It has been quite awhile since the last release of a game based on the Lord of the Rings franchise and to most that wasn't a problem. However, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and Snowblind Studios seemed to have thought differently and decided the world needed yet another game dedicated to the written works of Tolkien. Lord of the Rings: War in the North is a traditional action RPG with an emphasis on leveling and loot gathering set in the world of Middle Earth.
War in the North offers players a different perspective to the story of the Fellowship's battle against the Dark Lord Sauron and Frodo's journey to Mordor. Instead, this story focuses on the journey of another fellowship that battles the forces of Sauron in the northern part of Middle Earth. This fellowship contains the likes of a dwarf champion, elf mage, and human ranger whom together battle waves of goblins, orcs, trolls, and other sorts of brutal creatures. Players will travel to various locations in search of Sauron's servant and leader of his forces in the north known as Agandaûr. Some of those locations include familiar sights, such as Bree and Rivendell, and new areas including Mirkwood and the Ettenmoors. References to the actual fellowship and its cast of iconic characters like Frodo and Aragorn make brief appearances in hub cities between levels.
The adventure to defeat Agandaûr is a linear experience with little deviation from the main path. Even with the story taking place in one of most lore-filled fantasy worlds, the story behind War in the North is uninspired and doesn't bring anything new to the franchise. Even if the title includes Lord of the Rings and is set in Middle Earth, the game simply doesn't offer a compelling depiction of Tolkien's universe. The books and movies were quite successful for the fact of bringing readers and viewers into the experience alongside the characters. However, War in the North simply provides a cast of generic characters and a story that never lives up to the franchise's name.
The game includes support for cooperative gameplay, but this review covers the singleplayer experience of the campaign. At the beginning of the game and in between levels, players have the option to select from three characters: a dwarf champion that specializes in axes and close combat, an elf mage that uses a magic staff for either dispersing the enemy and aiding team members, and lastly a human ranger skilled in both bows and swords. Each character can be further customized by gaining levels and spending skill points on upgrades such as the ability to carry more arrows or a special sword attack.
The game also places emphasis on picking up dropped loot from enemies or purchasing new armor and weapons in hub cities. The variety and level of detail with loot will be disappointing to fans of other games such as The Elder Scrolls series and Torchlight. Most loot drops from enemies provide low level equipment that is only useful for acquiring further gold. The other problem associated with loot is how most pieces appear to be awfully similar except for a change in an item's stats. Loot should provide players with a desire for continually acquiring better items to improve their character. However, the loot found within War in the North becomes more of a chore than reward.
The gameplay revolves around the fellowship of characters traveling from one location in Middle Earth to the next and taking care of any orcs, goblins, and other creatures in their way. Between each level are hub cities that provide time to chat with iconic characters from the books and movies, repair armor and weapons, and take on additional sidequests. Most of the game's sidequests are simple fetch tasks that don't offer anything more to the experience. The actual combat is quite basic including normal and heavy attack moves, range weapon, block, and special attack. These are slightly improved with gaining skill points, but the combat stays exactly the same throughout the entire experience. The only exceptions are boss battles that mildly affect combat tactics, but usually just resort to spamming the enemy's health bar until its depleted.
The only familiar locations were the city hubs of Bree and Rivendell, with the actual levels appearing as generic backdrops for placing waves of orcs and goblins. The most interesting level within the game was an ancient city built in the interior of a mountain. The rest of the game's levels were bland environments that seemed like they could have been taken from any fantasy game. Many of the levels featured awfully similar corridors that artificially extend the length of the game. There were multiple occasions of areas in levels that forced the player to battle wave upon wave of enemies for no particular reason.
In a year of game releases in which the quality of presentation and graphics have been continually improving, War in the North is a set back in nearly every direction. The menu system is functional, however, it requires the players to go through an odd number of button presses to complete simple tasks like inventory management. Even worse, the graphics are lackluster in every area. The lighting of the environment and characters is static, while textures are bland from far away and up close. War in the North could easily pass as a launch title for the Xbox 360 in 2005. Compared with other recent releases, War in the North pales in comparison for both presentation and graphical quality.
The game's sound design doesn't fair well either with both effects and musical scores feeling completely generic. The most striking omission from War in the North is any of the wonderfully composed pieces of music from the movies. Instead, players will be treated to odd voice recreations of actors from the movies and songs that seem to loop every couple of minutes.
The one area in which the game can be commended for is the length of the campaign and support for repeat playthroughs. Even if levels seem to drag on endlessly in various parts, players looking to slash waves of orcs will find plenty of opportunities during their visit to the north. Players that complete the campaign will be given an option to replay the game at a harder difficulty while keeping their earned loot and experience from the previous playthrough.
Lord of the Rings: War in the North is available now for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.