"...if you're in the market to dungeon crawl, this hits the spot."
There's no doubt that Snowblind Studios ruled the roost when it came to dungeon crawlers in the PS2 era. Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath were much more fun than they had any right to be, and co-op play was their centerpiece. There wasn't much that was special about these titles, gameplay or otherwise, but everything was balanced just right
. I'm happy to say that after five years since their last game, Snowblind is still doing what they do best with The Lord of the Rings: War in the North. It's got simple-yet-deep combat, fantastic balance, and an addictive quality that kept me playing. War in the North won't be winning any Game of the Year awards, but if you're in the market to dungeon crawl, this hits the spot.
That's not to say that there's a whole lot that's original about War in the North. Even the concept, "Take a story that runs parallel with the books/movies" was done in 2004 with The Third Age. Unlike EA's anemic Final Fantasy X clone, however, War in the North spends most of its time far and away from the southern journey of Frodo and company, focusing on the battles against Sauron's lieutenant, Agandaur. With a troika of new heroes in Farin of Erebor, Loremaster Andriel, and Eradan the Dunedain Ranger, the story is a little more believable in the context of Tolkien's narrative. With a few exceptions, the only encounters with the books' main characters happen early on in the game, as the fellowship leaves Rivendell, so the brand new heroes don't feel out of place.
While the story is believable within Tolkien's world, it's not well-told. Dialogue is dry and seems to drag on forever and usually occurs with generic characters. While the default options do make the quickest end to conversation, I listened to most options in an attempt to open up some of the meager sidequests. Still, conversations with some of the characters, like giant eagle Beleram, are pleasing and entertaining. The voice acting is just what you'd expect out of a modern video game: Yuri Lowenthal, Jennifer Hale, and Nolan North are amongst the standbys. There's nothing spectacular here, and the impressions of the movie actors are hit-or-miss. The lackluster story is a downer for Lord of the Rings fans, but it really doesn't affect the overall enjoyment of the game much. After all, the modus operandi of War in the North is killing Orcs and Trolls and every other enemy you might find in Lord of the Rings.
Be prepared to fight enemies - lots and lots of enemies - amongst the standbys of Tolkien: Orcs, Trolls, Uruk-hai, Undead, Spiders, and even a few Men. You've got just as many tools at your disposal as there are enemies. Each character has their own unique abilities and equipment, and there's a character to match your playstyle. As a dwarf, Farin is your tank, the Elf Andriel is your spellcaster, and Eradan focuses on damage and stealth. Unlike similar games with a triumverate, like Demon Stone, you cannot swap between heroes at will. This actually isn't a disadvantage - I felt comfortable leaving my AI partners to their business and they were able to take down all of the enemies they needed to. Whether or not you'll choose to replace them with real companions is your choice, but don't feel like playing alone will require babysitting the computer. Should you choose to swap between characters, this can be done between missions, but I found it easier to just stick with Farin for my playthrough.
Because you only have to manage one character at a time, leveling up is easy and straightforward; there are four stats to manage alongside your equipment and a simplistic talent tree. It's reminiscent of World of Warcraft's trees, but what isn't, these days? There are skills for each of the three main abilities (a buffing ability, an area-of-effect attack, and a strong attack) as well as for your ranged weapon. There's little to be confused about and it's nice to be able to respec if you need, though it is expensive, so don't expect to use it until the second playthrough or late in the game. Gear is a little bit tougher to manage, because you do have to distribute it to your partners. It's frustrating to not be able to look at what they're wearing, and it often felt like I was just handing them gear I wasn't sure they would use. It's the first of several little niggles that keeps War in the North from feeling top-tier.
Once you get into combat, things are equally straightforward: you strike with two attacks - one normal, one strong - along with your ranged weapon as you take down enemies. There's also a giant eagle at your disposal who comes and destroys enemies, but I often found it pointless to use - I never got into a situation that was hairy enough to require Beleram. Also new to War in the North is a very pleasing part of combat known as Hero mode. As you strike at enemies with normal attacks, a small crown will appear over the heads of your opponents. Press the heavy attack button when these appear and you'll unleash a critical strike, or if they're low on health, insta-kill them. It's a great way to keep combat engaging beyond just mashing attack, although it's frustrating against larger enemies due to the camera. I'd find myself at a loss when these would appear against Trolls or other enemies in close spaces, as the crowns would never appear on the screen. When it works, it's fantastic, and the more hits Farin racked up, the more experience I got.
There're all of the other prerequisites - dodging, blocking, and ranged weaponry, and all function well here. While not-quite-an-RPG, Hunted: The Demon Forge opted for a more FPS-like accuracy model for its ranged system. War in the North falls under the category of "if the reticule is over the enemy, it's a hit." If you're a shooter expert, though, headshots do count for extra damage. What was frustrating with this system was some of the invisible walls - I'd shoot an arrow at a faraway enemy, but it would hit an invisible wall, even if the reticule was red. It didn't happen often, but it still killed the immersion factor. I also found some other bugs, like enemies who were inexplicably untargetable until an ally attacked, but none were game-killing. It seemed to happen just enough to be annoying, though, which was unfortunate. I want to make it clear, though, since I've spent quite a bit of time focusing on tiny negatives that combat itself was immensely enjoyable. It was consistently challenging without being punishing, and it was fun all the way through. With plenty of secrets to find and enemies to fight, War in the North does its job as a dungeon crawler.
Finding these secrets in different environments was a welcomed addition, though there were only a handful of settings. Still, the graphics of the game are passable, ranging from the brilliantly-rendered eagles to the incredibly bland Eradan. All of the equipment in the game shows up on characters during cutscenes, and it all fits the Lord of the Rings style well. I did have one odd bug appear for the graphics, though. During cutscenes, War in the North strips the weapons from your characters, but the weapon Farin equipped at the time had a lightning animation on it. It removed the actual model but left the lightning animation, so for a few scenes, he just seemed to have a floating lightning storm near him. Aurally, the game performs well. While the voice acting is par for the course, Inon Zur's soundtrack does the game justice and shows why he's one of the most prolific composers in the gaming world.
Lord of the Rings: War in the North is far from perfect, but it's an incredibly well-balanced beat-em-up. Despite all of the little criticisms, there wasn't anything that kept me from heartily enjoying my experience. Lord of the Rings and dungeon crawler fans alike should delight in Snowblind's latest title. I'm glad to see Snowblind return on a high note, and I'm readily awaiting what they'll do next.