With two new The Lord of the Rings movies scheduled for release in 2012 and 2013 (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Hobbit: There and Back Again), Warner Bros Interactive has decided to build on the renewed interest in the LOTR franchise with a new action-RPG game. Lord of the Rings: War in the North is a new (there’s a lot of new to spread about) Middle Earth story that takes place around the events the lead to the Sauron’s demise. While the RPG and battle elements don’t introduce anything revolutionary, the beautiful set pieces do a great job in bringing to life LOTR as written by Tolkien and visualized for the big screen by Peter Jackson. This game may have some of the licensed game stigma attached to it, but it is one of the best LOTR games yet and makes chopping off orc heads fun (just in case you thought it wasn’t).
War in the North begins with a familiar face and location. Aragorn, the Dúnedain, is sitting at the Prancing Pony inn/tavern in Bree. The story begins just days before Frodo and his fellow Hobbits set out with the One Ring. Farin the Dwarf, Eradan the Ranger (one of the Dúnedain) and Andriel the Elf have started their own unique fellowship. The three meet up with Aragorn to warn him about the nine riders heading for the Shire. They have news that The Witch King has met with Agandaur, the right hand of Sauron. In order to distract the all-seeing Eye from the Shire and put a wrench in Agandaur’s plans, Aragorn advises the three to set out for Formost.
After the opening sequence, players are given the option to walk up to Aragorn and engage in conversation. Although there are options, the conversation isn’t too dynamic. This may seem like a result of being the first conversation in the game, but you soon discover that most of the conversations are paper-thin. There are a few times when you will feel like you are affecting the story, such as when you speak with Elrond’s elves. However, for the most part, the conversation tree presents a two to three options and then it is time to move on with the action.
The game presents your typical RPG style weapon and loot system. Gamers can pick up weapons wherever they go, stop by stores to buy and sell goods and also visit local blacksmiths to get their weapons repaired. While swapping out your various crossbows and longbows may have little visual effect, the dwarf at least gets to switch between two-handed swords, axes or a combination of shield and weapon. It’s great to play with Farin and hack off the heads of orcs and other foul beasts.
Unfortunately, the combat tends to get monotonous at times. You shift from one area to the next, button mashing your way through hordes of enemies. None of the standard attacks or combinations are memorable. I’ve read the books and watched all three movies. Reading or seeing Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) in action always had an awe-inspiring feel to it. The three adventurers in the War in the North are as plain vanilla as it gets. There are a few skills that can be added to your arsenal with experience. Giving your dwarf the power to shoot multiple crossbows is a boon, but his supposed critical attack looks just like any other attack. Andriel probably has the most useful power. She casts a dome that replenishes your strength when you stand in it.
One of the best special features in this game is the ability to call Beleram the Eagle. He swoops down from the sky and pecks away at your enemies. Using Beleram is limited, but he always shows up just when you need him or if there is a giant troll running loose.
War in the North is always played as a three-person party. In the single player mode, you can only upgrade the character you are playing with. If you want to upgrade the other characters, you will have to wait until the next scene and switch the character out. Unfortunately, now you can’t upgrade the character you started with. It is a little frustrating since most RPG games allow you to dynamically upgrade and modify characters in your party. Also, AI members of your party will always block your way. This happens much too often after you clear one setting and want to move onto the next. I found that Eradan just liked to hang out on bridges all the time.
There is no real way to adjust the tactics of your party either. You can press up on the D-Pad to command your team to attack or press down so that they defend. I found that the only use for this was when I needed to move on to another area. I would press down so that my teammates would follow me. It would be great if I could have told them to hide for cover at times or if they actually defended me when I used a fire cannon to attack waves of remote enemies. Too often, an enemy would sneak up behind me and pull me away, forcing me get down and dirty.
While the combat may feel a little monotonous at times, the story drives you forward in the quest to take down Sauron and usher in the Fourth Age. As I played through the game, I always wanted to continue on and see how this story would end. The meaty campaign presents cut scenes at just the right moments without being too much or too little. The story may not have the depth of one of main novels, but it still is a wonderful game that is true to Middle Earth. Most of the character voicing was excellent. However, I found it difficult to play with Farin who lacked the more gruff voice of Gimli (Rhys-Davies) from the movie.
Fans of the fiction will revel in The Lord of the Rings: War in the North. The gameplay may not offer anything new with regards to the action or RPG elements, but this game does give you a glimpse at what could come from a Hobbit game done by Snowblind Studios and WB Games. Hopefully, the teams will amp up the combat system and give gamers more fantastical attacks to really capture the spirit of this legendary world. For now, I’ll just chop off a few more orc heads with my trustee axe.