Lord of the Rings: War in the North Review

Almost no literary work seems as suitable for conversion into a video game as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Over the years, we’ve had some great games based on the series, as well as some stinkers. The latest entry into the series is Lord of the Rings: War in the North, the new action RPG from from Snowblind Studios. Snowblind has had success in the this genre before, releasing titles like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath for the PlayStation 3, but how will they do in Middle Earth?

Game: Lord of the Rings: War in the North
Platforms: PC, Playstation 3, XBox 360 (Reviewed)
Developer: Snowblind Studios
Publisher: Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment
Released: November 1, 2011
MSRP: $59.99

Unlike many games based in Middle Earth, War in the North doesn’t have you playing as a member of the Fellowship escorting Frodo and the Ring to Mordor. Instead, you’re one of three heroes who are fighting the armies of Sauron elsewhere while the story of the Fellowship plays out. You’ll bump into the story of the Ring at times, but only in passing, and it really has no effect on the game’s events. Instead, your group of three heroes will combat the forces of Sauron in places like Fornost, the Ettenmoors, and Carn Dum. Many Lord of the Rings Online players will recognize those locales, but most casual fans of the films will not.

Instead of Gandalf or Aragorn, you’ll be able to choose from one of three characters: Eradan the Human Ranger, Farin the Dwarven Champion, or Andriel the Elvish Loremaster. Each of these characters has a unique combat style. The Dwarf specializes in melee, the Human in ranged attacks, and the Elf in magical ranged combat and support spells. Each character also has a special ability. The Ranger can track the location of hidden supply caches, the Elf can see secret doors and brew potions, and the Dwarf can see imperfections in stone that conceal hidden rooms.

There is a fourth member of your group, one that was prominently featured in a number of trailers for the game: Belaram, the Eagle. While you can’t play as Belaram, he does appear from time to time to help you get around, and to attack your enemies, so long as you have the required materials to call on his aid. Once you pick a character, it’s pretty much non-stop action for the rest of the game.

You’ll be tasked with travelling around the Northern areas of Middle Earth to take on a wide variety of enemies. Orcs, goblins, Uruk-Hai, trolls, servants of Sauron, and even dragons will vie to place themselves in front of your weapons. It’s a veritable who’s who of classic Lord of the Rings bad guys, and it helps to sell the idea that you’re playing in Middle Earth, even though there’s rarely a hobbit in sight.

Combat is fast-paced and hectic. Early in the game, it can get a bit monotonous, as you only have a limited number of attacks to utilize. As you advance and customize your character, a host of options open up in combat, but the core components never really change. It’s not completely monotonous, but you will find yourself using the same skills over and over in long fights. Weapons hit with satisfying power, and blood sprays with each impact. Weakening an enemy opens up the opportunity to enter Hero mode, which allows players to do more damage, get experience multipliers, and perform finishing moves. A wide variety of ranged attacks and specials mean that you can remain at a distance from the action while still dealing all the damage you could hope for.

Unfortunately, the AI that controls your teammates leaves a bit to be desired. Often you’ll find yourself in need of heals only to see the Loremaster engaged in a melee fight with an enemy far away. Friendlies will also often ignore any healing you offer and run off to attack enemies regardless of the state of their health. Soon, they’ll be lying on the ground begging for you to revive them, while the enemies beat you into submission. While it’s not a widespread problem, it crops up often enough to be mildly annoying.

Once the fighting is over, you’ll get to partake of that time-honored RPG tradtion: LOOT. There is a literal ton of loot in this game. Each character wears a full set of armor, carries at least one (if not two or three) weapons, and wears a necklace. You’ll spend a fair amount of time in this game making decisions about which recently acquired piece of gear you’d rather equip. There are also items that allow you to slot stat-laden Elf Stones into them, further improving their effectiveness.

The amount of loot is nice, but the system is further enhanced by the ability to share this loot with the other characters. If you pick up a nice Loremaster staff while playing as the Ranger, just give it to her. The next time you switch characters, she’ll have it available, and the AI will keep the better gear equipped for the characters you are not playing. Even if you’ve been using a piece of gear for a while, once you take it off you can hand it off to either of your party members to use. This is a really nice touch that keeps powerful items in use by the party for a long time.

