in the North, is like candy to a diabetic.
It’s an irresistible treat, in other words, but the analogy holds more water than that. It is a lot of fun, but like candy, it’s doesn’t have any real substance to it, and too much can get very, very tiring.
And my [insert weapon here]
War in the North is based upon references in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that there was more going on in Middle Earth than what the Fellowship encountered. While Gondor was under threat, armies were marching on other powers not explicitly mentioned. It’s a heady idea but if Snowblind’s done anything wrong, it’s that it hasn’t gone quite far enough.
It’s nice to have a game that doesn’t simply plonk you down as Aragorn, but at the same time these characters are just as set in stone. You can choose from the Ranger Eradan, the Dwarven warrior Farin, or the Elven Loremaster Andriel; for balance reasons, you’ll always have this ranged, melee, magic split, and for story reasons you’ll be stuck with these three characters. Again, it’s bit of an issue, because the story just isn’t as deep as we’d like – and will disappoint those who dig exploring Middle Earth.
The thing that War in the North really takes away from the movies is the combat, that sense of weight and dynamic action that the film really nailed. It does so with such devotion that the game is more hack-and-slash than RPG; it’s like Diablo, really, from a different camera perspective. Which is not to say that the combat is unsatisfying; in fact, it’s possibly one of the better games of this style that we’ve seen recently. It’s certainly better than Hunted: The Demon’s Forge. Whether you’re the healing-focused Elf, or the shooty Ranger, the branching skill paths you can unlock let you work on making your character fight just the way you want. As Ranger Eradan (who we just call Ranger Dan) for example, you can focus on melee or ranged attacks, and beyond those there’s room for serious tweaking. With the immense amount of loot you find on dead things and hidden chests, you’ll soon have a character that is skilled and geared just the way you want.
That’s not to omit your Great Eagle pal, Beleram: calling him down to smite enemies is just too much fun, and adds a layer of epic-ness to the game that is actually quite immersive.
As fun as the combat is, though, it does dominate the game. Open-ended level design, pacing, and plot all take second place to creating linear combat arenas. Some of them are rather stunning, and all the Orc-hunting is certainly fun, but we can’t quite escape the feeling that a deeper plot – or even a plot with some far-reaching repercussions or more player control – wouldn’t go astray.
More fun with two
This game is ultimately all about co-op action, and with friends along for the ride, the game overcomes much of its flaws as you cry out for healing, or for help downing a tough opponent. Played solo, though, the game’s flaws are exacerbated, especially considering the rather pedestrian fellowship AI. So, stock up on snacks, friends and caffeine, and the game can be fun. But maybe don’t invite your seriously nerdy, Middle Earth-loving pals.