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.
Other mechanics will be familiar to anyone used to playing action RPGs. Leveling up gives you access to better abilities, and choosing a build among the three talent trees is necessary to be effective. Early on, I decided that Andriel would be all about healing, but I could have gone more offensive to have her wield a sword and staff. I was a bit disappointed that the gorgeous landscapes were populated with thousands of breakable crates and barrels, but I suppose that wanton destruction of such objects is a vital part of the genre. The system used to collect new equipment works fine, but the UI to compare items and repair equipment is a frustrating mess. Each of the characters has a unique collecting mechanic – the elf finds herbs and can craft them, the Ranger can find hidden caches left by his comrades, and the dwarf can mine – and were subtle additions that added flavor without unbalancing the team.
War in the North was designed with cooperative play in mind, and even though I’m not much of a social gamer, I actually enjoyed the game much more when I played with other people. In single-player, all three characters travel and fight together with you controlling one of them and the AI handling the rest. When you create a public game, friends and random players can drop in at any point along the quest to assume the roles of one of the three companions. Playing with real people is preferable because the AI isn’t that intelligent, and the fights are more fun when you can coordinate abilities and tactics. I did feel conflicted whenever I went into a town or settlement though, because I wanted to hear all of the dialogue. You might want to only play co-op once you’ve played through the ten to fifteen hour campaign once on your own so your mates aren’t waiting around for you to listen to Elrond’s sons go on about their mother.
The co-op does have some weird side-effects though. Switching between characters is easy in single player, but it’s silly that you must gift armor and weapons to your party throughout the whole game. When I tried out Farin at about level ten, he was gimped by how much his starting armor sucked and I had to spend a fortune to deck him out in level-appropriate gear. The other characters earn experience even when not being played, so I would have liked there to be an easier way to coordinate equipment across the whole party.
When I sat down to play War in the North, I was not expecting a journey into Tolkien’s Middle Earth on par with the books or movies. The voice-acting, art style and dialogue feel so authentic, that it’s easy to forget the action RPG skeleton of whacking orcs and collecting loot is merely average. In some ways, the standard gameplay only focuses the player firmly on the world that Tolkien built. Nowadays, I can kill orcs and break crates in any old game, but only War in the North lets me feel like I’m walking with the great heroes I’d read about since I was a kid.
Bottom Line: Snowblind Studios delivers an experience that will satisfy even the staunchest Tolkien purist, and playing through the new story with your friends is fun even though the action and UI is not as impressive as the lore.
Recommendation: War in the North is worth picking up for those of you who want to adventure through Middle-Earth in a way that rereading those dog-eared paperbacks just can’t recreate. The well-executed co-op and generally fun, if unimaginative, combat makes it easy bring your friends along for the ride.[rating=4]
This review is based on the PC version of the game.