In the expansive world of fantasy, one man stands above the rest; that man is J.R.R. Tolkien. It does not really matter if you recognize the name or not; it is impossible to deny this simple statement. Whether you are talking about elves, elfs, orks, orcs, dwarves, dwarfs, wizards, mages, dragons, drakes, trolls, or ogres, the ideas of all high fantasy and even some science fiction were influenced by the mind of the man who wrote The Lord of the Rings. So, yes, Tolkien’s stories inspired many great video games and films, and even provided the basis for Peter Jackson’s successful film trilogy, but does this success always carry over? The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is an attempt to take the world Tolkien created and Peter Jackson popularized and form it into its own unique story and role-play in the form of a video game. The game succeeds in creating an entertaining hack-and-slash game that any OnLive fan can enjoy, but does it raise the bar and live up to the storied franchise it portrays?
In War in the North, the story takes place during the War of the Ring (roughly, the time period from the beginning of Frodo’s quest to its end in both the films and novels), but instead of following the beloved story of the Fellowship of the Ring and their journey to Mount Doom, players find themselves in the shoes of three unlikely companions, a Dwarf, a Man, and an Elf, who, very much like the Fellowship, are thrown into a quest to save Middle-earth. As the title suggests, players will find this quest folds out in the northern territories of Middle-earth, leaving the south to Frodo and friends. You will find the north is just as teeming with goblins, orcs, trolls and the other nasty creatures that are found throughout the journey of the one ring; however, do not be surprised to run into hordes of spiders, mountain giants, and dragons, creatures only mentioned in those other tales of Middle-earth. Without giving too much away, the heroes’ quest has them trekking through the horrors of the Barrow-downs, the frigid Misty Mountains, the vastness of Mirkwood, the mysterious Grey Mountains, and, finally into the evil stronghold of the north, Carn Dum.
All in all, the locales are varied and satisfying to any Tolkienite and fan of the movie trilogy. The people and creatures met on the way, both friend and foe, fit seamlessly into Jackson’s vision and, for those that speak, never seem out of place and, for the most part, are voiced fairly well. Radagast was particularly cast very well and (I actually didn’t realize this until Ady, the editor and lead writer, pointed it out to me) Beleram, your eagle ally whom you meet early on in the game, is a dead ringer for Patrick Stewart. You will likely have a good laugh at first, but if giant eagles could talk, you know this is what they would sound like, “Beleram to ground party…Engage!” The ending to this tale is somewhat strange and has you sitting there waiting for more, so you may find yourself a bit disappointed, but endings have never been a strong suit in Middle-earth. The one pet peeve I had with this game, story-wise, was the gratuitous use of magic for the elven “loremaster” character. It is debatable, but that kind of magic use has no place in the hands of even the elves of Middle-earth. Leave the spell bombs and magic tricks for the leading baddies and wizards; let the Free Peoples and Minions of evil fight it out the way it was meant to be fought in Middle-earth, with bow and sword.
The gameplay of War in the North is extremely satisfying, especially if players are looking for a hack-and-slash game with tons of enemies to “hack and slash” into tiny bits. Utilizing an option of ranged or melee attacks, combat is straight forward and easy to pick up, though I wouldn’t suggest this game to a younger audience as there is quite a bit of blood and gore. Using the strong and weak melee attack buttons, with or without the use of ranged attacks, and special finishing moves that can remove the head or a limb from that pesky goblin grunt is simple and fun. The combat system evolves as the game goes on and players begin to “upgrade” their characters with new abilities and fighting techniques. All three characters can be molded into ranged, support, or melee specialists and, with properly implemented skills, can excel from afar or up close and personal; however, all three characters do have a specific role they are attuned for from the beginning. The elf loremaster is a good support unit, the human ranger is a natural ranged specialist, and the dwarf warrior is the best at cracking orc skulls. Also, not to be forgotten, your eagle allies become valuable in assisting taking out those tough enemies, like trolls and heavily armored uruks, just by calling them in at the push of a button; use them wisely and strategically, as the eagle assists are earned through finding the necessary “eagle feathers” in loot caches. Combat in this game has been pushed as being repetitive by many other sources across the web, but if players change up their unit builds every now and then, they may find this idea lacking substance.
Now, the game does tout a few RPG elements such as massive amounts of loot to sort through and the loremaster’s ability to craft useful potions through gathered ingredients, but if you are looking for an immersive RPG, this is not the game for you. The dialogue trees are full of interesting history of the massive, storied histories of Tolkiens’ world, but side quests are few and far between and the linear game path keeps you on the straight and narrow all the way to the end. Players can customize the looks of their characters, but the options, like many other things in this game, are limited. There is also a vast amount of different armors, helmets, and weapons to find on your way through the game, but do not get too excited, as many of these items are just given different names and armor/attack values, so finding that perfect look takes some dedication. And if you do make it through the entire game, still unsatisfied with the look and power of your guys, and gal, fear not! The game let’s you go back and play through the campaign on increased difficulty levels, letting you carry over your rank and delves out better, improved loot, so you can continue on the path of making the most badass dudes, and dudette, in Middle-earth.
This game does offer some multiplayer action, but like many things about War in the North it is limited. The game offers up an interesting cooperative game mode that lets players drop in and out of different people’s playthoughs, making it so easy a caveman could do it. This, of course, has its drawbacks, like having a much lower level player jumping in on a game that is much farther advanced, making them easy prey for the enemy, but that doesn’t make the idea any less fantastic. If you are just looking to take it to the Dark Lord with a friend or two, there are two nice co-op “challenge maps” that pin you and your buddies against waves of bad guys that want nothing more than to feast on you and your allies’ yummy elf, dwarf, and human flesh.
The OnLive version of this game offers a visually satisfying, yet hardly overwhelming window into the world of Middle-earth. Not to get too technical, the textures are of a low quality and the graphics, overall, are not impressive especially when you are on the move. In short, if there was a list of the games that look great on OnLive, War in the North would be nowhere to be found. Most of us that were here for the release of the game remember the game-breaking Barrow-Downs key issue that sprang from missing loot drops throughout the OnLive version, but that was fixed promptly and is no longer an issue. In terms of button layout and the interface, players will likely find the game very easy to navigate and control. (I personally used a gamepad when playing on OnLive, so, hopefully, the same can be said for k/m) Also, while on the interface topic, a quick tip on the “give” option for items, do not use it; if you are playing solo it simply makes the item disappear and is only useful if you are playing cooperatively. (But who wants to give away their hard earned loot? Your buddy should have run to the loot cache faster than you if they really wanted that Dunlending meat cleaver!) It might also be worth noting that this game continues the now seemingly standard OnLive feature of achievements. This actually makes for a great addition, especially for those of us who like to really “complete” a game, as it adds incentive to play through the campaign more than once, letting players enjoy all the higher tier equipment and weapons. Bringing your elite gear to bear in a public co-op challenge map playthrough will be particularly satisfying for those dedicated enough to make it through the Heroic and Legendary difficulty levels.
To wrap it all up into a nice elven gift basket, War in the North is a solid hack-and-slash game that delivers on killing orcs, trolls, and all sorts of other baddies that would make any fan of Middle-earth rejoice and adorn their replica Gondorian helm while they button mash a horde of foes to heaps of bloody mess while screaming, “You shall not pass!” at the screen of their PC, TV, or mobile device; however, if it is a strong RPG you are looking for this one may come up a bit short.
***NOTE: This review was first published during the OnLive 1.0 era. Also, this game is no longer available for purchasing on the service; though, it is still accessible to those who already purchased it.