Snowblind Studios has released their M Rated Lord of the Rings game this week subtitled ‘War in the North’. Deviating from the ‘re-tell the story of the War of the Ring we all know and love’ pattern of most Lord of the Rings games, this game tells you the story arc of a threat far to the North – a lieutenant of Sauron’s set on following in the Witch King’s footsteps and waging war on the Northern lands from Angmar. Are blood, guts, and a new story the foundation of a good Lord of the Rings action RPG?
A Fellowship of… 3?
In War in the North you can play as one of 3 characters. Each of these characters is a form of hybrid, with both melee and ranged trees available to them to allow them to specialize as you wish. The Dwarf – Farin – uses heavy weapons, shields, and a crossbow and has a lot of a tank focus to his abilities. The Human – Eradan – uses a bit more finesse with swords and bows as his primary focus and a lot of stealth and speed behind his abilities. The Elf – Andriel – uses staves, and if you spec a certain way, swords. She fires bolts of energy for her ranged attack, but can easily be specced to be a strong and versatile melee fighter. She was the character I used most during my time playing.
Each of these characters has a history, but none of them really feel very believable nor is there any explanation ever given of why they’re together to begin with save that they happened to be at the same place at the same time. The characters never really feel like what they’re supposed to be. For example, Andriel is a Lore-master who states she was trained by Elrond himself – yet she seems to lack very basic knowledge of Middle-Earth. Each of the characters has moments like that where it really just brings home how poor of a job developing these characters was done.
The game also includes many of the characters from the movies such as most of the Fellowship, Elrond, Arwen, Halbarad, Barliman Butterbur, among others as side characters. These characters don’t sound like they were voiced by the actors from the movie despite obviously being designed to resemble them in appearance. The side-characters mostly feel pretty stale, and aside from Arwen, Butterbur, Radagast and the Eagles never really feel like how the characters should feel. The Eagles are probably the highlights of the character roster. You encounter 4 different eagles, including the Windlord himself, and one of the 4 – Belaram – is a constant part of your game, accompanying you in the skies and coming at your request to assist in battle. The Eagles are portrayed exactly as I would expect, with a level of wisdom granted by their unique position among the world but still having the ferocity one would expect of a giant predatory bird.
Lord of the Rings-ish
To say War in the North is loosely based on the lore of Tolkien’s world is a bit of an understatement. For anyone who is a really deep fan of the Lord of the Rings, this game is going to hurt. I know it did me. From little things like calling Eradan ‘A Dunadan’ and the flowers Elanor and Niphredil being found in the Northern lands at all to bigger things like the whole ‘Elves throwing energy bolts’ and ‘Goblins and Orcs are two different things’, the game is full of things that do not do Lord of the Rings justice. Absolutely full, I couldn’t go through a single section of the game without at least a few things that just didn’t feel right being thrown at me.
But not only is it singing very loose with the lore of Lord of the Rings… it also plays loose with the atmosphere. The only times I really felt like I was in the Lord of the Rings were the cutscenes where I was flying from place to place. During those, the atmosphere is there, but everywhere else it just doesn’t feel like Lord of the Rings. And it doesn’t matter how often I have inane conversations with Elrond or how many times I visit the Prancing Pony, it doesn’t change the fact that it just feels like someone just paying lip-service to the world. And this is really unfortunate, because Middle Earth has probably the most rich and deep world of any fantasy universe and it has a unique type of fantasy feel to it that is just fantastic – but this game just never quite reaches there. One cool part to it all was that the game recognized which character you were playing as and had them take the lead in conversations – and the conversations actually change depending on who you’re playing.
The story itself is somewhat nonsensical in a predictable way. The only time it really actually surprised me at all was right at the end, and that was not a pleasant surprise. I’m not going to spoil the end here, but suffice it to say that the way the ending unfolds prettymuch makes your accomplishments completely without value. It really does a good job of belittling you, without even directly saying it’s doing so. I was left feeling cheated of any sense of achievement, and out of the possibility of redemption for this game’s story by one sentence uttered from a Dragon’s mouth. From exalted to disappointed in about 10 words. An impressive feat, if not a positive one.
Epic Vistas and Bland Peoples to Fill ’em
The game’s scenery is exquisite. The look of the backgrounds in the Barrow Downs or in Rivendell are just gorgeous. Most of the character models on the other hand definitely feel dated. Especially the main characters – they just look kind of dry and bland. Regardless of which customization options you pick or which armour you’re equipping, the main characters just kind of look odd. Probably the only character models that don’t look really weird are the Eagles, which again show what the developers are capable of. The detail and animations put into the Eagles feel like they’re just miles beyond everything else in this game. If they’d put the same love and attention to detail into designing every major character, the game would’ve looked a lot better. One interesting visual touch was that when you shoot enemies with arrows/bolts you can see them sticking out of the enemy until they die. It was quite awesome to see a troll with 30 arrows in his shoulders, neck, and head charging at you – no matter how poorly the troll was animated.
