Review: Lord of the Rings – War in the North (X360)

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War in the North takes players back to Middle Earth to fight evil while Frodo and company head to Mordor to destroy the One Ring. Taking place in the North, would-be adventurers will play their part in stemming the tide of darkness waiting to erupt from the cold, wintry holds there.

Players will rub virtual elbows with the big names from the story such
as Bilbo and Frodo within the small interludes set between the major
chapters, all of whom make numerous references that tie this “side
story” into the major arc. Tolkien didn’t write this story, but the lore
does a decent job in keeping these particular characters well out of
the way of Peter Jackson’s interpretation by nimbly dancing along its
edges while at the same time providing plenty of context to satiate
fans.

But don’t expect anything more than the basics when it comes to dialogue. Players wishing to know more about the world the game takes place in can indulge in the extra choices that talking to NPCs can offer up, sometimes leading to extra quests for goodies and experience. If you’re more interested in seeing more heads roll, however, the game advises you to literally button mash your way through the conversation choices to speed things along and focus on what it does best.

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The goal is straightforward stuff – find Sauron’s Right
Hand, a towering evil named Agandaur, and stop his plans before he tears
through the North with an army of evil. The gameplay, on the other
hand, takes as much creative liberty with Tolkien’s world as EA’s
movie-tie ins had with spells sallying forth as medieval bullets and
enough gory decapitations and dismemberments to make Mel Gibson’s
Braveheart blush with envy.

This is a standard, third-person hack ‘n slash action RPG with loot dropped from the dead, chests brimming with potential prizes such as armor or weapons, and experience points to earn new levels with and upgrade skills through. Three characters await selection: Eradan, a ranger skilled with dual weapons and a bow; Farin the Champion, a dwarven warrior skilled in melee and armed with a crossbow; and Andriel, the Loremaster of Rivendell who is skilled in magic wielding both staff and whatever else she can find.

Players can opt to jump in between these characters when starting a session or in following the completion of a section of one of the major areas. The downside is that you’re locked into whoever you’re playing at the moment with the others driven by the AI. You can’t actively switch between them while adventuring which limits some of your options such as being able to move them along when the pathfinding gets them stuck on a ledge…which happened to me at one point.

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Levels earned are shared across all of the characters though you won’t have to upgrade them individually if you prefer to stick with only one unless opting in as someone else. The AI also sees to their equipment and skill upgrades with both characters appearing to change their armor and weapons more often than I did while keeping up with my own progress. Unfortunately, there’s no way to manually inspect another character’s inventory and plan out their upgrades outside of taking control of them when the game lets you.

Going up in levels earns points that can be spent on attributes and a skill point that is used for the unique abilities that the three classes have to distinguish themselves. Picking a new character to play as will allow you to manually upgrade their stats and skills with a pool of points earned while you were playing as someone else.

No one class is really like any of the others with a nice selection of skills to focus and refine what they do best whether it is providing better healing as Andriel, raising the party’s effectiveness with Farin’s Warcry, or evading the enemy with ninja-like invisibility as Eradan right before delivering a critically damaging blow from the shadows. Many skills also have multiple upgrades attached to them providing further incentive to keep leveling up, though there isn’t a lot of grinding that is required as the difficulty and the XP rewards appear to scale reasonably well enough to avoid having to take too many side trips.

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But that’s only if there’s a way to leave whatever area you are in because War in the North is a largely  linear exercise in dungeon crawling, something that was also found with inXile’s Hunted earlier this year. What this means is that it won’t let you leave a zone until you reach certain points or finish the chapter out. Even worse news is that the autosaved checkpoints can also occasionally work against you. A brutal reminder of this was when I was stuck fighting a boss because the game’s autosave had trapped me there until I beat him. If you’re underpowered or had forgotten to fix your armor because it had worn down getting there, too bad. It’s do or die.

