Chances are if you grew up playing videogames with friends after long school days, and you long for a time when a couch served as a fortress for hours upon hours of gaming goodness, you are going to appreciate Snowblind Studio’s latest co-op offering. Set in the Lord of the Rings universe, this game doesn’t follow the same story from the books or movies, but instead it runs alongside that main narrative in what feels like a much, much less important quest. But, that is of course no fault to the developer as Frodo and company had one of the most epic adventures ever created for the fantasy genre. Lord of the Rings: War in the North brings us back to those after-school sessions of gaming with your buddies, but that’s not to say this mature-rated game is at all for kids. It’s an action-RPG that features relatively simplistic, yet enjoyable gameplay, character development and progression, and a narrative that is enough to satisfy the part of us still stuck in our childhoods.
Since War in the North carries that Lord of the Rings title, there are tremendous expectations as Middle Earth is one of the most beloved fantasy settings. The Peter Jackson films painted an appropriately epic portrayal of J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece collection of books about a Hobbit, a fellowship, and a journey that still gets us excited to relive every step. The characters were incredibly deep, each with their own approach to the adventure, their own personal struggles and fears, and they all generally wanted the same thing: that little ring destroyed once and for all. While we wait for Jackson’s retelling of the Hobbit, we are given the chance to re-enter Middle Earth through War in the North.
Even if you don’t like the Lord of the Rings (and really, what’s not to like?), War in the North has plenty of things going for it, even beyond the fact you can fill your fellowship with friends offline or online. Some may dislike the relatively simplistic combat—featuring the standard melee, range, an magical abilities—and others may bore of fighting the same enemies at virtually every turn, but if you are like us and miss good old fashioned buddy-style games, then you’re going to enjoy War in the North, for the most part.
War in the North follows a small three-party member fellowship, including a human, dwarf, and elf, on the hunt for on one of Sauron’s warlords. This journey takes them to familiar settings like Barrow Downs and Rivendell, along with some new surprises. The trio doesn’t run through their quest completely alone. They are joined by other characters from the Lord of the Rings universe, including the great eagle Belleram. Everyone needs a friend like Belleram. In addition to adding some life into an otherwise slightly dull cast of characters, Belleram can provide some assistance in battle, where at the press of the button, he’ll swoop into outdoor battles and topple any enemy of your liking.
The game looks and sounds quite good, considering there was very little hype surrounding War in the North, and while it never exactly oozes stark LotR style, it does provide plenty of fantasy-inspired ambiences that even Bilbo Baggins would appreciate. In many ways the game looks like it’s a direct spin-off of a Peter Jackson film, but it’s important to understand this doesn’t follow the story of any of the three films; instead, it takes the very difficult task of creating a unique story to run alongside the existing narrative.
War in the North technically has RPG elements, but this is really a combat-heavy game, meaning about 80-90 percent of your in-game activities involve slaying hordes of orcs, trolls, goblins, spiders, and other creepers. The combat is generally simplistic. The ranger is better at – you guessed it – ranged combat, while the champion is best throwing around his two-handed axe in the heat of battle. The magic user has some helpful spells, including the ability to provide protective cover from incoming arrows or bolts. There is a basic system to chain attacks together that lead to a bloody takedown. It feels great to finally see the head of an orc lopped off, or a goblin’s legs ripped apart. Yes, this is a mature game, and there is plenty of blood to keep the adult in all of us satisfied.
The biggest downfall in the game’s combat is that it’s quite repetitive. Nearly everything you encounter in the first level returns throughout the game, at least in some form. Levels aren’t particularly interesting either, and the general gameplay involves entering an area with enemies, fighting off said enemies (which allow you to progress), moving forward, and doing it all over again until the next cutscene kicks in place.
The repetitive battles would work if the game had more of an arcade focus. But, instead there are some issues that at first felt small, but later became more and more frustrating. If you play solo, you’ll have to keep an eye on your A.I. controlled partners as they cannot level on their own. You can’t swap which character you control until you quit out of the campaign—there are breaks throughout each level that allow you to do this—meaning if you aren’t careful, your dwarf friend may have four levels worth of skill points to spend and better equipment to use, yet you can’t easily address this in-game. It seems like this would mean Snowblind is encouraging players to try different characters, but seeing you can’t swamp during combat, it only makes the overall A.I. experience more frustrating. Add this issue to a host of relatively minor A.I. frustrations, and it’s clear War in the North is best played co-operatively.
The RPG side of the game is relatively thin, but surprisingly fulfilling. As you level up your character, you can add points to their attributes, and you can put skill points into your tree of abilities. When you add this to the obsessive hunt for treasure and better weapons, you have the makings of a basic, yet functional RPG.
War in the North doesn’t push the envelope too much, and it’s not overly surprising considering the enormous task Snowblind Studio’s undertook. This is how we remember games of our childhood, and that’s both good and bad. It’s a blast to play with your friends online or locally on your couch in split screen, and it’s almost always fun to venture back to Middle Earth. There are some flaws, but this is a great starting point for what could be a new series of Lord of the Rings games. If Snowblind can iron out the minor issues that lead to bigger frustration, we could have a great series of action-RPGs to add to our collections.