The Lord of the Rings: War in the North
Five years ago, I would have counted Snowblind Studios among my favorite RPG developers. Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath demonstrated that Snowblind knew how to combine action, character progression, and loot into an irresistible formula. I still look back at those titles and wish that breed of gameplay had more time in the spotlight. While my love for action/RPGs and respect for the studio got me excited for War in the North, they are also what led to me being incredibly let down by this clumsy and unpolished adventure.
If you focus on the individual components, War in the North appears to be a recipe for success. Set in Tolkien’s quintessential fantasy universe, this third-person action/RPG puts players in control of a wannabe Fellowship storming through familiar locations and hacking through goblins, orcs, and trolls. Once killed, these creatures drop plenty of loot and award experience that players allocate in skill trees, giving each character an array of unique passive and active abilities. When you consider all of those features plus local and online co-op, War in the North sounds great. The problem is that just having features isn’t enough; they need to be well-implemented and fun. I could complain about lots of little things, but most of my issues are connected to one large problem: War in the North does not feel like a finished game.
Combat has traditional hack-and-slash mechanics, but is unsatisfying thanks to the encounter design. In the first part of the game, battles are hilariously easy since your companions can revive you easily and the enemies go down quickly (even if you go solo, all three heroes are always in play). That’s when things are at their best, because at least you and your companions can have some fun mowing down hordes of bad guys. Later, your foes have substantially more hit points, can interrupt your revival attempts, and they essentially stop reacting to any of your moves. They perform uninterruptable attacks as you lumberjack away at them like meat trees, never flinching or staggering under your assault.
The escalating sense of power is one of the major draws in this genre, but it isn’t the salvation it could be here. Your attacks do more damage as you level, but the enemies also get stronger, so you’re just rising with the tide rather than getting more formidable. Ideally, the abilities you unlock for each character would help punctuate the tedium, but they don’t. Firstly, the abilities in the skill tree seem randomly arrayed. For instance, the Champion (warrior) has an ability called War Cry, but upgrades for War Cry are scattered across all three of the main trees. Secondly, the powers themselves aren’t inventive or exciting, and the mana bar governing them recharges slowly.
The sloppy mechanics and lack of innovation make War in the North feel like a licensed game that was rushed to market to coincide with a movie’s release – except, in this case, there’s no movie in theaters. It has the same stale objectives that define that breed of game, not to mention room after room padded out with practically identical encounters. You can tackle them with friends in co-op if you want, but even that has some kinks. The online functionality works fine, but if you want to play on the same couch in two-player split screen, you each need your own profile with its own data. That’s fine if you’re starting at the same time, but what if you’re over at a friend’s place and just want to play for a level or two? You’re going to be a first-level load with lousy gear.
War in the North also has problems beyond its design. I encountered several glitches, though most were minor (like characters getting stuck on the environment or enemies not moving). However, one bug in the PS3 version near the end of the game made it impossible for me to progress. I couldn’t restart the mission, I couldn’t warp back to town, and (because the game auto-saves to a single slot) I couldn’t load an earlier level. Fortunately, I’m in a position as a reviewer where I can contact the developers and get new saves sent to me. Most consumers aren’t so lucky, and would lose all of their progress if hit by the same bug.
I can only say one good thing about War in the North: It could have been awesome. The conceptual framework is solid, and with some extensive tuning and polish, it would be fun to play. Just thinking of War in the North reimagined as an old-school isometric adventure (à la Dark Alliance) gets me pumped up…but it’s too late for that now. Snowblind Studios’ record proves that it knows how to make good action/RPGs. I hope that happens again in the future.