Since Peter Jackson gave the Lord of the Rings a long overdue revival with his film trilogy, more games have been set in Middle-earth than most gamers care to remember. There have been action games, rpgs, action-rpgs, strategy games and of course MMOs to bind them all together. To say these games have been hit-and-miss would be an understatement: the excellence of the Two Towers and Return of the King, is truly highlighted when placed next to such a dismal offering like Conquest.


Abide by the lore and you can't go wrong, right?


Let me just say that I'm a massive Lord of the Rings fan, and in my opinion Snowblind Studios produced one of the best PS2 games of all time in Baldurs Gate: Dark Alliance. Given these two facts, it's fair to say that my expectations coming into this were pretty high. I would've thought designing a game set in Middle-earth would be a developer's dream come true: the lore is so rich and extensive that once you've worked out where your story fits in, it's just a case of getting the game mechanics right, ensuring it all ties together and making the adventure fun. It pains me to say this, but Snowblind Studios have failed on most counts.


Firstly, the story is so predictable that the only real positive to note is that the developers at least sought to carve out their own adventure, rather then rehash the Ring's story arc. In this tale Agandaur, one of Sauron's most trusted lieutenants, has been sent to rally the orcs, goblins, and other miscreants in the north to the Dark Lord's cause. Once gathered this army will be unleashed upon the free-peoples of the northern territories, preventing them from sending aid to the kingdoms of Gondor and Rohan when Sauron eventually rides out from Mordor. Enter an "unlikely" alliance of elf, dwarf and man, who have vowed to stand strong in the face of adversity and defeat this most wicked foe. It's safe to say this isn't originality to write home about, but insipid story telling and stereotypical character design can often be overlooked if the gameplay kicks ass.


Quick, we need Ben-Gay!


Unfortunately this is the weakest area of War in the North: the combat style is dull and repetitive, dialogue options have no impact on story progression, and the quest system makes being a postman look exciting. The heroes all have access to melee and ranged fighting styles, with each possessing unique skills and buffs to aid the quest for victory. The dwarf acts as the tank class, the ranger is your ubiquitous rogue-warrior hybrid, and the elf is, you guessed it, the mage of the group. Now this sort of rpg-by-numbers design could be forgiven, if there were tangible differences between the characters' play styles and utilisation, yet no matter which of three you choose, fights essentially boil down to mashing square and triangle until all the enemies have been eviscerated. Speaking of which, combat is satisfying in that it at least feels real: the brutal and gory nature of fighting with pointy objects is nicely punctuated by the near endless display of previously owned limbs flying across your screen. (As a side-note, it's easy to see why this was the first Lord of the Rings game to receive an M-rating - a 15 for us across the Pond.) The combat is so reliant on button mashing that the Challenge maps, i.e. survival mode, should really come with a carpel tunnel warning attached.



Breaking up this bash-the-orcs-till-they-die fun is a simplistic tower defense mini-game that I'd expect to see in the upcoming Modern Warfare 3: Back to Middle-earth expansion pack. At various points you're tasked with defending a couple of vulnerable NPCs from a horde of orcs, goblins and trolls while they perform something seemingly mundane like opening a door. You just happen to become aware of a couple of mounted-crossbows left in the near vicinity, and you're kindly informed by a smart-ass member of your party, that someone - nudge, nudge - should go make use of it. So off you trot and proceed to spam what can only be described as "flaming grenades" at the enemies seeking to dismember your buddies. Whilst humorous in its execution, it's downright depressing that Snowblind felt the way to improve the game's pacing was to throw in yet another repetitive and poorly designed idea.


Another flaw lies with the characters' skill builds: you earn experience points from vanquishing foes that are then spent on character progression in the form of stat upgrades and skill purchases. The stat boosts work nicely, impacting your maximum health, available mana or power and damage capabilities with the various weapon types. The skill trees however, are not so well designed. You gain a point each level to spend on various active or passive skills and buffs, yet there is no overarching sense of cohesion in their implementation, as skills are scattered randomly across the skills tree. For instance, under the War Cry ability, there are skill upgrades relating to the dwarf's other abilities, with no explanation as to why this is so. It feels a bit half-arsed on the developer's behalf, if I may be so bold.


Treasure highland


For all the negativity regarding design choices, there is some genuine fun to be had with this title. The ability to engage in both offline and online multiplayer allows players to attempt the higher difficulty settings with a friend, rather than the aforementioned clunky AI, whilst the option to switch characters at checkpoints can help alleviate some of the combat's repetitiveness. However, the loot and equipment systems are far and away the best parts of this troubled game. Each hero has 12 slots for equipment, can wield class specific gear and utilise matching sets of armor for stacking bonuses, and has the option to augment existing gear using Elfstones (think of a watered down version of FFVII's materia system). Add to this the sheer volume of items to be discovered/traded-for and you have a dearth of customisation options at your disposal.



The graphics of War in the North are another success: weapons imbued with fire leave patterns in their wake, undead enemies glow from some foul magic, and the ground shakes under the oppressive weight of trolls, all add to the sense of death and destruction that threatens to envelope the north. The music and sound effects, while admittedly not as epic or as inspiring as the films', do a great job of truly immersing the player in each battle whilst also serving as a strong reminder of the source material's tone and overarching themes. 


To be fair to Snowblind Studios, there have been rumours in recent months that funding and support for the team was on the wane, and may help explain some of the lack of polish that has crept into the game. These claims gain more credence when you consider the absence of the actors' voices, despite the title being fully licensed by New Line Cinema and Warner Bros. Perhaps failure of the project may lie at another's door?


Closing Comments


War in the North could and should have been amazing: the developer had proven pedigree in the genre, the books are some of the finest novels ever written, and it was completely licensed to tap into the films' popularity. It's a shame therefore that dodgy design decisions and poor gameplay have left us with a game that promised so much, yet delivered very little. Given the Hobbit's arrival later this year, we may see yet another explosion in interest for games to be set in Middle-earth. If this is indeed the case, then War in the North would prove both an interesting starting point and tale of caution to all those involved.