Developer: Snowblind Studios
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, Windows
Huzzah! Yet another video game bastardisation of the Tolkien-eschewing Peter Jackson trilogy, this time in action-RPG form rather than RTS or LEGO. Beginning at the same moment Frodo and Sam depart from Bag End, War in the North’s trio – an Elf, a Dwarf and a Ranger – are tasked by a Bree-dwelling Strider with tracking down Agandaur, the cruellest and most powerful of Sauron’s emissaries, and stemming the flow of Orcish evil that’s spreading south. Like Lothlorien ships in the night, the paths of your company and the Fellowship’s cross on numerous occasions as you take in the sights of Middle-Earth and journey from Rivendell to the Gray Mountains and beyond, through dungeons deep and caverns old.
War in the North was sort of designed as a co-op game, but on a first run-through single player is best. You can swap between any of the three playable characters at any point in the story, and each comes with their own set of unique powers and unlockable abilities. Combat is your typical button-mashing fare really, but it grows less mind numbingly lame-brained when you get farther in and hone your skills tree, which gives you explosive cross bow bolts, swathing group attacks and instant party-healing spells. In more open levels you can also call in eagle air support, which is as cool as it sounds. Simple as the mechanisms are, chaining together a brutal series of hacking slashes culminating in a limb-hewing finishing move remains satisfying to the last. After a play through or two (the game is quite short, but you have to complete it on the current setting before you can ascend in difficulty) it is evident that the Dwarf is the best character; he deals the most damage, gets the best weapons, has the most destructive multi-attacks and even a slight rounding to his personality – the other two are bland as a pine tabletop veneer. The Ranger’s stealth mode and the Spellsword’s healing shield pale in comparison to Farin’s ‘War-Cry’ fuelled dismemberment sprees, more often than not accompanied by a quip or two (‘Have at it, you loathsome scum!’).
Held up against previous Tolkien games like The Third Age, War in the North doesn’t spoil the atmosphere of the War of the Ring one bit. Instead it enhances it. When you meet with Radagast, Gandalf and Elrond, the choice of narrative interactions makes you feel as though you’re watching deleted scenes that never left Peter Jackson’s cutting room, and bumping into Frodo – an opportunity easily missed if you don’t explore – gives your team a purer, higher cause than the assembling of a matching set of armour. Voice acting and dialogue, though not performed by the original cast, is totally in keeping with Tolkien’s grand scheme. Middle-Earth is beautiful too, blanketing you in elemental fantasy as you battle across vast and detailed maps. Sumptuous backdrops of the Shire and the Misty mountains have a watercolour charm to their design, and this makes up for the very occasional copy and pasted (naught naughty, Snowblind Studios) segments in the level layouts.
Now for the ‘groundbreaking’ Xbox Live co-op experience: ‘Best Multiplayer Award Nomination (G4’s Xplay)’, so the casing tells me. Nomination should be stressed here. Playing with two strangers across the internet was a nightmare. As host and at the maximum level enemies were set according to a difficulty befitting my character, meaning that the low-level mage (Gamertag: DraconianSlade) collapsed in need of reviving nearly every time we encountered enemies – which in this game is ALL the time. As I continually circled this delicate flower as a doomed gesture of protection, Erandan of the Dunedain (GT: Chippy III) was off in glorious battle and reaping the rewards. Players were forcibly kicked out sometimes during loading phases, and waiting at a checkpoint for over ten minutes while some prat fiddles with their inventory is no fun at all. As for joint-group finishing actions, they’re hard to time and even harder if the connection is poor, so in the majority of cases you come off as a kill-stealing f-uruk stick. Split-screen co-op is straightforward and fun, at least.
I’m a sucker for a good – hell, even a bad – Role Playing Game; this is neither of those, but is made irresistible to me by the Warner Brothers LOTR license. Developers Snowblind succeeded in moulding the familiar format into 2o-30 hours of Middle-Earth magic, and in doing so have rescued it from teeming mediocrity as would be a puffed out Dwarf by an eagle of the Misty Mountains.
My stint at Xbox Magazine now over with, I can almost promise that this will be the last game review for a while. Words about films will be back soon.