Without the influence and writings of a certain founder member of the “Inklings” group of Oxford scribes, the whole fantasy-RPG genre probably wouldn’t exist. So when you see any game based on the works of J.R.R Tolkein, taking place in the amazing intricate worlds his imagination constructed, you have to sit up and take notice.
Even if your only exposure to Middle Earth comes from watching Peter Jackson’s movie treatment of “The Lord of the Rings”, you can’t dismiss the influence of one of the most widely recognised and best selling fantasy series ever committed to paper or celluloid.
The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is a new fantasy action role playing game from Snowblind Studios / Warner Interactive. Wrestling the LOTR license from EA, Warner’s development teams have taken an in-depth look at the world of Middle Earth, its best loved and most popular characters, and the fantastic settings for the LOTR novels, offering a rich and detailed parallel history that takes place a short time before events in “The Fellowship of the Ring”.
A trio of characters form their own alliance to combat Sauron’s influence in the northern territories of Middle Earth. With sheer strength, weapon skills and magical abilities, an elf, a ranger and a dwarf team up to fight on an entirely new front to prevent the incursion of Sauron’s forces into the Shire. While dark riders and orcs are seen in the vicinity, the trio set out to attack Sauron’s strongholds before reinforcements can be mustered.
Releasing an RPG title – even one with a focus on action – anywhere near the mighty Skyrim may seem foolhardy. War in the North is different enough to be worth having a closer look at though, despite this.
For starters, it makes no bones about its combat focus. If you’ve ever played games like Dynasty Warriors or Nintey-Nine Nights, you’ll instantly be on familiar ground with War in the North’s mix of melee and ranged combat. Once you’ve chosen which character you’ll control (with the ability to team up co-operatively both online and locally with another two players) you’re thrown right into the thick of the action.
Choosing Eradan (the ranger) gives you a fairly balanced character with extensive combat and some magical abilities.
Andriel (the elf) is a loremaster of Rivendell, and has the ability to call on her magical skills and mastery of the combat staff to lay waste to Sauron’s forces.
Finally, Farin (the dwarf) has the stamina and dexterity to wield most weapon classes. Stronger on melee combat than ranged, and with weaker magical abilities, he’s strictly a no-nonsense strongarm in a fight and despite his diminuitive stature, is a force to be reckoned with.
Attacking the game in single player mode allows you to switch between the three character classes at the end of each chapter, so you can level up and improve the skills of each character in turn. In co-op mode, each player can level up and change their character’s weapons, armour and equipment on the fly.
War in the North makes loud noises about the need for cooperation if you are playing alongside your friends. It’s very tempting to go mad looting every body or treasure chest you encounter along the way, but hogging the goodies and leaving your cohorts in the lurch will only get you so far. When you are relying on your fellowship to revive you if you’re put down during a battle, it’s probably a fairly good idea to share and share alike when it comes to the spoils of war. Put it this way, would you revive your friends if they’d stolen that juicy piece of equipment that should’ve been rightfully yours?
It really is a looter’s paradise though, this game. Downed enemies will often drop money, which can be spent in the game’s various towns and villages on extra items or better weapons. You can also scavenge for weapons and armour items (but the majority of weapons found in this way are unreliable and can let you down in the heat of battle, so be warned).
Deep and multifaceted looting is one of the game’s strengths. Simple and accessible character levelling is another, and it’s very easy to swiftly improve your skills and abilities by spending your experience points. The more intense the fight and the tougher the enemy, the more XP you’ll harvest at the end of a battle and the quicker you can become a seriously dangerous character.
War in the North is polished to a high sheen. On the PS3 version tested, the visuals are absolutely stunning – and dare I say that they’re far better than Skyrim’s for both characters and game environments. Animation can be a little stilted in places, particularly the way enemies move and fight. Larger characters in the game, including the truly stunning giant eagle Beleram, are amazingly detailed and really do look like they’ve had a lot of attention lavished on making them fit well into each scene of the game.
The main campaign storyline is complimented by exquisite cut scenes, utilising the look and feel of the movies. They flesh out the quest and when they cross into familiar territory or feature characters you’ll have already encountered from the books or the movies, you’ll feel that the team have done their homework properly and have fully embraced Tolkein’s mythos.
For me, the game starts to unravel around the edges when you realise how relentless enemy attacks are, and how repetitive things can feel when you’re in the heat of battle and have to wait for an invisible spawn counter to trip past a certain level before you can progress. Combat is the focus, and because of this you often feel like the game’s going cheap on the RPG and puzzle-solving elements in order to force the player into repeated cycles of testing out their new level skills, or a weapon they picked up in a previous sequence.
If you’re the sort of RPG player who would rather get on with the action than listen to hundreds of NPCs offer up tiny snippets of information about your quest, you may well enjoy War in the North’s approach. The combat-heavy balance even underpinned as it is by some truly stunning set pieces, might alienate the type of RPG player who wants to imagine oceans of depth bubbling away under the surface of a game. War in the North makes no bones about being fairly linear but I actually prefer more linear games anyway, so it suited me despite the repetitive nature of the combat sequences.
What you’re getting here is a game that is accesible and approachable for non-RPGers looking for something a little different, but something that might feel too rigid and shallow for gamers currently wrapped up in Skyrim and its ilk. It’s all very competently done, and certainly pays homage to the characters and works of Tolkein as well as the movie treatments. If there’s room in your life for another fantasy game other than Skyrim this month, and if you fancy something you can tackle with a couple of friends in tow, give it a try.