Another aggravating example was when I had to defend a door from being broken down. I didn’t do as good a job as I should have in keeping it intact, so the door was barely on its hinges when the last wave of bad guys came storming in – two giant trolls accompanied by a small group of dual wielding orcs.

Because the door was already beaten down pretty badly, this became a lightning round of slaughter, something that I failed to get through a number of times because someone would manage to sneak through and hit the door. Thanks to the autosave, there was nothing I really could do to escape the situation other than hoping that I could annihilate everyone in quick order. I managed to do this, but the repetition had only reminded me of how frustratingly broken the autosaves can make the game out to be.

Thanks to no manual save feature outside of forcing a save whenever you buy something at a shop or transition between areas, it makes it impossible to reload an earlier area to escape or when one wants to simply leave a zone to explore earlier places to slaughter more monsters. Until you finish with that area, and open it up for revisits later, you’re forced to plow on through until you make it to a magical teleporter where you can buy and sell items or teleport back to the last town that the story had launched you from. After the first area, the game slightly opens up as you proceed with the story but only because you now have more places to pick clean.

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Fortunately, the meaty combat tries to balance the linearity out with what the classes and their skill systems layer it with. Knowing when to use each skill at the right moments can mean the difference between another linear trip to where everyone had died or pushing forward to the end of an area adding variety to what could have become another button mashing series of battles. Each class is also different enough to focus on their particular strengths. Directly taking on bruising, giant-sized orcs wielding two handed hammers with Andriel’s support abilities might not be as smart if it were Farin or Eradan instead.

In addition to combat abilities, each character also has a special ability. Eradan can see ranger tracks to find caches of hidden goods, Farin can mine for gems at special locations, and Andriel can mix together ingredients for potions. Dying in combat isn’t necessarily the end, either. As long as any one character can make it to the downed companion, they can revive them by holding down on the “A” button as long as they aren’t interrupted. Most of the time, the AI will do its best to save you from death because if you die, it’s time to restart from the last autosave. On the other hand, if any of your AI companions go down, you can basically take your time to get back to them which is a good thing considering that everyone will be focused on who is left.

As for the loot, most of my gold came from selling off the extra junk found along the way and if you want to upgrade what space you have, forget it. Weapons and armor can be further augmented with magical gems adding a number of powerful advantages and some pieces are also part of a set that can bestow tremendous benefits if you piece them together.

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There are also special “challenge” areas in the game, such as Osgiliath, that are basically LOTR-inspired horde mode zones. Waves of enemies will attack you and your companions allowing you to earn experience and goodies if you want to take a break from the campaign. Exiting any one of these, ironically, is made easier with glowy spots indicating where you can end the challenge.

Co-op can also substitute the AI with two other online companions to share in the glory, though this is restricted by the difficulty level that you are playing at. Finishing the game can take around ten or fifteen hours depending on how much grinding you want to do or how many armor sets you want to try and piece together in the same way. It also automatically upgrades the difficulty level of your next playthrough, so if you want to go back and play a game with your friends that are struggling through a game set on “Normal” by bringing in a seasoned build, you can’t. And thanks to the linear saves that the game makes, there’s no way to go back before the game upgrades you other than in starting an entirely new one.

War in the North’s biggest problem isn’t that it’s cashing in on Lord of the Rings, but that it seems stuck in a place that most every other game has left behind. War in the North’s potential is simply suffocated by its linear conventions crushing whatever hopes I had for it to capitalize on what the lavish LOTR theatrics bring to the table.

Fans of everything LOTR might be able to forgive its shortcomings and there aren’t that many releases like this that dive into an old fashioned dungeon crawl with as much attention to its setting. Yet at the same time, if all you want is to mash through baddies and dialogue options, there are better ways to do this other than in being trapped within its one-track dungeons by things that no adventurer can fight against.

Lord of the Rings: War in the North
Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment / Snowblind Studios
Xbox 360 / PS3 / Microsoft Windows (reviewed on Xbox 360)
Rated: M for Mature