Videogames based upon The Lord of the Rings universe have been almost universally middling. Other than the PC exclusive MMORPG, Shadows of Angmar and its expansion, Mines of Moria, few games released under the Lord of the Rings banner have reached far beyond the mundane. They’re rarely flat out bad, but equally, few have come anywhere near matching the quality of the movies upon which they are based. In terms of console releases, Lord of the Rings: War in the North comes closer to greatness than any of its predecessors, but sadly, like all those that have come before, fails to realise the huge potential born of the source material.
Honestly though, War in the North could have been great. Loot + co-op x Lord of the Rings really should equal awesome, and, in fairness to War in the North, it so nearly does. The loot system delivers plenty of incentives to keep progressing while the co-op for up to three players is a very welcome addition to what is an otherwise by-the-numbers action-RPG. It looks decent, has a solid story and captures that unique Lord of the Rings vibe. Rather than looking like just another fantasy RPG, War in the North genuinely feels like part of the expanded universe. Problem is, it’s also a tad repetitive, suffers from a handful of technical issues and perhaps more importantly than anything else…..is released in the same window as Skyrim.
Really? Whose fantastic idea was that? As enjoyable as much of War in the North is and as much sway as The Lord of the Rings name might still possess, to go head-to-head with Bathesda’s juggernaut is commercial suicide. It may well be played from a third person perspective and is certainly more of a linear, story-driven quest than Skyrim’s vast, open world, but there is little doubt that the two fall into the same category. As much as I enjoyed War in the North, the fact of the matter is, it’s no Skyrim, and unless you’re a Lord of the Rings die-hard, I assume that you will agree.
Skrim aside though, when judged upon its own merits, War in the North is well worth a look. With a story only hinted upon in the movies, War in the North provides a relatively engrossing tale that follows three adventures in their attempts to take down one of Sauron’s top boys – the rather evil looking, Agandaur. While the three playable characters, the human ranger, elven mage and warrior dwarf are far from what you might call recognisable faces, all of the trilogy’s major players make numerous appearances throughout the adventure that runs parallel to that of the core, ring-centric tale. With an impressive mix of familiar locations and all new environments, War in the North does a great job of expanding upon the strong visual style of the movies while linking effortlessly into what has come before from an artistic standpoint.
The delivery of the story is also worthy of note. While none of the original voice cast return, most of those brought in do a decent job of emulating their more famed peers (well, all except Aragon that is). The game’s numerous side characters also give surprisingly solid performances across the board with very few of the poorly delivered lines that the genre is famous for. In fact, despite their own solid performances, it is the lack of character found amidst the three leads that bring the general quality down. Although good at driving the story forward, even after pushing through the 11 hour + adventure, I had little to no idea who any of these characters really were. Despite their best efforts with the all too earnest script provided, those expecting classic Gimli/Legolas banter will be sorely disappointed.
The combat, which makes up the majority of the core gameplay won’t be keeping Dante or Bayonetta from their little needed beauty sleep, but in comparison to other games of this ilk it delivers a surprisingly varied and engrossing battle system to play with. After a string of basic attacks, a window of opportunity opens in which you can land a critical hit that sends you into Hero Mode allowing you to deliver increasingly powerful attacks until you are struck by one of the many enemies baying for your blood. It’s a simple system, but one that keeps the relatively rudimentary combat immediate and engaging. Things become more varied as you progress with further power moves and additional character specific skills opening up as you increase your player level via combat. There is even room for giant talking eagle attacks when partaking in open air combat – a welcome addition to any game as far as I’m concerned.
Like so much of the game though, the otherwise highly enjoyable combat is let down by a few niggling little issues. Beyond the suspect frame-rate that does take the occasional plunge, iffy hit detection, AI partners who love getting in the way and poor enemy block detection all combine to take the sheen of an otherwise top drawer set of mechanics.
Even without these technical issues though, the combat, and experience as a whole would still be let down by the overriding sense of repetition. Although visually diverse in terms of attack patterns and approach, much of War in the North is actually seen in the first few hours of gameplay. Boss battles do bring something unique to combat but even these are repeated with one template in particular repeated three times over. Solid long range combat and the continuous promise of dropped loot do keep things fresh to an extent, it’s just a shame that more hasn’t been done to diversify enemy attacks and tactics.
While fun played alone with two mostly useful AI partners along for the ride, War in the North is unsurprisingly more enjoyable when played with friends. With the option to play with one additional human player via local split-screen and two online, combat becomes markedly more interesting when experienced with others. Disparate player levels can cause problems online, but generally, battling out for loot and combining efforts to take on some of the games more sizable enemies is always a good laugh.
Hub locations such as the Prancing Pony and Rivendell look great and provide basic fetch quests and somewhere to buy, sell and repair goods, but otherwise feel painfully underused. They do push the narrative forward and offer plenty of opportunities for the story to introduce famous characters from the movies, but other than returning for these most basic of needs, these locations are rarely worth returning too once you have had a quick ganders. Despite the array of locations on the map promising a world that will slowly open up with progression, the fact of the matter is, for all intents and purposes, War in the North is a linear, stat driven hack ‘n’ slasher.
It’s far from perfect and will inevitably live in Skyrim’s sizable shadow, but for those who decide to take it on, War in the North will deliver a solid story, a mostly accomplished combat system and some extremely addictive loot-centric co-op gameplay. The array of minor but niggling technical issues keep it from greatness, but this is still a game that I had a great deal of fun with and certainly stands as the finest Lord of the Rings console videogame to date.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox 360 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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