Lord of the Rings: War in the North is the first game in almost 5 years from heralded action RPG developer Snowblind Studios, the masterminds behind the excellent and well-received Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath. When I first heard that one of my favorite developers in the genre was working on a brand new Lord of the Rings game, my heart skipped a beat in joy. I am of the mind that there are still plenty of areas to explore in the world of one of my favorite series of books, and plenty of characters that haven't really been given their time to shine. While fans will have to wait another year for the two-part film adaptation of The Hobbit to arrive in theaters, Snowblind has created a solid game with an immersive experience, but may have benefitted from a couple more months in development instead of putting it in such a crowded Holiday season of top-notch titles.
Our story is set in the Northern region of Middle-Earth. Eradon, a human Ranger; Ferin, a dwarven Champion; and Andriel, an elvaan Loremaster, are on a journey to defeat Sauron's deadliest lieutenant who goes by the name of Agandaur (don't look for him in the books), who was sent by the Dark Lord to wipe out the Free People in the North and to take control of its lands. Not much is known about this band of three, and the game does little to offer any sort of exposition into their histories, which may leave you feeling rather unattached and all the more willing to look for more noticeable figures from the Lord of the Rings lore who can be found around the different lands - the first person you meet for example is Aragon in the Prancing Pony who is waiting for Frodo and his Hobbit friends to arrive. The sheer amount of epic scale found in the movies and books also does not feel well represented here.
War in the North is the first M-rated game in the franchise's catalogue, which clearly comes through in the exponential magnitude of blood and guts found in the game. During a combo, there comes a moment where an arrow appears above the enemy's head. By quickly hitting a critical blow, you will either knock the enemy on the ground to continue the combo, or if they are near death, will see you chopping off a head, arm, or a leg to satisfying effect. This is something I actually really appreciated considering that in the books and even in the movies, this type of carnage was commonplace.
There is a Skill Tree and a Stats menu for the dumping of points obtained after leveling that can go into Strength, Dexterity, Stamina, and Will. After certain areas, a Summary is shown displaying game stats for each char, what the current area is and its difficulty, and how many secrets there were and if they were found. You can also swap characters at this point if you are only trying to grind for XP. Despite the fact that it is simple and straightforward, the fighting does lack a certain punch and can get rather repetitive - prepare to mash one button followed by another button every so often to wipe out most creatures. War in the North also likes to rely on what has become cliches of the genre, such as mounted crossbows and hordes of enemies rather than offering something original.
I did have a chance to try the multiplayer mode and it does work as designed: it allows jump-in/jump-out interactivity where a live player can take hold of one of the three main characters - otherwise, the AI is in charge. To be clear, my belief is that any game with a story worth its merit needs to be able to hold up well enough during its single player mode as that can certainly help translate to a satisfying multiplayer experience. I am happy to report that your AI partners are actually competant enough to keep their priorities straight, whether that is being quick to throw up a healing barrier to recover your health and save your group from being overwhelmed by enemy archers, to doing whatever it takes to revive you if you have fallen in battle.
Another issue is that the inventory on all three characters does not remain consistent if you do decide to change to a different class during the chapter breaks in the game where you're allowed to. For example: if I was playing as Eradon and was giving Ferin and Andriel pieces of armor and new weapons to use during the course of the adventure, none of that new equipment exists when you make the switch. Instead, there are holding onto the items that you had when you had last used that character. This can be rather disappointing given the fact that only the AI gets to benefit from the items you collected for them and there is no way to share it. The same goes to any skills or stats the AI assigns to itself, even though I am sure there are those out there who find this to be a benefit. Speaking of which, when you do want to give an AI partner a piece of equipment, you only have the option of handing it to them - the game will not tell you how it will affect their stats in either direction, which can be confusing if you have three different pieces of equipment and you can't tell what sort of benefit will be derived from giving it away rather than selling it for money.
Snowblind has always had a solid pedigree of top-notch action RPGs, and War in the North can be recognized as another solid piece of craftsmanship. Top notch art direction with great set pieces, beautiful sound design, intense combat situations, and plenty of hours of gameplay (including a New Game + feature that constitutes higher difficulty levels) amalgamate into a fun piece of work well worth experiencing, even if the game has a habit of dragging on a little too long and the combat can get monotonous. Suffice to say, there are plenty of positive things that can be said about this game, and it has my recommendation to both fans of the books and those looking for perhaps a more intellectual gameplay experience. Oh, and there's a giant talking Eagle in the game with one of the best voices I have ever heard who can also help you fight in battle. If that is not a good enough reason to get you to play War in the North, then I don't know what will.