War of Northern Aggression
The downside to being a game reviewer is that, inevitably, your once favored hobby can start to become somewhat of a chore. You’ll find yourself forcing to play games just to get them up for the review (Or in our case, I Quitting if necessary). However, the upside to this situation is when you find yourself getting to review a game that you had little to no intent on picking up and playing on your own, but find it to be quite enjoyable. Lord of the Rings: War in the North was one of those generic looking hack and slash games that, after my distatestful encounter with Daggerdale, I was not thinking of playing through in the least. Thankfully though, because of my work here at the site, I got to play through a game that was enjoyable, faithful to the Tolkien license, and took me completely by surprise.
A Man, a Dwarf, and an Elf walk into a bar…
War in the North is the latest from Snowblind, makers of previous gen hack and slash classics Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath, and is set in the Lord of the Rings universe taking place starting just prior to Frodos departure from the Shire. The game follows the tale of 3 warriors, Eradan the human ranger, Farin the dwarven champion, and Andriel the elven mage, who are tasked by the heavy hitters of LotR lore (Basically Aragorn, Gandalf and Elrond) with fighting the leader of Saurons forces in the north Agandaur. This is a pretty basic and simple setup, but it works in that it gives the player something to do without falling into the trap of having the player just follow the original fellowship around. I actually liked the fact that there was no major destiny to be fulfilled by these three protagonists, they are basically just mercenaries hired by Elrond to keep an army distracted while Frodo does his thing. While characters from the series show up from time to time they never overstep their bounds and rarely do they overburden you with long-winded dialogue trees about what Frodo and friends have been up to.
There are multiple cameos from the major fellowship characters early in the game, but once the fellowship heads out you won’t see them again. This is great because it makes the game feel fresh not having to rehash events with these same characters over and over again. The only issue I had with these cameos is with their voice acting. It’s not bad or anything really, the problem comes with the fact that the game is based in the film universe of LotR, but the actors were not brought back to voice their roles. So while you are looking at Ian McKellan as Gandalf, you are hearing a completely different voice actor doing the dialogue and it becomes rather jarring. They could have gotten better sound alike actors to alleviate this, or just gone with a new look for the characters entirely and it really wouldn’t have made much of a difference. As it is, it isn’t a big detriment as you’ll only see these characters rarely, but it is an odd distraction early in the game.
Keeping with the motif of not retreading the same LotR tropes we have seen for years, the games environments are a refreshing change of pace as well. I was actually very impressed with the variety and choice of environments you will visit in this game. Let me be very clear here, you do not go to Moria in this game… EVER. This is a very good thing, as I think every LotR game by now has rehashed that damn dungeon enough. Here you’ll get to visit areas that were barely touched upon in the films such as the spider infested Mirkwood or the desolate Misty Mountains, and unlike that wimpy fellowship your three warriors are actually able to scale Caradhras. There are 8 chapters in the game and each chapter basically features a new location divided into subsections of smaller to digest combat areas. This is nice because it gives good areas to stop and take breaks from the game itself, or chances to travel back to the hub towns to get weapon repairs and complete side quests. The only issue I had with this was with the auto-save system not being particularly open about when it saves or doesn’t save. There are times during the game where it will allow you to teleport back to the hub town via lighted areas on the ground, however when you return back to the combat area the game will not have auto-saved before you left and you will find yourself back an entire checkpoint and have to fight all of the enemies you just cleared again. Because the areas are usually somewhat small this tends to mean a loss of 15 to 20 minutes work, but it is annoying nonetheless that it doesn’t auto-save BEFORE teleporting you back to the hub world.
And My Axe!
As War in the North is a hack and slash action RPG the meat and potatoes of the game is definitely it’s combat and this certainly isn’t your grandfathers Tolkien here. Combat is visceral, bloody, and brutal. You have your standard light attacks and heavy attacks, however the trick here is that hitting rapid succession of light attacks will build a combo meter and allow you to land a critical heavy strike. When performed correctly these critical strikes will often result in severed limbs, beheadings, or at least massive hemmorhaging with blood spurting out of your enemies onto the ground. The game certainly goes for an over the top violent style, much like God of War, which unfortunately means this one isn’t for the kids (But screw the kids, they have enough LotR games to keep them happy).
