With Game of Thrones and Skyrim taking up nearly all real estate in the heads of fantasy fans nowadays, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time, Lord of the Rings lorded over the genre. The movie trilogy was most enthralling and the games based on them weren’t all that bad.
Now, with the adaptation of The Hobbit on its way to theatres, is it high time that we dive into Middle Earth once again? Snowblind Studio’s newest game, The Lord of the Rings: War in the North, makes a pretty determined pitch that you do just that.
War in the North is an action-RPG that places you in control of three heroes: a human Ranger, an elven Loremaster, and a dwarven Champion. Theirs is a new quest set alongside the original trilogy, in which they try to vanquish Agandaur, one of Sauron’s lieutenants.
Sauron. Now there’s a name we missed. And further along, you do get to bump into some of the series’ iconic figures, which lend the game a wonderful sense of familiarity. It’s like you never left Middle Earth at all, and you’re instantly reminded why you obsessed over the series in the first place.
That the game nails the atmosphere, and that “something-epic-is-about-to-happen” feel that the LOTR movies have always had only makes it easier to get lost in this world again. Wraiths, humongous bird creatures, pissed trolls, ill-mannered orcs—they’re standard fantasy fodder, but they seem a lot more special when they’re doing their damage in LOTR.
For any hardcore LOTR fan, the new storyline and seeing Legolas or Gandalf strutting about in the masterfully represented locales in the game may be enough to warrant a purchase. But for gamers who have been spoiled by the deluge of grade-A titles this season, let’s first make clear what War in the North is not.
It’s not the open-ended affair that is Skyrim. It’s not the tight, modern action title that Arkham City is, nor is it the testosterone-overflow that is Modern Warfare 3. In spite of the modern graphics, War in the North is a classic action-RPG hack-and-slash that rarely takes significant gameplay risks.
That’s a compliment and a complaint at the same time. War in the North is as intense as we’ve seen any LOTR game, and in fact, it’s the first game to be given the “Mature” rating. As you dismember, and cut off limbs, and maim your foes, you’ll understand just why. There is no shortage of carnage here, which is something we’re glad to see in a franchise that has always tried to appeal to a wide age bracket. You’ll perform combos, level up, learn new skills, collect loot, and go shopping for better wares as you progress. The gameplay is by all standards, fundamentally correct, and is pretty fun.
And then you reach a tipping point. Like most games in this genre, there is a tendency to get repetitive. Once you’ve gotten over that awesome feeling of disemboweling an orc, the action starts to feel routine, and from there, it’s all downhill. Action-RPG games can keep your interest with novel features, the promise of new, more powerful loot, increasing enemy variety, or by an engrossing story that you’d want to see to the very end. Sadly, those are what War in the North lacks. Making a shish kebab out of the same ol’ orcs gets old, as does following a bunch of new characters that don’t have the same depth as the old LOTR characters we’ve come to know through a storyline that’s never as intriguing as the trilogy.
Take away the LOTR name from the game, and all you’ve got is a pretty action-RPG that will have trouble standing out. It’s visceral and violent, and you’ll enjoy the action for a long while as long as you don’t expect the game to surprise you. If you've missed the franchise though, War in the North has enough juice and character to get you into the swing of all things Middle Earth all over again.