Warner Bros. Interactive teams up with Snowblind Studios (Champions of Norrath, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance) take the helm of Lord of the Rings: War of the North, the latest sojourn into J.R.R. Tolkien’s mystical world of hobbits, elves, and epic battles in Middle-earth. You’ll guide a trio of playable characters that include Eradan, a human ranger, Andriel, an Elven mage, and Farin, a Dwarven warrior, across treacherous landscapes while battling nasty creatures either solo or with friends in online cooperative play in the bloodiest and most violent LOTR game yet. Yet despite all this, there just no getting past many of the game’s bigger faults, including a lackluster quest and gameplay quirks that keep it from being the action-RPG it desperately wants to be.
After meeting with Aragorn at The Prancing Pony tavern, your team learns that while the brave hobbit Frodo is heading south to destroy the ring, a new villain named Agandaur, one of Sauron’s most deadly lieutenants, is causing chaos in the North and must be stopped. It’s up to you to lead this group of heroes there, all while battling legions of monsters and meeting characters from the novels, from Elrond of the elves, to the great eagle Belleram who you can summon to help take out foes.
Combat is a mix of melee and ranged attacks, and the controls here make it fairly simple, as you have a light attack to build combos with, and a heavy attack to finish off the combo. Landing successive strikes against an enemy activates a critical hit that places you in hero mode that starts a combo counter that multiplies experience and increases damage, which allows you to be treated to gory finishers that dismember your enemies and sends blood flying in slow-motion. As you may have guessed, that is why the game is rated “M”, the first for a LOTR title.
There’s also the ranged attack button you hold down to enter a close up view with a crosshair in the middle, while pressing another to fire an arrow, or magic bolt in the case of the magic using elf. You can also evade enemy attacks with the dodge button, though you’ll still find yourself still taking damage as you attempt to roll away to safety. As with most RPG’s, you’ll earn experience points to level up your characters and learn new skills, such as defense and healing abilities for the elf, and stronger melee and ranged attacks for the dwarf and ranger to combat your foes.
While you certainly head into Middle-earth solo, LOTR: War in the North is really meant to be played online with a group of friends. You’ll have two options to choose from: join a random game or create your own public or private one for others to join. A real problem in if you create your own co-op game is that it starts from your lowest ranked group member’s last single-player save point. While this may benefit those with less experience, if you’re a higher level and the folks you’re playing with are far below you, don’t be surprised if déjà vu starts to set in. You’ll definitely want to stick with people you know (and share the same ranking) because if you’re playing with random people online and this keeps coming up, don’t expect to make any progress anytime soon.
Another issue is that to accommodate the story each player must pick between the three available characters, meaning you (or another player) will most likely get stuck playing as someone they don’t want to. If you want to be Eradan (ranger) but he’s already been chosen, than you’ll have to pick between the remaining Farin (melee warrior) or Andriel (mage), unless of course someone’s gotten to them first. At least there’s voice chat to plan out strategies as you play, and it’s good to know that any experience points and items you earn online will carry over to your single-player campaign.
While all this sounds good on paper, there are some flaws that make themselves apparent as soon as you play, especially with the team system. As the main character, you’re able to find and equip new armor with no problem, but you’re unable to do so for your teammates until you reach a point in the game where you’re allowed to switch characters. Which brings me to another huge flaw; you can’t switch between your members or level them up until you have control over them, which leaves you wondering why you can’t do either of these basic things on-the-fly like any other RPG.
Another flaw with the team play is an inability to issue specific orders to your teammates. Sure, you can order them to either attack enemies or help defend you, but they still have a tendency to act on their own and leave you vulnerable while they’re off doing whatever. This makes for some pretty frustrating gameplay while going at it solo, as the core of this title is teamwork.
I also didn’t enjoy having to adjust the camera every two seconds, as it doesn’t follow you or the action while your playing. And the combat after your first mission quickly becomes repetitive, as you’ve seen just about everything the game offers by then, as well as seen most of the enemies you’ll face. And you would think that the boss battles would be epic and implement some sort of strategy, but even the troll boss I came across was boring, as he’s nothing but a bigger version of the normal baddies you fight. This leads to no other tactics than to keep hitting away until it falls.
While the game does let you occasionally choose dialogue responses, your choices have almost no influence on the story or effect on anything. Your characters also come off as stiff and boring, as there’s no chemistry between them, nor do they do anything to make you care about them or their quest. It’s like you’re just plowing and grinding your way through just to get to the end.
Visually, the game is exceptional, as you’ll see every detail on Belleram’s feathers, to the beautiful Elven haven of Rivendell that’s surrounded by nature, almost mimicking the feel of the Peter Jackson films. The sound design is also well done, as the soundtrack is inspired and is appropriately epic for a franchise of this caliber. The copious voice-acting, on the other hand, is hit or miss, with the flat readings from the cast lack any real enthusiasm and sound pretty disappointing.
I was really expecting a lot more from Lord of the Rings: War in the North, as it easily has the potential to be something greater than it actually is. While it does retain much of the look and feel from Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy, it sacrifices much of the heart and soul of J.R.R. Tolkien’s incredible tale for a bland, largely soulless adventure through Middle-earth. Also not helping is a fractured online matching system that seldom works in the context of a narrative-driven adventure, as you’ll constantly be thrown back to the least-experienced player in your trio of warriors to repeat quests and scenarios over and over again. Coupled with repetitive combat, lacking enemies and bosses, a wonky camera, and the unnecessary violence that earns this the first ‘M’ rating for a LOTR game, this is a path to the North that few will wish to tread on.
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Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment