The Lord of the Rings: War in the North Review
The War in The North takes place during the War of the Ring. While Frodo and The Fellowship make their way towards Mordor, a band of three heroes work together to prevent Sauron's lieutenant Agandaur from gathering an army in Middle Earth's northern lands for the impending battle for Gondor. As far as the story goes there will be no mistaking it for something penned by Tolkien, and, in fact, it's even somewhat on the weak side for a video game. Still, this is a hack and slash game, and if all that you're interested in is hack and slash it certainly fits the bill.
The three aforementioned heroes are Eradan, a Dunedain Ranger, Andriel, an Elven Loremaster, and Farin, a Dwarven Champion, or a ranged class, a caster, and a tank. The characters themselves are rather generic, doubly so for a game set in Middle Earth, and outside of slaying hordes of orcs and their ilk serve mostly to ask basic questions of NPCs and say "yes" to each quest offered. Each one of these characters is playable and the game is essentially a three-player co-op game with the AI taking over any characters not being played.
While the story and characters in the game may not be up to the high standards set by its license, one thing that the game nailed is the look of Middle Earth, at least as envisioned by Peter Jackson in the movie trilogy. The weapons, armor, and architecture in the game are instantly recognizable as elven, dwarven, orcish, or as originating from any of the other cultures of Middle Earth. The famous characters from the films bear the likenesses of the actors that portrayed them, although the voice work is done by other actors mimicking the vocal styles of the originals. The game features a number of original locations not taken from the films, but those locations fit within the films' aesthetics and in that way at least the game makes a nice companion piece to the films for their fans.
The game essentially plays as a series of arena battles. The party will enter an area and the exit will be barred until several waves of enemies or a boss are eliminated, at which point the exit will be opened, a new area entered, � rinse, repeat, repeat again. For each faction of enemies (orc, undead, etc.) the enemy types are limited and there is a hierarchy among them from weak to strong that you'll quickly learn to recognize. While this helps to let you know who you need to concentrate on as a team, it also means that there is an awful lot of repetition in the game when it comes to the battles. Some of the boss fights are more distinctive, but it's hard to say that any of the other battles are particularly memorable; they all sort of blend together in your mind after playing. That being said, I was still able to derive a certain amount of satisfaction from the battles, more so than I thought I would from a game like this. Part of it was probably due to the fun inherent in hacking through hordes of dimwitted minions of Sauron, which was made more so by the fact that the game doesn't shy away from blood and dismemberment � critical strikes sometimes treat you to a slow-mo view of the killing blow, but the game shows enough restraint to not overuse the slow-mo shots. Also helping things is that the controls are tight and well-implemented, and it's easy to quickly switch between basic attacks and special skills in the heat of combat. There are some annoyances, though, namely that you can sometimes unleash an uninterruptable multi-strike combo animation that hits nothing but air and the camera has some serious issues when you're pinned against a wall by multiple attackers.
If you want a break from hacking and slashing in the story quests, or are just looking to grind some experience, the game has several challenge levels that can be played at any time. These levels are the standard "survive as many waves as you can" style challenges, with a periodic boss wave tossed in to try to make things a little more interesting. Whether or not these bonus levels are a bonus to you will depend on how much of this type of hacking for hacking's sake you can take.
The War in the North certainly understands how important loot is in games like this. The loot is plentiful enough to make you feel rewarded for your efforts, but not so much so that you're sorting through an endless stream of throwaway junk. The weapons and armor come with a variety of stats boosts and are sometimes socketed, and can give even better boosts when an armor set is completed. Some of the loot is class-restricted, but that which isn't is shareable between the players and so can easily be given to the player that would benefit most from the stat boosts.
The RPG aspect of this action-RPG comes into play in attribute increases upon leveling and in the game's skill tree system. The four character attributes align with melee, ranged, and magical power and total health, so it's pretty straightforward where your points should be going based on the class that you're playing. The three skill trees for each character allow you to tweak their abilities to better suit your play style or their role in the team. For example, you can improve Andriel's health buffs or make her offensive spells more powerful or make Eradan a better archer or a stronger melee fighter. As is usually the case, it's better to specialize, making the character stronger in his or her role and also allowing access to the highest tier skills in one branch of the tree.
The War in the North is certainly more enjoyable when played with a couple of friends, especially if each player fills the role his or her character is designed for. However, the game can be played solo as well, with the AI taking over for the other two characters. In general the AI is pretty competent, in fact, surprisingly so, although AI characters don't seem capable of discovering the various hidden areas and secrets sprinkled around the game's levels. However, there is no interface to manage the AI characters and their loadouts. You can give a weapon or piece of armor to one of them, but whether or not they'll equip it and if it's any better than what they currently have equipped is a mystery, as is what they do with all of the equipment that you've given them through the course of the game. The only real way to tell if they've equipped something that you've given them is if their appearance changes immediately after the transfer. This issue isn't nearly as bad as the fact that the AI characters don't spend the attribute and skill points they earn while leveling up. You wouldn't even notice that this is an issue outside of the fact that they will progressively have a harder time carrying their weight as you make it deeper into the game. The only way to spend their points is to exit the game, select one of the AI characters, return to the game, manage his or her points, exit the game again, repeat with the next character, exit one more time, and then reenter the game as your character. And if you want the AI characters to keep up with the game, you'll have to do this each time one of them levels up. It's absolutely ridiculous that the game doesn't let you manage the AI characters from the same screens that you use to manage yours.
The War in the North would be more appealing if it were more than a battle, move forward, battle again grind and it provided better party management for solo players. The game can certainly be fun in bursts, but the repetition and other issues mean that it's not for everyone in the long run.
Final Rating: 69%. The hacking and slashing game is enjoyable enough over short stretches, but you'll inevitably wish that there was more to the game than that.