It's hard to imagine that it has been ten years since the Lord of the Rings trilogy went up in cinemas. But there are still games being made based upon J.R.R. Tolkien's work. Licensed games such as this and various fantasy titles that lend more or less from Tolkien's creation.
The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is released in what Gandalf would describe as "the deep breath before the plunge", given that the two highly anticipated films based on The Hobbit are starting to come together. And therefore it also feels like a breath of fresh air that War in the North focuses on a different fellowship of heroes than those we have grown used to.
More specifically we get to know the ranger Eradan, the warrior dwarf Farin and Elrond's apprentice Andriel, an unlikely fellowship forged in order to defeat Sauron's human servant Agandaúr.
This interpretation of Middle-Earth is taken straight out of Peter Jackson's trilogy of films down to the smallest detail. The game does a decent job of emulating the atmosphere, thanks to frequent use of the ironic elements of the saga. The design of the world is faithfully recreated, the score recycled, and Snowblind have had the good taste to throw in some of the characters that didn't make it into the films.
It's a shame, however, that the story telling and the thin script fail involve the player in the game. The world feels flat, the story terrible cliché ridden, and the heroes lack any real personality.
The Lord of the Rings: War in the North was positioned as the first mature rated Lord of the Rings game early on, and that should give you an idea of just how shallow the content is. I'm not one to turn down a bit of gore, but it doesn't really sell me on a new Lord of the Rings either. But sure, there are limbs flying in every direction in this game, regardless of whether you choose to fight with a sword or a staff.
It's almost makes me pity the orcs.
They come forth in seemingly endless lines as they prepare to explode into flowers of black blood. It really doesn't add anything to the experience, as the gore also works to distract you from noticing the rather shallow combat system. It quickly becomes monotonous and stupid just minutes into the game.
The three playable characters only differ slightly from each other and are all designed to be able to fight up close as well as from a distance. Quicker, less powerful attacks are mixed with heavier ones, and once an enemy's defence has been penetrated you're given the chance to do extra damage and possibly sever a vital limb or two. The levels are varied when it comes to their design, even if the waves of enemies remain largely the same, and you will be picking up loot all the way through. Naturally you also progress your character as he levels up and equip him with talents. It's a game system straight out of a mould. For most of the playthrough The Lord of the Rings: War in the North defines terms such as average and forgettable.
Where the game shines is when you add a friend to the mix. It's truly what War in the North was desgined for. Since both enemies and partner AI in the game are lacking in quality, it is a much better experience with a friend or two by your side. At times it even reaches the heights of previous co-operative Lord of the Rings titles such as the two hack n' slash games based on the movies published by EA.
Sadly, the fun is interrupted by numerous poor design decisions. One such area is the revival system that has been borrowed from games such as Gears of War. Nothing wrong with that in theory, but it has been poorly implemented here. This leads to the group finding themselves crawling in the mud and taking turns trying to revive each other. It adds frustration, and isn't much fun at all.
Adding to the frustration is a ton of odd little glitches. Not big enough to ruin the game on their own, but added together they create a lot of irritation. One example is that the game finds it hard to differentiate between whether your partner is about to die and needs to be revived or whether he barely took any damage at all.
Overall, The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is average. It is as if the developers, Snowblind Studios, have added all of the action genre together and made their design decisions based on that average. The basic concept is entertaining, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. My guess is that we'll see more licensed titles based on Lord of the Rings when The Hobbit hits cinemas, but until then there are far better games to spend your time with than War in the North.