December 12, 2011
Apparently there is a war in the north, so it’s time for us northern folk to team up and show those soft, southern lightweights how to rumble. Hold on, it seems that this particular war is in fact taking place in the fictional confines of Middle-earth – rather than across the financial divide of the UK. Apologies all, we were swayed by peer pressure and love you all, even though you get paid more than us. Ahem. Anyway, it is fair to say that Tolkien’s rich fantasy world has been plundered for heroic derring-do on multiple occasions but so far we’ve never quite had a game that could live up to such a rich heritage. Is it time for a new beginning with Lord of the Rings: War in the North?
In a rather unique start, War in the North is actually being considered as canon when it comes to events during that rather pesky Sauron infested period of time. That means that the storyline of the game actually has the honour of sitting side by side with the grandmaster of all modern fantasy, which can never be a bad thing. Unless you are a massive Tolkien fan that is. As the game hardly has the same towering scope and storyline that you might come to expect from the series, instead boiling down to any number of clichéd moments and rather forced appearances from many of the novel’s main protagonists.
Taking on the role of one of three new heroes, a mysterious ranger, doughy dwarf fighter or spell wielding elf, it all feels rather generic. It is as if this game was the development equivalent of an RPG by numbers, with every facet of being added by rote rather than with any flair or imagination. The story weaves in and out of the main tale, with you being ordered about by Aragorn and Gandalf or swapping pleasantries with Frodo and the like – just don’t try and beg a look at that bloody ring or he’ll go nuclear. It turns out that Sauron sent a nasty bloke up north to stir things up and it is down to you and your posse to stop him. Hurrah!
The problem is that there is no direction to your actions, and things just feel like a merry quest through various locales in order to provide the pretence of seeing as much as possible. Turns out he brought along a bunch of orcs, so you get to beat them up, then he makes an alliance with trolls, so you get to beat them up, then a wight, followed by a giant, throw in a dragon and so on. It seems to be a race to ensure a battle with every major fantasy creature, while the actual motivation for any of these beasties is kept in the background. In fact the game does a damn fine job of flat out stating that most of them are acting out of character, and generally don’t fight against other people unless they have a good reason. Maybe that good reason was some epic gaming set pieces? Seems unlikely.
Of course, the lightness of the subject matter and its rather tenuous link to the films/books would be neither here or there if the game was engrossing to play. Sadly that is not quite the case either, as there is too much repetition in terms of both the combat and exploration on offer to make this anything but a decent dungeon crawler. Much of your time will be spent traipsing over the same delightful vistas that you may be familiar with from watching the movies, only you won’t just be enduring a fleeting look as you’ll be spending hour after hour wandering rather bland and linear fields, tombs, castles and ruins. Oh joy.
Combat is pretty much a case of bashing buttons until your foe drops out of sheer disillusionment. You have a strong and light attack, and if you pummel foes enough you get the chance to unleash a critical hit that can sever limbs and bring a swift end to proceedings. You can also level up to improve your skills and gain some unique attacks to add to your arsenal as well, but it never feels like your progression adds to the experience in a significant way and you never look forward to hitting the next level with the same kind of rabid fascination that you would expect in a regular RPG. Plus, every level is just more of the same with countless foes thrown in your path until you eventually cleave your way to a boss and, well, beat them up too. Not to mention whenever a mission that asks you to “protect” someone or risk instant failure pops up, in any game, we die a little inside.
Outside of combat there is very little else to the game, as the RPG-lite theme continues through to the random quests and conversations you can have along the way. Sure you can chat away to the people you run into but very few of them actually provide anything other than a bit of back story and the few quests you do pick up all boil down to the usual fetch and carry crap that we got tired of many moons ago. Each town you bump into seems to consist of about five people too, one of which is a shopkeeper and another a blacksmith. Plus, in what is rapidly becoming the most overused mechanic in gaming, there are unlockable challenge missions that see you taking on wave after wave of foes. Sounds eerily familiar right? Well as with many games it feels like it has been shoehorned into proceedings rather than added to provide an element of fun.
While the game certainly has the look and feel of Tolkien’s work, it seems to be missing the great characters and interesting plot that made his novels such a success. A series of linear levels, invisible walls to stunt your progress and repetitive combat hardly make for a compelling experience, though part of that can be mitigated by playing in co-op with some buddies. At least then you don’t have to put up with the AI getting stuck on walls or ignoring enemies completely when people need healing, in turn leading to them needing healing too. Is it too much to ask that if you are forced to play with virtual buddies they be able to act with a modicum of common sense?
Even the achievement list is home to some unwelcome choices, mainly the need to complete the game three times as none of the difficulties stack for some reason. Do developers really think that players want to complete their game time and time again? There are probably a handful of games that have enough replayability to justify such a course of action and this isn’t close to being one of them. The other tasks tend to be for story progression, killing a bunch of foes, snagging certain loot or causing a ton of damage. Nothing too taxing then, but also nothing that will cause you to go out of your way or approach the game in a novel manner which is a shame.
Lord of the Rings: War in the North is not the revolution we were hoping for and means that the epic story is still without a truly great title to call its own in the videogaming spectrum. While it’s nice to wander the famous locales, and beheading foes in a shower of blood never truly gets old, there is so little substance to the game that you never feel like you are really having that much fun on your quest. Perhaps if War in the North had tried to mix things up a bit more, or even made things just a little less linear, then it could have been more than just an endless stream of foes to be cut aside with little thought or effort.
A decent score, but the voicework is extremely bad in places and kills any sense of atmosphere.
Characters are well animated but your enemies feel a bit less fleshed out and the backdrops seem to switch from detailed vistas to texture popping drabness in the space of a few minutes.
Run along an obvious path, kill everything in sight, then repeat. A few obvious side paths lead to what could loosely be termed as secrets, but that would be stretching it a bit. If the combat was a touch more varied then it might have helped.
Lord of the Rings fans will get a kick out of exploring Middle-earth and fighting signature foes along the way, but it never clicks into gear and provides the epic story you would hope for.
A bog standard list that never pushes you out of your comfort zone, and then makes you complete the game three times to boot. Poor form.
Lord of the Rings: War in the North is fine for a few hours of jolly good fun, but once you realise that the game has played its hand early and really has nothing else to offer then the lustre is soon lost. Poor AI, boring combat and pointless quests all add up to a disappointing game that would be better off dropped into the fires of Mordor.