Each of the 3 characters behaves very differently in combat with their own skill tree of abilities dictating their fighting style. The dwarf is your heavy hitting damage dealing tank, his abilities allow him to output massive damage in short bursts while taking little to no damage to himself. The ranger is your rouge with the ability to turn invisible and deal heavy critical damage to unsuspecting foes. The elf is of course your healer who can cast a giant bubble shield to repel arrows and heal the group all at the same time. These abilities can all be upgraded such as giving the bubble heal an area of attack bonus on dispelling it, or allowing the ranger to attack from his stealth mode without losing his stealth bonus. Each character is also granted a special non-combat ability, so the dwarf can see breakable walls and knock them down for hidden treasures and the elf can pick herbs to craft potions. Each of the three characters also receives a ranged weapon, however as the dwarf and ranger are limited by the number of bolts they can carry, the elfs staff is only limited by her mana pool which refills automatically so she technically has an infinite number of projectiles. This is good as there are a number of enemies that force you to fight them at range, specifically the Barrow-wights, and as I was playing the dwarf would become increasingly annoyed when I ran out of arrows.
The final really cool thing about combat in the game is that you actually get an Eagle. While these guys only show up at the end of Lord of the Rings, they played a huge part in The Hobbit, and once again they do here. You rescue and befriend an eagle very early in the game, and from then on whenever you are in an outdoor environment can call upon him like a special attack. Beleram the eagle will swoop out of the sky and instantly kill smaller enemies and deal massage damage to any near that enemy. Larger enemies such as trolls will be hurt, but not killed, and distracted long enough for you to get some major damage in. This is useful as you will be fighting a LOT of trolls in this game. I really liked this aspect of the game, as the eagle characters were very well done and tied the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings lore together quite well. It was also nice to see an eagle explain why they didn’t just carry Frodo to Mt. Doom in the first place, suffice it to say one does not simply fly into Mordor.
There Will Be Loot
So I really enjoyed the world War in the North has presented, have fun with the characters combat abilities, and enjoy tearing up hundreds of orcs in my bid to keep Saurons northern forces occupied, but what would any of this be without the real point of hack and slash RPGs: The loot! Thankfully there is plenty to be had in this game. Enemies will be constantly dropping new gear and weapons, there are hundreds of treasure chests lying around both hidden and in the open, and you’ll constantly be finding weapon and item piles to be looting and pillaging.
Early on in the game I don’t think I wore a single piece of armor, or carried a single weapon for more than 30 minutes. There was a constant stream of newer and better items to be using and the only reason you would stop putting new armor on is later in the game when you begin to amass item sets and reap their bonus abilities. Armor is broken into sets where you get a bonus ability such as +30 health for wearing 3 pieces, +50 armor for 4, and for a full set will get a bonus +150 armor or some other huge stat bonus. These bonuses are enough to offset a slightly higher level single piece of armor so you might pass on those gloves that give you an extra 10 armor because you would lose 15 attack power. Armor and weapons can further be augmented by slotting jewels in them. These are your standard +15 armor or +15 fire attack type gems and can only be socketed in specific gear if they have an available slot, however once you put the gem in there it is there for good, so plan your gear accordingly and decide on a decent armor set for its bonuses before socketing it as you’ll be with it for the long haul once you’ve decided to keep it.
One thing I would like to point out as I’ve seen some other reviewers either not mention this or get it completely wrong, is the way your AI companions are managed. In the single player game you will ALWAYS have the other two characters controlled by the AI. These AI partners will level themselves up and auto-equip level appropriate gear by themselves, you do not need to do ANYTHING for these guys. The confusion sets in when the game lets you swap characters. During those level breaks I spoke of earlier the game allows you to swap to a different character, when you do this you get all the stat points you would’ve gotten if you were playing that character the whole time so you assign them and you have to equip new gear on the character. These stats DO NOT carry back over when you switch back to your original character. Some players seemed to think that in order for your AI partners to level up at all you had to quit the game and manually level them, so they complained that this system was unwieldy and complicated, when in fact they were needlessly leveling up these characters. Furthermore, in the game you are allowed to give items to your partners, this is basically for CO-OP ONLY. If you give an item to an AI partner, they may or may not equip it, but you will NEVER get it back and it will not be in that characters inventory when you switch to them later, so be a smart player and just don’t give items to AI party members.
So there you have it, War in the North proves to be a competent hack and slash adventure that I was not expecting to enjoy at all. I was ready to give the game a complete pass, but due to my duties at the site here had to go through it and was pleasantly surprised. The game isn’t overly long, each of the 8 chapters will probably last about an hour to an hour and a half, but you can always go through the New Game+ with a harder difficulty level and your fully leveled up characters. There are 3 characters who play differently enough to warrant multiple playthroughs, and in co-op there is certainly enough fun to be had with friends here to warrant multiple play sessions. I thought the story was competent enough, though the ending is a little disappointing, but the moment to moment gameplay is fun enough that if you don’t care about the story at all you’ll still have a good time. Also fans of the Hobbit will get enjoyment out of the locations you get to visit and all the talk and backstory about the Battle of Five Armies and the ramifications of Bilbos adventure in the northern areas of Middle Earth.