Review

The Lord of the Rings: War in the North Review (PS3)

When you think about a perfect genre for a game based on The Lord of the Rings, RPG comes easily to mind. Just as it’s hard to find a fantasy novel that doesn’t crib something off from Tolkien, it’s nearly impossible to find a fantasy RPG that doesn’t copy-and-paste his saga almost wholesale, especially since the films.

Plans for an open-world Elder Scrolls-style RPG fell through as soon as EA realised how much work would be involved, now new licence owners Warner Bros have correctly surmised that the cheapest, quickest RPG to make is an Action RPG. They’ve even hired the developer behind the much-loved-by-people-who-haven’t-played-the-Bioware-games Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance to make it. With the movie version of the licence in place all they needed was something that fans hadn’t completely seen before (I’m looking at you The Third Age) as a hook. Thus was born The War In The North, and no, I don’t mean Lancashire Vs Yorkshire.

Aaaaaaaand… POSE DRAMATICALLY!

Everyone knows the journey of the Fellowship, and thanks to EA we’ve played all of it too several times over, but (as the game’s prologue ominously tells us) Sauron’s War of the Ring wasn’t limited to Gondor and Rohan alone. The Northern territories came under assault too, led by Sauron’s lieutenant, the evil Agandaûr. Playing one of three new characters – a Champion dwarf, Lore-Master (magic user) elf, Ranger bloke – you’re sent urp nowth to basically wage an entire warfront by yourselves. No pressure.

With the exception of EA’s Battle for Middle-Earth II no Lord of the Rings game has really covered this obscure area of the saga (which was barely mentioned in the books and totally ignored in the films), so I was personally quite excited by the prospect. I’m sad to report then that the story’s pretty much a load of gumph. The writing is a bunch of tosh, and worse, it’s boring tosh. All the characters have the personality of a grapefruit that has somehow learned to talk and has been playing Dungeons & Dragons for far too long. There isn’t one iota of humour, a modicum of camaraderie, or a whit of wit between them, with even a cool talking eagle reduced to sounding like he’s auditioning for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Still, at least main villain Agandaûr is kind of a badass, catching arrows, conjuring storms and jumping off towers onto flying Fell Beasts.

Player characters Elaran (Ranger), Andriel (Elf), and Farin (Scottish) are the worst offenders. There isn’t any explanation how a man, elf and dwarf came to become such firm friends, which is a pretty big deal since in Tolkien’s universe dwarves and elves kind of hate each other – even the movies could tell you that. Furthermore Snowblind makes no attempt to make these three seem like friends. Would a bit of humorous jabbing be too much to ask? The growing respect between Legolas and Gimli was one of the best parts of Lord of the Rings, why make everyone so stern-faced here? There’s not even any dwarf-tossing gags.

Consequently the only things making these characters stand out are their abilities. Andriel is a magic user so is consequently the most unique (well, at least in the game), and she can also gather herbs to mix into potions and stuff. Eradan can discover hidden Ranger caches where all the best stuff is stored, and Farin… er… I guess he’s a bit tougher at fighting? He’s not quite the dwarf tank I was expecting, and frankly I got bored of him quickly and went back to Eradan, as he’s much the same and that cache thing is just too useful.

Hardly fair odds…

You can change characters between sections, but why in single-player can’t you change between the three any time you want? This is clearly meant as a co-operative title, that’s why, although I’m pleased to report that the ally AI is at least acceptable. They always change to the best armour, can hold their own in a fight, rarely block you in corridors, will heal you when you need it and will quickly revive you if you go down. Of course the downside of that efficiency is that the game’s rather easy in single-player – I fell loads of times and was up on my feet nearly instantly.

Okay, so the writing’s crap and the single-player’s not much of a challenge, what about the gameplay? Thankfully, it’s not a total shambles. Granted Snowblind has made absolutely zero effort to move the Action RPG genre forward however, you’ll still be pressing ‘X’ a lot with the occasional ‘Y’, doing a lot of looting/buying/selling and smashing a brewery’s worth of barrels and a museum’s worth of pots. What’s the difference then between this and, say, the abysmal Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale? This I actually had fun with.

The levels are open, varied and pretty, not the dingy cramped dungeons that pervade a lot of the genre. Regular enemies don’t take too long to fall so you’re never bored by the time you get to the next one, and the harder ones actually require tactical blocking and dodging. The controls are simple and tight, with only a few special powers so things don’t get overcomplicated in the heat of battle. Those powers are kept simple but effective, but with the added bonus of now and again being able to call down a feckin’ giant eagle to whisk off Orc Captains or grapple with Trolls.

It’s most definitely entertaining, and I personally hit that wondrous gaming nirvana which is the “just one more go” addiction factor. I did enjoy my time with the game, and despite my earlier complaints it is most definitely fine to play in single-player albeit, as I mentioned, it’s a bit easy. That’s not a factor in co-op of course, as human teammates won’t instantly know when you’ve gone down and where, making for a much more strategic and team-based experience. But then co-op’s always great, even when you’re playing with inept losers. “Revive me you c*** I’m crawling right in front of you” became my catchphrase after a while.

PWNED BITCH

However, sadly War In The North hits a point somewhere around Chapter 4 where it stops being able to throw surprises at you. The first few chapters are good, and the haunted Barrow-Downs of Chapter 2 is downright excellent, then the too-powerful Trolls start turning up regularly and the whole thing gets more than a little tedious. Repetition is always a problem in Action RPGs, and Snowblind haven’t done quite enough to get over that fact.

Which is a shame, as it’s certainly my favourite action RPG this year, leaving previous best Dungeon Siege III in the dust thanks to a sensible camera angle and Agandaûr being a far cooler villain than the unimpressive JAYNE KASSYNDER. If only the single-player wasn’t so easy, the story was so uninvolved, the characters so frickin’ dull and the gameplay didn’t get predictable halfway through. Nevertheless it’s a comfortable Action RPG that makes up for its shortcomings with addictive fun, cool three-player co-op and a goddamned giant talking eagle. Just push a few boundaries and hire a scriptwriter next time Snowblind, please.

Top Game Moment: Taking on a Troll, ducking, weaving, slicing at his legs, then calling Beleram the Eagle down on the stony bastard’s head.

Format Reviewed: Xbox 360

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