Game Rant's Jeff Schille reviews The Lord of the Rings: War in the North
The Lord of the Rings: War in the North offers players the chance to hack, slash, and loot their way through Middle Earth. Drawing visual inspiration from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy, while also incorporating elements directly from J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy masterwork, War in the North aims to be the ultimate co-op action-RPG.
Is this the One Game to Rule Them All? Keep reading for our full review of The Lord of the Rings: War in the North.
The Lord of the Rings: War in the North tells a new tale set during the final days of the War of the Ring. While Frodo's Fellowship works its way toward Mount Doom, a second, smaller group of allies begins the journey North to confront Agandaur, a powerful ally of Sauron. Recruited by Aragorn in Bree, three warriors -- Eradan, a Dunedain Ranger, Andriel, Loremaster of Rivendell, and Farin, Champion of Erebor -- join together as the Fellowship of Three.
Naturally, each of the three characters possess differing skills and abilities. Eradan offers an accessible mix of close combat and ranged attacks, Andriel specializes in magic, and Farin is all about melee. Beyond that, each character is privy to unique hidden areas throughout the game, and specific in-level pick-ups (Andriel, for instance, spends a fair amount of time looking for plants). Completionists beware: to uncover every secret in any of the game's large levels means either combing through them with like-minded players, or separate play-throughs for each character.
Regardless of which character players select, The Fellowship always stays together. Remaining party members can be controlled either by the computer or other players, as War in the North supports both two-player split-screen and (up to) three-player online co-op. The good news is that War in the North's computer-controlled characters do a fine job of keeping up with the player, and perform their primary task -- reviving fallen characters -- reliably. The bad news is that a restrictive set of rules for multiple human players occasionally puts a damper on the fun.
For players who sit down together and work their way through the adventure, War in the North's co-op is as good as it gets. The game's many battles must be approached cautiously, and teamwork is an absolute must. As a result, the rush of victory when taking down a tough enemy -- say, a giant troll clad in armor and wielding a flaming club -- is immensely satisfying.
On the other hand, the game is unnecessarily punitive when it comes to players of differing skill levels. Want to play a stage further along in the adventure with a higher level player? You're welcome to, but War in the North won't save your progress. Furthermore, there is no way for a second player to simply join a single player game, despite the constant presence of all three party members.
By allowing character switching only between levels, the game encourages players to focus on a single hero. Fortunately, War in the North makes sticking with one character a joy. Thanks to the game's extensive, useful skill-trees, players have complete control over how characters develop. Upgraded abilities always pack a punch, whether they merely increase melee damage for a particular kind of weapon, or unlock totally new, devastating attacks. Even better, the vast quantities of weapons and armor that players collect each boast unique, highly detailed designs that effortlessly recreate the style of the films, and look fantastic on our heroes. As with character abilities, each new piece of weaponry and armor has a tangible effect on the battlefield.
Despite a few portions of the game that are given over to conversation trees and storytelling (often in settings straight from the films, such as Rivendale and The Prancing Pony), the balance of War in the North takes place on the battlefield. Mowing down near endless waves of goblins, orcs, trolls, spiders, and the undead occupies much of the game's playtime.
Combat is accessible but challenging, and makes a great first impression. There is a surprising emphasis on "shooting" mechanics -- both Eradan and Andriel lean on ranged attacks -- including several stages that ask players to man turrets. War in the North's shooting makes use of pronounced aim assist, though players will rely on it less and less as they power up their long range attacks.
Melee attacks favor sharp timing over button mashing, and War in the North's brutal combat echoes the mechanics found in Batman: Arkham City, also published by Warner Bros. Interactive. Still, despite the thrill of becoming ever more powerful as the game progresses, battle fatigue creeps in. Combat alone isn't quite enough to support the weight of the whole game. Thankfully, the care taken with War in the North's presentation helps keep things fresh.
The Lord of the Rings: War in the North, right at the outset, is a handsome game. From the opening in rain-swept Bree, through the forests of Mirkwood and on to the final battle at Carn Dum, each of War in the North's landscapes are wholly unique... and vast. The game is long, and appreciation for Snowblind Studios' skillful world creation only grows over the course of the experience. Areas do not repeat, and backtracking is unnecessary. Meanwhile, all manner of hidden goodies litter the corners of the world, making careful exploration necessary, and rewarding.
Enemy designs closely match what players will remember from the films. Trolls in War in the North are dead-ringers for their onscreen incarnations, while Agandaur's armor is decidedly in the vein of Sauron's from the opening of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Again, Snowblind's ability to both recreate and iterate on the look of the films is stunning. Particularly impressive is Beleram the Great Eagle, who sports a level of detail in design and animation that almost suggests the creature from The Last Guardian.
Human characters fare less well than the game's enemies and environments, largely due to stiff facial animation. The Fellowship of Three look great, but recreations of characters from Peter Jackson's films (Aragorn, Frodo, Bilbo, Legolas, Gimli, and Gandalf all make appearances) come off as zombified versions of their onscreen counterparts.
War in the North's orchestral soundtrack, while entirely original, is very much in keeping with Howard Shore's work on the films. It's a bit of a letdown never to hear the movie's striking themes, but in the heat of the battle, few players will notice.
It would be remiss not to remark on the game's longevity. The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is not designed to be played once and set aside. Character stats and equipment carry over to ever-harder difficulty levels, offering an incentive to re-play the game's quest again and again. Multiply that effort times the game's three characters, and it's clear that War in the North offers a vast amount of gameplay... for those with the patience to enjoy it.
In many ways, The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is exactly the game that fans of Snowblind's previous titles (Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, Champions of Norrath) expected the developer to deliver: good looking, visceral, accessible, and deep. Though some players may ultimately be turned-off by the game's dedication to combat, and others may be frustrated by its occasionally rigid multiplayer restrictions, War in the North remains a treasure trove of co-op action role-playing, and the best console game of its type currently available. Recommended.
The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is available now for the Xbox 360, PS3, PC, and OnLive. Game Rant reviewed the PS3 version of the game.
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