The music is just as exquisite as the vistas. The themes do carry the same epic feeling as those from the Lord of the Rings movies, which certainly helped to make the game more enjoyable. One odd aspect of the ambient sound and music is that the volume was sometimes a little poorly thought out – with the ambient noise occasionally overpowering the voices to a pretty significant extent. The sound effects and voicework, on the other hand, never really felt cohesive. Sounds like the sound of a staff cutting something’s arm or head off… or of a mace being used to stab something through the heart… just never quite added up for me. And the voicework really felt like it was rushed and kind of an over-thought. Some characters sounded like they were trying way too hard to sound like the actors from the movies, while others just didn’t sound anything like what the character would be expected to sound like. The main characters were even a little awkward in their conversations.
Cutting arms off… with a staff!
The gameplay of this game is pretty typical of an action rpg. You have a strong and a weak attack, as well as various abilities you learn. One interesting aspect was ‘hero mode’ – when you attacked you gradually built up a hidden ‘critical strike’ meter, and eventually a little yellow triangle would appear atop the enemy’s head. When this appeared, you could push the ‘strong attack’ button to perform a critical which staggered the enemy and did extra damage. After doing a critical, as long as you continued attacking and didn’t take any attacks from stronger monsters you entered ‘Hero Mode’ which gave you bonus damage to all attacks and an increased chance to stagger the opponent when attacking them – interrupting any attacking or blocking they’re doing. Trying to maintain Hero Mode was a huge focus of the combat in larger fights, and it did add an entertaining dynamic to a rather repetitive combat system. Every character also had a ranged attack, the Elf’s fueled by ‘Power'(think mana or energy) while the Ranger/Champion just used arrows which were fairly common in the environment and at stores. Each class also has a distinct special ability. The Elf, for example, could pick herbs to brew into potions, the ranger saw footprints that lead to secrets and treasures and stuff, and the Dwarf could mine gems.
Each class had 3 skill or talent trees, focused in different ways(ex. the Elf could specialize in support magic, melee weapons, or ranged combat/spells). There were various active abilities as well as some passives to enhance them – sometimes in quite unique ways. Even though the skill tree system has been done a million times – it’s not a bad thing. And the trees in War in the North were fairly interesting and encouraged diverse gameplay. It was a little odd to be doing positively ridiculous damage in melee with a loremaster, but that’s a pretty minor complaint.
The game rewarded you for accomplishing certain feats – such as hit streaks, critical hits, dismembering enemies, headshots or getting the last hit on enemies sometimes. These rewards came in the form of small experience rewards which were nice little bonuses. But most of the bonuses were way too easy to attain. Getting a headshot was as simple as aiming in the general vicinity of his head, dismembering enemies just happened when you performed criticals – regardless of if you were using an edged weapon or not which was odd, and last hit bonuses seemed completely random. I got over a 100 hit streak three times, and didn’t get any special reward for getting that high. Bonuses are great, but you really need to give them both for the easy and for the difficult, and this seemed to just be for the really easy things which made them feel shallow.
The controls were fairly unresponsive – especially when trying to attack certain monsters. Sometimes the game would misunderstand who you wanted to attack and have you jump towards an enemy in a bad spot. Other times you’d attack an enemy and just sort of… phase through him and start attacking out the other side. Also awkward were the times where you’re fighting larger enemies and can’t see the top of them so you can’t see whether you have a critical indicator to know if you can perform a special attack on them.
When a character loses their hp, they sort of crawl around waiting to be revived. NPC characters were obsessed with reviving, and would often just sit there running into enemies if surrounded trying to get to their ally rather than attacking. It’s good that reviving is a priority, but things like that do need some measure of restrictions on it to prevent the npcs from just getting themselves killed needlessly. Unfortunately, the AI of the characters isn’t strong to begin with, with AI characters often either charging into masses of enemies and just dying horribly, or in Eradan’s case often grabbing one enemy’s attention and just running away as far as he can with that enemy in tow.
Of course, if you could just ignore the AI companions, things would get a lot better right? Yep! That’s why there’s coop play. The coop play is actually really well done, and playing with others makes a lot of the gameplay flaws a lot less apparent because of the fun of playing this sort of thing in coop. The downside – unless you know someone to play with online or in person, good luck finding anyone to play with. The ‘public game’ system is kind of poorly designed and hard to get into without a friend to invite you.
