Lord of the Rings: War In The North
When fair-weather folk talk about who took down Sauron and his armies, that furry-footed hobbit, Frodo, gets all the credit. He took the ring to Mount Doom, they say, and he cast it into the fires from whence it came, they cry. Sure, his Fellowship get a lot of credit as well, but everyone outside of that group seems to be forgotten. Middle Earth is a big place, you know.
Clearly as affected by this as I, Snowblind Studios have a little story of their own to tell, and it isn’t focused on a Baggins. War In The North takes place at the same time as Lord of the Rings, but is focused on another, smaller fellowship created by a Man, an Elf and a Dwarf.
With a laundry list of high-profile releases at the end of the year, WITN is in danger of being forgotten under the Modern Warfares and Just Dances of the world. Being a film tie-in, you’re probably thinking that’s just as justified.
However, I’m here to tell you that War In The North is one of the most fun cooperative experiences I’ve had all year…
Not a ring-bearer and proud of it…
Our tale starts in Bree, a few days before four intrepid Hobbits elope from The Shire and turn up at the Prancing Pony. Either assuming the role of Andriel, Eradan or Farin, the player meets Strider (better known as Aragorn) at the infamous inn. Strider warns them of a man named Agandaur, a human sorcerer commanded by Sauron, who has been placed in charge of a great army of his own. Aragorn fears that Agandaur could interfere with the ring-bearing quest he must oversee, and he cannot afford to have the General poking his nose in. The fellowship of three are sent to distract the general and his army, keeping their attention away from Frodo.
However, the story quickly develops in a much deeper and darker direction. The Fellowship learn that Agandaur’s concerns aren’t actually with the ring, but instead, he is forging his own destiny, one that if allowed to come to fruition, will equally change the face of Middle-Earth forever.
Surprisingly, Snowblind have done a great job adapting Tolkein’s source material and carving their own story out of it. They’ve created quite a dramatic script, which not only ties in with elements of LOTR and The Hobbit, but still feels like the characters are doing something significant and worthwhile in the fight against Sauron.
Rangers, Champions and Lore Masters, oh my…
The game allows you to play one of three characters, each one being a different class. The female elf is a Lore Master, who is capable of casting offensive and defensive magical spells and developing potions from ingredients found in the wild. She can also evolve into a battlemage, capable of dual-wielding a stave and sword for close-combat (damn nifty!). We also have a Champion class as… er… championed by Farin the Dwarf. Not only can the Dwarf break down brittle walls to find treasure and mine jewels, he is also the most formidable mêlée fighter of the three.
Finally, Eradan offers the most balanced class, the Ranger. Eradan dabbles in melee with two-handed swords, dual-wielding or a vintage sword and shield combo. He is equally dexterous with a crossbow, and nimble enough to catch an enemy off-guard with a sneak attack. Eradan can also trace footprints around the map which will lead him to caches of ranger weapons and treasures.
With such variety in classes, WITN encourages cooperative play from the off. Only a human player will be able to learn every fine detail of their class and take full advantage of their capabilities. Learning to heal at the right time with Andriel, tanking the big bosses to keep the aggro away from the rest of the party as Farin, unleashing full damage outbursts as Eradan. A party of three who know how to play the game can make a very effective combination, as each character plays a very important role in the overall combat output. Unfortunately, if you’re not blessed with such companions, you’re stuck with the game’s A.I., and that’s not really a position you want to be in.
It’s almost as if Snowblind purposefully sabotaged the game’s A.I. to make sure you play with two other people. Really, it’s that awful. After the first few fights, you’ll be hurrying to go online to find two other people, or desperately calling your friend around to play the game in split-screen. Fortunately, my girlfriend and I played the game locally from start to finish with just one A.I. companion. Even then, the experience could be frustrating. Farin was constantly charging into battle while we were looking for loot, then we’d regularly find him crawling around on the floor, crying out for us to revive him. Sometimes he even went ahead with the story, forcing us into cut-scenes when we were still looting in another area, then making it impossible for us to go back. All of this on the normal difficulty set!
This is where I sympathise with many reviewers in their criticism of the game. If they were on their own the whole time, I can imagine the whole experience was completely torturesome. Cooperatively, however, the game really does come to life. It created numerous conversations between my partner and I, deciding whether or not we should equip a particular brand of armour, working out if one sword’s perks outweigh another, discovering hidden treasure, deciding on which conversation choices to pick, even figuring out where all the hidden side quests are located. The very idea of sharing a RPG experience is something I have longed for on this generation of consoles, and War In The North managed to give me a really good taste of just how fucking great that can be!
Unfortunately, the conversation choices don’t have the moral ramifications of a Bioware RPG; there are a few opportunities where multiple choices could have created some interesting story arcs. This does feel like a bit of a letdown considering the source material, how detailed the lore is, and the role you could potentially play, as, essentially, all conversations reach the same conclusion. It was, however, refreshing to be able to sit together, working out the repercussions before trying to reach a mutual decision. Not since the ending of Mass Effect 2 have I discussed a particular conversation choice with someone else before finally reaching a decision.
