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War in the North Review

Greg Tito | 8 Nov 2011 01:00
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With my seasonal viewings of Peter Jackson's extended edition films, multiple re-readings of The Lord of the Rings novels, The Silmarillion and Tolkien's other supplemental material, I came to War in the North with a skeptic's eye. After speaking with main characters like Gandalf and Frodo, hearing from Gloin, son of Groin, and helping Bilbo with his poem about Aragorn, I knew that the guys who made War in the North at Snowblind Studios were huge Tolkien fans, just like me.

The plot imagined for War in the North explores ancillary events during the War of the Ring that closes the Third Age of Middle-Earth. Tolkien mentions that armies of orcs and evil men attack places like Erebor - the Lonely Mountain from The Hobbit - while simultaneously assaulting Minas Tirith in the huge battle in The Return of the King, and Snowblind created new heroes to contend with these threats. The three companions representing the Free Peoples of Elves, Dwarves and Men are sent by Aragorn to investigate a concentration of orcs at Fornost, a ruined city from the same civilization that built Amon Sul on Weathertop. The journey of the three protagonists - Andriel the elven loremaster, Farin the dwarf and Eradan of the Dunedain - ranges all over the north of Middle-Earth as they track Agandaur, a Black Numenorean commanded by Sauron of Mordor.

While there is a lot of embellishment of details that Tolkien only briefly mentions, all of the new material feels like it could have come from the master of Middle-Earth himself. The first few quests in Bree made me nervous - why am I helping a suitor deliver his message of love? - but once the protagonists encountered the sons of Elrond, helped the ranger Halbarad at Sarn Ford, and finally made it to Rivendell, I was hooked. The dialogue is haughty and noble, full of portent and heroic declamations. Even the characters' battle cries are authentic - my heart leapt every time I heard Andriel exclaim "A Elbereth Githoniel!" as she bashed an orc across the face with her staff. War in the North also allows drama to emerge from events that are only described in the books. It is undeniably sad to hear Elrond's sons discuss their mother's abduction by orcs, and her subsequent departure across the seas to Valinor. Knowing that she was held captive is one thing, but watching Elladan and Elrohir describe her torture is quite another, and War in the North adds emotional value to cold character details.

The action of War in the North is not particularly thrilling, but swinging Elladan's sword or Farin's axe still has a fun weight to it. The simple combo system makes the combat a little more responsive than just mashing buttons - when a yellow triangle appears over an enemy, you can execute a critical hit with a satisfying smash. Andriel the elven loremaster uses her staff like the wizards Gandalf or Saruman, which isn't quite canon, but her spells and abilities are not as much of a departure as I'd feared. Each character can freely switch between ranged and melee attacks, but toggling between modes can be a little hard to master in the thick of battling a huge cave troll or wave upon wave of deadly giant spiders.

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