It’s a little puzzling that there has never been a great game set in the Middle Earth. The ingredients are right there. It’s a complex, rich, well thought out world with memorable characters and places. Its mythology is detailed and complex. Hell, it practically gave birth to the fantasy genre. It’s an incredible world just waiting to be used and yet nothing worthwhile has come of it.
Personally, I think it is the obsession to stick with the Rings storyline. I imagine it’s almost a comfort blanket, but someone will have to venture out soon enough. We wouldn’t have gotten Knights of the Old Republic if Bioware had stuck to the Lucas trilogy and I don’t think we will get a great game as long as developers choose to stick with the Ring storyline. Sadly, War in the North isn’t going to be the one to break the mould. It tries though. Probably not getting close, but it’s a little baby step in the right direction.
Gameplay is an interesting mixture of hack and slash and RPG; something along the lines of Fable, but not quite as shallow. Admittedly, the hack and slash gameplay isn’t deep enough to sell it to fans of the genre, but it’s fairly satisfying in a Serious Sam kind of a way. There is an almost therapeutic feeling to just mowing through an Orc horde. The fact that you can play as three different classes also adds a decent bit of variety to the gameplay. And you can switch classes mid-game, so if you start off as a ranger and find that it’s not to your liking, you can swap him out to a different character and still have your experience as a ranger carry over.
There is also some decent variety in level design as you go from old forts to forests to snowy mountains through the course of the storyline. The downside is the game seems to play the aforementioned horde card too freely. Almost every other level has choke points you have to hold against wave after wave of enemies. It feels natural the first few times it happens, but soon, you will realise it’s just trying to pad the game’s length. It even pulls out the old enemy scaling trick to make the game seem longer. Whilst it’s not as bad as some other games in the genre, it’s still noticeable enough to be annoying.
But even with those pitiful attempts at padding, it’s never really a long game. On the bright side, co-op and higher difficulties do add a fair bit of replay value. Co-op, in particular, is rather fantastic and absolutely seamless. You can fire up your game, have people jump in mid-way, replacing AI teammates, and if you get disconnected from them, the game just swaps back AI characters into the fray. The gameplay might be questionable at times, but it’s easily one of the smoothest co-op games I have played. And in a neat little addition, you can even give and receive gifts (armour, weapons, etc) to your co-op buddies.
That kind of segues us to the RPG part of the game. It works in a fairly standard way. You get experience by progressing through the story line (along with some side quests), killing enemies, etc, which lets you level up. Levelling up lets you invest points in unique skills that all three characters have. You can also equip your character with better armour and weapons you find through the campaign. What is disappointing though is that you are limited to the three pre-made characters/classes (a mage, an archer and a melee guy). There is enough room in each class to let you experiment a little (for example, you can set up your archer to be part melee), but by and large, abilities are limited to what class you pick.
The upside to that is the co-op experience is all the better for it and you don’t end up in games where everyone wants to be the same overpowered class. And the fact that you will often end up playing a class that puts you out of your comfort zone adds a little bit more replay value to retreading old levels. But as someone who prefers the RPG part of the game over the hack and slash part, I feel not letting me create a character is a bit of a letdown. I imagine this was done so that the story could be more cohesive, but if that was the case, then it’s a poor trade as the story and writing are very forgettable. The story takes place in a different setting to the book story line and focuses on the War in the North (hence the stunningly ingenious title), but neither the writing nor the characters make it worth bothering with. The only upside is that you get to see some places that you only read about (passingly) in the books, but you can’t help but feel that such a rich and incredibly detailed universe deserves better than this.
It also doesn’t help that the voice acting is very average. The actors seem like they couldn’t care less about what’s going on and go through it all in a fairly emotionless monotone. On a rather bizarre note, the characters that you meet from the book all look like their counterparts from the film trilogy, but sound like someone attempting to impersonate them. It’s a bit jarring to hear Frodo look like Elijah Wood, but sound like someone trying to do an impression of Elijah Wood. Graphically, it looks decent enough, but it’s the art that saves it more than the tech. And even then, it’s only appealing if you are a Tolkien fan. Most non fans would be hard pressed to differentiate between Mirkwood and generic medieval fantasy forest #43, but as a fan of the books, it’s still a thrill to see these locations realised artistically.
And to be honest, that’s also the game in a nutshell. If you are the kind of person that can’t tell the difference between a Goblin, an Orc and an Uruk-hai, then I would be hard pressed to recommend this to you. But if you are a fan, then the setting and the enjoyable co-op would make it worth looking into. It’s not a great game, but it’s as close to a good game as something Middle Earth-related has gotten so far.