The game’s difficulty suffered from weird spiking in odd places. There were cases where the difficulty would go from so easy it was almost non-existent to so hard it was almost impossible over the course of a turn of a corner with no real apparent reason for it. It’s one thing to have difficult scripted events or even just hard parts in reasonable locations(like you fall into a trap and the enemies capitalize on it) – but to just have random dramatic spikes in difficulty feels like poor design.
It’s raining loot…. hallelujah, it’s raining loot!
The loot aspect of the game was fairly interesting. I loved the concept that item sets had multiple different items that could fulfill the same slot in a set – so if you really liked a certain set, you just had to look for a higher quality version of a slot and you could keep using it. That is one of the coolest ideas for sets I’ve seen in a long time. The special stats on the loot are also fairly interesting, although some of them feel kind of out of place in Lord of the Rings.
The downside to this is the inventory system is really awkward. You have very limited space – especially if you’re playing as the loremaster and gathering herbs. The herbs and potions will take up most of your inventory as you go along, and you’ll have trouble finding space for things like feathers, vendor trash, and elf-stones. The sheer amount of vendor trash is obnoxious as well, since it doesn’t have it’s own category and takes up a lot of space and has literally no purpose but to sell for coins.
Repairing gear felt really unnecessary, and was made awkward by the lack of a ‘repair all’ option which meant you had to individually click on each piece of gear you wanted to repair. Another silly thing was the existence of ‘stores’ in the silliest places(there’s a store in a giant’s lair) which weren’t actual merchants, just magic swirling lines you could buy and sell items to and from.
There are a lot of bugs in this game. From weird AI glitches to odd invisible walls to temporarily invulnerable barrels to buff potions sometimes not working… but the absolute most frustrating bug of them all is quite possibly the weirdest bug I’ve seen in a while. If you play the Loremaster and get the ‘dual wield staff/sword’ talent, and then either a) Die or b) Quit the game – it will forget you were equipping an off-hand weapon at all and leave you with just your staff. Which was very frustrating especially when you found places where you died frequently.
While invisible walls are quite common even to this day – it’s always frustrating when a game doesn’t align them with logical stopping points. War in the North not only doesn’t align them with logic… it actually often puts them in places that look like blatant paths. Not really acceptable nowadays.
Also unacceptable is not having a manual save or an obvious way to tell when it is safe to quit. Sure you can say that ‘just wait for the little swirly thing telling you it’s saving’ but unfortunately that didn’t always work for me. At one point I quit right after that finished, went back to play a few hours later, and had to redo a major combat scene. Frustrating, and bad design. What’s so wrong about either a manual save option or at least putting a ‘last autosave: x minutes ago’ display on the menu so you can know for sure. If it says <1 minute ago… you know you’re safe!
As a huge Lord of the Rings fan, this game’s blatant disregard for the wonderful story and world that it takes place in feels disrespectful and actually bothers me a great deal. As a gamer on the other hand, this game scrapes the surface of mediocrity. It has some good ideas, it has some fun moments and it has some fantastic scenery, but those get buried under bland story, buggy gameplay, and awkward mechanics and falls short of creating a truly engaging experience. However, if you happen to have two good friends who are interested in playing a cooperative action rpg – then the coop game may just win you over if you can ignore the horrible things this game does to Tolkien’s masterful work of art.
- Phenominal scenery for backgrounds.
- Eagles portrayed very well.
- Coop gameplay is very well done.
- Skill trees worked well.
- Loot was interesting.
- The way ‘set items’ were handled was amazing and I hope it carries forward into future action rpgs with loot systems of this style.
- Some aspects of combat were fun such as hero mode and exp rewards.
- Music was very good.
- The character you chose to play took the lead in conversations.
- The game is full of lore gaps and disrespect for Tolkien’s works.
- Game has a ton of bugs of all shapes and sizes.
- Animations and character models for nearly every character – good and bad – are really poor.
- AI of allied characters is really really poor.
- Inventory system is really badly designed.
- Vendor trash doesn’t really work for this game.
- Repairing is awkward and unwieldly
- Difficulty is really uneven
- Unresponsive controls and awkward ‘targeting’ makes for a less pleasant combat experience
- Sound effects are weird
- Certain animations make no sense – such as decapitating with a staff or a mace
- No manual save and no way to tell when it is safe to quit without losing progress.
- NPC characters didn’t really feel right, especially when they were established characters in Lord of the Rings canon.
- Main characters felt really poorly developed and not very believable.
- Public games in multiplayer hard to get involved in.
- Never really felt like Lord of the Rings.
- Character customization options are shallow and limited.
- ‘Swirly’ shops in random places made no sense.
- Ending is really bad – actually completely undermines the sense of achievement you might’ve otherwise gotten from the game.
Review written by: Sean