Lord of the Rings: War in the North
Developer: Snowblind Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Platform: Xbox 360(reviewed),PS3, PC
Release Date: 25th November
As the first M rated Lord of the Rings game, LOTR: War in the North marks a new era for the franchise. A new, bloody era. The Dark Alliance Game Engine sees lopped off Uruk-hai limbs, decapitated orc heads and goblins segmented into two right through the middle. Looking back at the films there’s actually less orc blood spraying around in them than there is here, as Peter Jackson’s depiction of battle avoided being gruesome enough to exceed a 12 rating. But the question on everybody’s lips is, does Lord of the Rings: War in the North have any substance behind the gore, or is it simply trying to cover up its imperfections with a generous coating of orc blood?
The story behind War in the North is non-canon: although Tolkein’s works did speak of people in the Northern regions of Middle Earth and their battle against Sauron’s dark forces, it was only touched upon when compared to the focus put on the Fellowship and the fate of the ring. In this sense Snowblind Studios had some freedom with it, while still having enough sceptical fans to prevent them doing anything too crazy. Their adaptation of Middle Earth takes after the style of the films. There are some locations recognisable from the works of Peter Jackson like Bree and the Prancing Pony, and areas which were never realised visually but only through description do well to stick to a style of presentation that lends itself to the Lord of the Rings universe.
Some familiar characters crop up; as far as I’m aware, it is Ian McKellen’s (Gandalf) voice doing the narrating (or at least a convincing sound-alike), which adds a fair bit of drama to proceedings. Sadly, others are rather less convincing, such as Aragorn, who sounds nothing like his silver screen counterpart. You feel the creators are on smoother terrain when making new characters that don’t have an onscreen likeness to live up to. Like, for example, Radagast the Brown, a wizard who’s in Tolkein’s literature but is never seen in Peter Jackson’s telling of events.
The alliance between the three protagonists appears to be something of Snowblind Studios’ invention; it comes together too nicely to have been written about in the books, acting only as the catalyst for the class system. The trio comprises Farin, a dwarf, Andriel, an elf, and Eradan, a ranger. Certain details could displease hardcore fans, like the ease at which Farin gets along with Andriel despite supposed hostility between the two races, or the fact that a dwarf uses a ranged weapon other than throwing axes (could you believe it – a dwarf with a bloody crossbow). Behind physical attributes, the characters personalities are bland and the performances are flat, meaning that although it’s Lord of the Rings so you are guaranteed an undercurrent of interest, the plot never truly grips you.
It may be billed as an action RPG but it doesn’t always differ that much from the old hack and slashers made to release alongside the movies. The numbers indicating damage done are just an attempt to disguise the tedious activity of using a mixture of X and Y to take down the waves of enemies. Plus, due to some larger foes not having health bars, it can be difficult to gauge progress in order to know if you’re getting anywhere and doing any damage. This isn’t being completely fair to it, though; there are ranged attacks too, with the elf shooting magic at a machine-gun-like rate, and the man and dwarf firing off arrows. It does vary combat, reverting to a first-person view when using your ranged weapon, but unfortunately the auto-aim is overpowered, which makes it difficult to pick out a desired enemy from a crowd as you’ll find it will automatically guide your shot into someone else.
While there’s no denying that slicing up orcs is fun – particularly on smaller enemies as it makes you feel more like a hero from the films when you do it with ease – the repetitive structure to gameplay quickly becomes apparent. It likes to give the impression that a vast world of Middle Earth is out there, but your path through it is fairly straight and narrow. The cycle is basic and repeats itself: get trapped in a closed off area, fight your way through the swarms of enemies, move on to the next areas and then the cycle begins anew.
The three player co-op, on the other hand, is Lord of the Rings: War in the North’s saving grace. Even if the combat is a bit dull, playing alongside another human player makes the game infinitely more enjoyable. Plus the three player niche isn’t something that’s always catered for, something to bear in mind for those of you with too many friends for two player co-op but not enough for four. Locally it supports two players and over Xbox Live it supports all three.
When playing single-player these cooperative aspects don’t vanish, though. Your AI companions are hardy fellows who can soak up a lot of damage. Although occasionally you will have to come to their rescue with the revive system, the more likely outcome is they’ll be reviving you. This essentially gives you infinite continues, at least until the harder boss battles. Your teammates are perhaps a little overpowered, but given how rapidly your health bar declines, ultimately it works out for the better and you come to accept it.
Visuals & Audio:
Graphically, it’s a fine virtual embodiment of Middle Earth, probably the most beautiful representation of it in a videogame. During your journey you see different weather conditions, times of day, and areas old and new. Aspects that didn’t appear in the films are in keeping with Peter Jackson’s vision for Middle Earth. There are some tiny visual bugs where a stray collectible gets lost on a lump of unreachable decorative rubble, or a non-playable character model doesn’t behave how it should when it gets snagged on a piece of scenery. But, these minor offences aside, it’s a convincing setting for the War in the North. As for the sound, as I said before, the voicing doesn’t do wonders for the story. Other than that, though, there’s subtle music and the typical sounds of someone smashing a melon with a mallet to accompany combat.
Lord of the Rings: War in the North isn’t all that bad; sure, the story isn’t well-executed and the nature of gameplay means it gets repetitive, but is does a cracking co-op and visually it’s very pretty. It’s just a shame it released so soon after the rather Lord of the Rings-esque Skyrim, hence it’s likely to be overlooked. Still, if you prefer your adventures to be a bit more straight-forward then this is worth playing with a couple of mates. This extension of the franchise, however, could evoke a mixed reaction from Lord of the Rings fans, as the various pros and cons mean they’ll either be delighted or disgusted.