The lights are on
Gamers have seen their fair share of the Lord of the Rings.
The lore of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy world spans almost every video game genre,
from real-time strategy to MMOs. So when it was announced that Snowblind
Studios, the developer behind Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of
Norrath, was making a co-op based action RPG set in Middle Earth, the hairs on
the back of my neck stood up. Visions of an isometric loot fest combining the
gameplay of Dark Alliance with one of my favorite fantasy stories ever filled
my head day after day.
With much regret, I am looking back on those daydreams and
sighing. Sadly, War In the North fails to display many of the features that
Tolkien fans have been wishing for. The game makes an effort to keep up with
the modern RPG, and does well at incorporating most of the elements that the
genre is known for today. The problem is, none of them are executed well, and
some are just shades of what they could be.
The redeeming factor that sets War in the North apart from
other titles based in Middle Earth is the fact that it follows a storyline
parallel to that of the ubiquitous fellowship. RTS title Battle for Middle
Earth did likewise, but the storytelling potential in Snowblind's attempt holds
a greater presence. Following the story of an elf, a man, and a dwarf who set
out to fight the Dark Lord Sauron's forces in the Northern kingdoms of men, the
stage is set for a would-be engaging co-op experience.
The elf and dwarf fill out the ranged mage and brawler
archetypes, respectively, while the man strikes a middle ground. If the
character progression had been implemented well, this dynamic between three
friends would work wonders for the game. However, the class skills for each character
are spread randomly throughout three separate skill trees. The Elven power
Sanctuary begins one of the paths, but upgrades for it are littered across the
entire screen. If you want to make this bubble shield able to heal your
teammates, you'll first have to increase your melee damage. This allows little
for prior planning, and makes character progression almost tedious while the
combat doesn't help the situation at all.
Well-designed RPG's scale enemies according to the player's
level, but not so much that it doesn't feel like the character is improving.
The same cannot be said for War in the North. As I increased my dwarf's War Cry
ability, I expected the results to be more apparent, but the enemy orcs and
goblins scaled almost completely parallel to me. This made my teammate damage
buff seem useless. Aside from very late game improvements, I seldom felt more
powerful than my enemies. This, coupled with the fact that the majority of
adversaries don't react to a sword striking them, made for such laborious
combat that I could not wait to finish skirmishes.
Enemy variety in the game is somewhat refreshing, with
trolls, berserkers, and archers supplementing the normal foot soldiers. The
bosses, however, rarely deviated from the first encounter. Literally, aside
from a few anomalies, every boss seemed recycled, albeit with a changed color
palette or improved damage and health. This makes for exhausting battles as it
is, but when the final boss that you prepare the entire game for still succumbs
to this lack of individualism, it really shows.
It is hard to go wrong with a narrative when you have pages
upon pages of fantasy lore to build on, and War in the North will please
Tolkien fans in this area. The story following the group will bring the
player into contact with characters such as Elrohir and Elladan, Elrond's twin
sons, and it was intriguing to see such rarely mentioned names make it into a
video game. New environments like Mirkwood and Fornost make for engaging locales, and each part of the world has its own unique aesthetic, although they're all a little bit confined. While the journey didn't particularly entrance me, the new approach
to the Lord of the Rings license was a welcome reprieve from the story that has
been retold many times over.
As a Tolkien fan, I couldn't wait for the story of the Northern
kingdoms to be portrayed in a video game. With a high-grossing movie trilogy
and a plethora of video games showcasing the battles against Mordor and
Isengard, I was eager for Snowblind's take on the events on the other side of
Middle Earth. I wasn't let down in this respect. As a video game fan, however,
I can't help but feel very disappointed. I still have those daydreams about the
ideal Lord of the Rings game, and I still think that the content is there for
an addictive RPG, but Snowblind failed to deliver on both.
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