Very few games released today can boast that they feature character models and a roster of voice impersonators that help bring to life characters originally portrayed by Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, and Orlando Bloom – albeit somewhat poorly. Even fewer games aimed at the more hardcore gaming crowd are being released at the moment, thanks to a slew of the industry blockbuster releases of late like SMS of Duty: Modern Gun Edition 7, Battleyard 3, Killer For Hire: Nickleback and Old Pieces of Paper V: Skyedge.
As a brand, Lord of the Rings is definitely a heavy hitter in most fields, an arguable masterpiece, and one that featured an almost seamless transition from book to silver screen. But in gaming it has yet to really make its mark felt in the way something like Star Wars has. And when each new game brings with it a question of whether or not it’s based on the books or films (as they’re separate licenses) the answer is quite telling. Nobody cares. So, in what initially feels like a “hey we still have this licence so let’s release a game because most people including certain reviewers in Australia have forgotten about it” cash-grab, War in the North turns out to be a somewhat competent action-RPG.
Taking place in the same timeline as the classic fantasy film trilogy that came out a few weeks short of a decade ago, War in the North, puts players in control of one of three generic like-for-likes Fellowship of the Ring wannabes. There’s the Aragorn-like ranger who can dual-wield blades and also use his bow to shoot orcs from afar, the Arwen-like Elf who can cast spells and defence wards (much like how this never happens in the films), and finally the Gimli-like Dwarf who uses a powerful two-handed axe to make short work of countless orcs. And by countless, we mean a shit load, as the game will remind you with an achievement unlock that comes relatively early in the game after a pretty hefty 600 enemy kills.
Moreover, much like the Fellowship of the Ring that they aren’t part of, after some movie-star autograph hunting in Rivendell (which much like it’s cinematic counterpart does look pretty impressive) they set off in the opposite direction, north (hence the title), in search of one of Sauron’s top generals whose also looking to raise a formidable army of goblins, trolls, and orcs. This is apparently in addition to the huge collaborative armies Sauron is amassing as established in both the books and films. This means that unlike the books and films, both story and character development serve as occupational hazards to the core gameplay of slaying orcs, looting, and levelling. To put it simply, the narrative is just a little bit boring.
But thankfully the core setting draws pretty much all of its visual appeal from the look of the films, which means that even though the developer was unable to create an engaging narrative outside of a well realised and charismatic Eagle, the years Weta spent creating a distinct fantasy look for the franchise in New Zealand is still great to look at. From well known locations featuring architecture and landscapes from all races of Middle Earth, the game features a solid visual engine that is hard to fault as you hack and slash your way through all the distinct locales.
As an action-RPG things fare a lot better, even if it is kept kinetic and quite simple in execution. Experience is doled out at a decent enough rate with stat and skill upgrades adding to the very action oriented style of gameplay. Combat itself is possibly the best part of the game, even if it lacks the fluidity that one would expect and some noticeable problems with very basic collision detection. It works because it allows for a very simple combo-based system that rewards players with timed critical strikes that result in some well animated power and execution moves as well as some handy experience point bonuses. Stringing together moves with an eye on hit counters and stat bonuses elevate this from your usual run of the mill hack and slash action game.
It also borrows from modern third-person action games where fallen players can be revived by the press of a button as opposed to the casting of a spell or the use of a Gaia’s Essence of Rejuvenation type potion. This gameplay element although small, helps bolster the feeling of working as a team, drawing on each player’s strengths, and helps the game become quite a bit of fun when played co-operatively - which by default makes any game focused on action a lot better. Although the game can be played solo, without the option to readily switch between characters, the result is an over-reliance on AI to be as helpful or varied as a human teammate would be.
The balance seen in the combat also extends to the loot system where boxes, crates, jars, chests, and countless enemy corpses pave the way for numerous items, equipment and coin to collect on a regular basis. As part of an action-RPG, the loot system is equally important as the combat system and thankfully War in the North realises this by giving the player a constant stream of the aforementioned killing, looting and levelling - which to fans of the genre will no doubt satiate their crack-addicted appetites for constant reward and repetition. In co-op this means fighting or out-running your teammate to open a chest or loot a boss’s corpse whereas strangely when played solo means you’ll only really find items for your character, gradually lessening the effectiveness of your AI controlled partners.
War in the North is also quite a lengthy game, which although sounds great on paper does work against the overall experience. Levels themselves are quite linear with very few branching paths, NPC interaction although used sparingly seems to get progressively more uninteresting as the game draws on. And then there is the large number of enemies you’ll encounter, which probably measures in the thousands, a fact that no doubt will deter most people.
But this is still a solid game, one that no doubt benefits from co-op, which it seems to have been designed for in a bid to recreate the feeling of a fellowship as seen in the first film of the trilogy. And although the impersonators are mostly laughable, the one that counts, Gandalf is surprisingly nearly spot on – which can be used to summarise the entire experience. As an action-RPG it most certainly is flawed, but it gets the important things right. And in this case that’s most certainly enough.