One downside to all this loot is that you’ll spend a lot of time managing it. Your character’s inventory is small, and there’s no way to upgrade the size of your backpack. Places to sell off unneeded items are spaced out, so it becomes a game of dropping less valuable items to make it to the next shop. This is exacerbated for the Loremaster character, whose potion-brewing ability requires harvested materials.

In addition to gear, your character will also be gaining experience. As you gain levels, your character will gain points that can be spent to improve their Strength, Will, Dexterity or Stamina however you desire. You’ll also be able to acquire new skills by spending the skill point each level brings you. Advancing through the skill trees unlocks the most powerful abilities of each character. Character advancement is one area where Snowblind got it really right in War in the North. No matter where you’re playing, your characters’s advancement is persistent. You can gain 5 levels playing single player, then join a friend’s game and gain 4 more and a sweet weapon. When you come back to your game, you’ll be higher level, and that sweet weapon comes along.

Speaking of a friend’s game, it’s important to understand something major about War in the North: it’s a game designed to be played in co-op. Sure, you can play it in single player, and the AI is OK, but it really shines when you have a friend or two along for the ride. Both split-screen and online co-op are supported. Local co-op only allows two players, but go online, and you and two buddies can control all three group members. You can, at pre-determined points, swap control of your character with other players to change the makeup of the group. It’s very obvious that Snowblind intended this game to be played with friends, and that they worked hard to make it a rewarding experience.

Overall, War in the North is a very successful effort for Snowblind. It’s a fun title that you can enjoy with your friends or alone, and it incorporates a well-known property without mangling what makes that property great. It brings the hack-and-slash RPG to current consoles and PC, and it does so in a very proficient manner. More importantly, you don’t need to be a fan of Lord of the Rings to have a great time playing it. If you’re looking to get an action RPG fix, it would certainly be worth your time to give War in the North a chance.

Pros:

  • It’s a new take on the classic Lord of the Rings story
  • Designed specifically for co-op, both local and online flavors
  • Tons of loot
  • Persistent leveling

Cons:

  • AI companions can be frustrating at times
  • Limited inventory size makes inventory management a pain
  • Combat can get repetitive, especially in long fights
  • Some loot is useless, especially on a second playthrough

Final Score: 85/100

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3 Comments on Lord of the Rings: War in the North Review

Goody

On November 2, 2011 at 2:36 am

Nice review Ron but 2 questions for you.
1) I play Lotro and I enjoyed Dragon Age so is this a game for me ?
2) You finally get n0ebert into lotro and we havent seen you in our server. Are you going to start a character on our server ?

Ron Whitaker

On November 2, 2011 at 5:20 am

@Goody: This game is for you if you enjoyed the previous games from Snowblind: Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and/or Champions of Norrath. It’s a game for you if you like third-person action RPG games that are basically focused on beating the crap out of hordes of enemies. It does have a host of RPG elements, but don’t expect it to be like an MMO. It’s not that deep.

LotRO? Man, this time of year I’m lucky to be able to play that ‘Get Some Sleep’ game that everyone’s always talking about.

Daryl Longshanks

On November 3, 2011 at 8:06 pm

I purchased the pc version from Steam 2 days ago. As it stands, it’s incredibly frustrating with co-op save problems / ATI users [single or crossfire] experiencing major stutter as well as graphic settings in-game that do absolutely nothing on/off.

I would advise anyone to hold off purchase, as ps3 and xbox360 users as well as pc users all are having troubles, according to forums @ Steam, warinthenorth.com and ATI.

It’s more than simply ATI needing a new driver, the cpu core/thread utilization is off the charts, even while just in the main menu of the game.

I won’t purchase a new game again, lesson learned. As it stands, I’m putting off playing it again until Snowblind and ATI both work out their respective issues.
On a positive note, it’s a great looking game that most people with a 1/2 decent computer should be able to run with ease, in due time.
Hopefully this relevant information will be posted, so others do not jump on the immediate purchase bandwagon like I did.