Though far from terrible, the latest slew of games based on Tolkien’s epic fantasy trilogy have been lacking. I still remember, back in the day, when I could happily switch between The Return Of The King and Third Age with a bit of Battle For Middle Earth on the side for good measure. Even when stretched across numerous genres, entries were consistent in both how fun they were and how well they mimicked the films’ aesthetic.
This isn’t to say that WB Games’ latest offerings are bad, not by any means. Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online is still going strong after six years with players eagerly awaiting the upcoming Helm’s Deep expansion. More recently, we’ve had fantasy MOBA, Guardians of Middle Earth and, of course, LEGO Lord of the Rings. Some may even remember Conquest, developed by former Stars Wars Battlefront/Mercenaris studio, Pandemic. Put simply, we don’t like to talk about Conquest.
Lord of the Rings certainly doesn’t have the same impact it used to and, even with The Hobbit due for a sequel this Winter, publisher Warner Bros. has done little to capitalise. One area that feels particularly vacant is the straight-up action game department. All three LOTR films were backed by fairly solid hack n’ slash titles, allowing players to recreate their favourite moments from the series.
Since then we’ve only had one particular stand-out, albeit one that wasn’t received too well.
Developed by Snowblind Studios (Champions of Norrath) War In The North was set to be the game which put LOTR back on the map. Instead of leaping onto The Hobbit bandwagon, this was a title aimed squarely at Tolkien enthusiasts, not to mention hardcore gamers.
The initial stream of media set the game in good stead. Running alongside the events of the film trilogy, players would step into the roles of a Ranger, Elf, and Dwarf, tasked with travelling to the Northern reaches of Middle Earth in order to seek out the massing ranks of an army.
Snowblind promised plenty of cameos and a deeper look at the Tolkien’s lore, players scouring not only mines but forests, barrows, and harsh mountains too. Even in execution, War In The North managed to deliver a more mature, grounded experience that, despite its core narrative devices, didn’t try and attach itself to the films too much.
Though it succeeded in painting a more diverse picture of Middle Earth, War In The North suffered where it mattered most: gameplay. Clearly channelling elements from Champions of Norrath, Snowblind created an action-heavy RPG though not one that relied on combo systems or copious amounts of customisation. Instead, its core was centred around beefy combat mechanics and the synergy between the three available characters.
Farin the Dwarf is your typical tank archetype, used to divert enemy attention and cause a general ruckus. Eladan, the Ranger, is just as effective up close though his skill with a bow means he’s also proficient at long-range attacks. Andriel, on the other hand, doubles up as both a healer and general damage-dealer.
It’s not the black and white spread of classes you would find in, say, an MMO, yet the differences are evident enough. Needless to say, it’s a sweet idea, each characters having their own skill trees and loot types, but these systems are undermined by the core gameplay itself.
Melee feels far too sluggish, no matter which class you’re playing. You’ll simply wade into the middle of a fight and stand still, hoping to pop off a few strikes before blocking and occasionally rolling to avoid powerful blows.
For the first couple of chapters it feels fine and oddly refreshing though, once you get stuck in, it begins to stale. Shooter-style ranged attacks and character abilities certainly help to spice things up, though they only do so much. The rest is a brutal, blood-splattered grind that feels awkward when stood next to games such as Batman: Arkham City, with its intense, free-flowing combat mechanics.
With that said, War In The North is still worth picking up, though only if you’re a LOTR fan – or, even better, have friends to play it with. Online co-op is one the game’s true saving graces, illuminating just how unresponsive the allied AI is when in singleplayer. If you’re someone who likes an RPG with an enhanced amount of depth and variety, War In The North is probably not the best choice, however.