I was also pleasantly surprised by how well WITN’s combat combination system works in context of an RPG. What’s also great is that, depending on your class, you will regularly need to consider your approach. For example, if you’re Andriel, don’t expect to go in stave swinging against a fully shielded, muscle-bound Uru-khai with a sword the size of your spinal column; you’ll need to stand your distance firing off projectiles. At the same time, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty against a swarm of little spiders scuttling around your companions. WITN manages to make a real differentiation between mêlée and ranged attacks, and actually forces you to consider your strategy. The levelling up system certainly has a lot to do with this, and is very well-balanced, with three talent trees available for each class, all of them very thoughtful and considerate of the class they are intended for.
Unfortunately, WITN’s problem is that, for all of its promise, there is a lot of sloppiness. Frankly, there are some glaring glitches which really should have been ironed out before launch. For example, when playing split-screen, it’s possible for the main player to have a quest in their log, have the second player pick up the intended items for this quest, then have the main player hand in the quest, but for it not to give rewards to Player Two. In fact, if Player Two interacts with the same quest-giver after the quest has been completed, it will start to give them the quest again, then part of the way through, realise the player has already completed the objectives and get itself stuck in a loop which it cannot break away from. A really poor oversight from Snowblind.
There’s also a really weird Stats Page glitch. If you’re looking at your armour, and can’t decide whether to upgrade to a particular item or not, if you hover over the potential replacement in your inventory, then press LB once, you can see how this affects your Stamina, Will, Melee and Ranged abilities, whereas, if you attempt to go to the same page by cycling through the rest of the menu by pressing RB, the stat changes are not detailed. It’s as if the game suffers from short-term memory loss, and if you confuse it with other data, it loses its train of thought.
These discrepancies are also accompanied by a lot of laziness. If you’re buying items from a vendor, you are regularly given the choice to buy armour for the other two classes in the game, but very little for your actual class.
Frankly, these are simple faults that should have been investigated more thoroughly, and ultimately tarnish the game’s overall quality.
On the plus side, the graphics are actually pretty good. Each of the characters represent their movie counterparts very well. Aragorn is a damn good turn at Viggo Mortensen, as is Ian McKellen very identifiable in Gandalf. Everyone seems at least passable, apart from Arwen, who looks like she either needs to take the biggest dump in human history, or is about to give birth to a herd of wildebeest. Regardless, she’s in there, and undoubtedly flattered that she’s been virtually recreated in such a rotund way.
The landscapes and set pieces have been glamorously recreated from the sets of the film. Rivendell in particular is quite wondrous. Snowblind have clearly been paying attention to Peter Jackson’s directing skills and definitely spent a lot of time with the films designers.
In terms of appearance, this is a strange release. It’s not a film tie-in in the traditional sense, but it does synchronise with the film’s look and timeline, and it has opted to digitally recreate the actors who starred in the trilogy. However, there are many other characters in the game who never appeared in the films, but are just as important to Lord of the Rings lore as their Hollywood-clad brethren. Players will get to meet Randagast the Wizard; as well Elrond’s own sons, and many others, all digitally recreated from real actors. Equally, the game features locations not seen in the films such as the Ettenmoors and Mirkwood, but these have been recreated in a way that feels a perfect fit for Jackson’s interpretation of the series.
However, the game’s engine does present some frustrations. The character models are like brick walls when trying to get around them. If you’re playing with someone else (let alone two people!) and you’re both looking for loot or trying to get around each other for combat purposes, it’s a struggle. In fact, some pathways are designed as such, that if a player is stood in the middle of them, and the other player is behind them, trying to get past, they will need to wait for the player to move because there is no leeway.
Shriek like a Nazgul!
I suppose the biggest irony in the release of War in the North is that, while all the characters have been faithfully recreated from the films, not a single one of the original actors recorded a line of voice acting for the game. Instead, Snowblind have hired a slew of voice actors to sound as authentic as possible. The closest being Gandalf (even though it is clearly not Ian McKellen) with the rest being pretty average interpretations. I suppose it is to be expected as most of the actors have moved onto other projects, but with The Hobbit due next year and some of the original cast attached, it might have been good to have them come in for a session or two.
Amongst the actors of the actors however, Snowblind have hired some high-profile voice-overs, including Frank Oz, better known as Fozzie Bear and Master Yoda and Mr ‘Do I ever stop working on Video Game Voice-Overs?’ Nolan North.
What was a big shock for me, however, is how little War in the North uses the established Lord of the Rings soundtrack. I suppose it could have been under copyright, but considering the rights to the game are owned by Warner Brothers and Warner Brothers published the game, I doubt that was an issue. Instead, the game’s score seems to be mostly made anew, and while it is ok, I kind of yearned for Howard Shore’s orchestral majesty during some of the game’s dramatic moments.
The Fellowship cannot fail
I’ve already made enough of a point about this, but I’m going to emphasise it again, play this in multiplayer. Don’t even bother trying this alone; you’ll turn it off before you even get properly started. It’s a game designed for co-op play, and that’s exactly where WITN is at its best.
The game does support local, split-screen play, but you can also go online, create and join other people’s sessions. Playing an RPG in this way is so very sublime and refreshing, and a real pleasure compared to the usual online affairs we’re saturated with.
Did I like it, or should they have put a ring in it?
Playing War In The North is a bumpy road, the ambition for a great title is here, but unfortunately, Snowblind have overlooked too much for me to ignore. As such, it’s a game that should probably never be experienced alone, but is almost certainly worth a punt with a friend or two.
One thing is for sure, Snowblind have created a decent template with WITN, one, that I hope game developers will continue to build on for many years to come.