The review is finally done! A few days later than I hoped, but earler than I expected.
A few words before you start reading - it isn't a bad game, and certainly not as horrible as I predicted from trailer one onwards.
While much attention and focus has been placed on the journey of the One Ring, the assault on Middle-earth hits all corners of the map.
War in the North turns our attention towards an integral part of the storyline that is grounded in details within the books and various appendices.
This is not someone else’s fight. This is your own effort to forage a way through the dark, dangerous, and unknown landscape, defending all that is yours. This is your war.
Setting & Atmosphere
War in the North plays in Middle-earth. That alone provides a chance for this game to shine in terms of atmosphere.
Tolkien's world has always been rich with detail, a lot of distinct areas, flora and fauna.
You may explore areas shown in the movies like Bree or Rivendell, but also those you might have only read about, like Fornost, the Ettenmoors and the Barrow-downs, which have been skipped in the movies.
It certainly lacks the homely feeling Imladris was described with in the novels, and the same goes for other regions.
The snowy peaks around Gundabad are actually atmospheric and when smashed to the ground, snow will cover your clothes for a while. No matter how unrealistic that may seem on a lot of surfaces, it still is a nice touch.
Gundabad's interior, dwarven-halls captured by the goblins of the Misty Mountains, surely reminds you of Moria, though still different enough.
Of course, there's more to visit, but that goes mostly along those lines.
Nothing really takes any risks, however. This might result in the world feeling needlessly flat and disappoint when recalling past areas.
Despite how enjoyable playing through the game has been, it undeniably has serious issues with feeling alive on its own. While the plot is intertwined with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and many references are made to poems, creatures, legends and characters, it feels like if you took only half of that away, this game had no ground to exist on.
The plot surely gains momentum, but I personally felt that it did not build up enough to be truly exciting in terms of atmosphere.
Firstly, this game does not look as bad as I showed you before, at least if your PC is capable of displaying the shadows.
However, it certainly does not look "2011", and considering the rather high recommended specs, the lack of polishing in the graphical terms is disturbing, telling more about lazy optimization than actual effort.
There are indeed nice areas and details - Rivendell doesn't look too bad, the Barrow-downs have a lot of funky effects, but especially character models feel like they got sticks up their arses.
At times, when giving an NPC something quest-related, they'll look at or read it, but that does indeed look stupid if they don't have the actual item in their hands but stare into your characters face while citing the lines.
Battle-animations look stiff as well, with the footwork of the Ranger looking especially retarded. Nobody would fight like that!
Mirkwood and Carn Dûm, however, look really exciting, although Carn Dûm delivered horrible performance drops as a result. Bad optimization and quality control strike again!
Snowblind managed to get in line with previous LotR-licensed games and the movies and ultimately delivers a world which can be accepted as part of the Tolkien-universe. Extra polishing would have been necessary for it to shine, however.
The overall sound quality is difficult to describe, since the game is painfully quiet most of the time, requiring the PC's volume to be almost earbleedingly loud. Remember to lower it again before listening to music or open a video on youtube!
Even ingame, you'll often have trouble understanding the characters without subtitles, as the volume is wavering even more. Some characters are crystal-clear, while others make you doubt the quality control the game should have gotten.
The soundtrack isn't particularly unique or inspiring, but it has its good moments. You can expect a score which won't interrupt your flow and still add to the atmosphere.
Environmental sounds are quite similar, with a lot of assets straight from the movies. No huge surprises here, it's what you already know for the most part.
The voice acting is so-so, like most of the game. Snowblind and Warner might have gotten assets from the movies, yes, but that does not include the original actors' voices.
This is not a deal breaker, certainly not, for at least the voices have been picked with a bit of thought.
However, this does not seem like enough, since a lot of dialogues feel outright flat in their presentation, others oversaturated.
The scripts have also been partly taken directly from the novels and movies, which can make the dialogues sound even less authentic. This only holds true for areas like Bree or Rivendell, not in the areas untouched by the movies or books, though.
That is of course not to say there are no great conversations and acting skills involved. Especially the events that do not directly resemble situations in the movies shine and are interesting, and the Great Eagles are presented fittingly powerful.
Especially later in the game, the voices of Eradan and co kinda grow on you, and Radagast may even make you laugh.
At the end of it all, the bigger issue is the lack of interaction between characters during dialogues and lacking facial animations and gestures to fit the bodies to their voices.
The gameplay feels rather flat, even though it has nice touches. With only two attack types and a ranged attack, there's not much variety. You only get 3 slots for skills in both normal and ranged mode, which don't seem too special either (though some of them really effective).
Battle itself is similar to most Hack'n'Slash titles - normal attacks on one button, "special" or heavy attacks on another. Dodging is possible on a third button, as is blocking (which you won't use at all on easy and normal difficulties). The ranged attacks using bow, crossbow or elven staff are rather unrealistic, with overly big hitboxes and no real fire-arcs involved. A straight line on any distance. There is a clear lack of feedback from shooting your arrows, bolts or magic missiles which cannot be denied.
Surprisingly, my Ranger could inflict twice as much damage with a single shot as in close combat, and he was weilding two blades with fire-enchantments. Especially on higher difficulties I'd expect the bow to be much more effective than running into battles - especially when you make use of the headshot mechanic.
My biggest regret in terms of the gameplay is the lack of diversity in combat. I'm one of those who really enjoyed the Two Towers and Return of the King games during the PS2 era. The combat in these games consisted of the same mechanics, at least rudimentary, but made use of combo-attacks, different special attacks that could be unleashed by pressing the right buttons and more.
Skilltrees to unlock more and better combos would have been a great way to enhance combat in War in the North rather than having people rely on special attacks you mostly acquired early in the game til the very end.
Your inventory is quite large, with the armor types all having a huge amount of space, separate from the generic items, stones and potions. You hardly ever will have the need to drop items in favor of others, and even if so, split the loot with the other chars.
Generic junk is clearly distinguishable, gear gets sorted into categories fairly easily and marks new stuff for quicker access. Clearly lacking is any way of comparing different gear without switching back and forth between them, but considering you sell everything that wouldn't benefit you on the next best occassion, this isn't as bad as in other games.
Stores are found in the three cities which you can reach via in-level travelpoints. However, you don't actually need to travel to sell or buy stuff, as these points give you access to a store as well.
The levelling in WitN is straightforward, with 3 attribute points to spend on each gained level. The attributes are exactly what you'd expect from an RPG and the skillpoints can be spent on 3 skilltrees, depending on your preferences.
One playthrough got me to level 20, and it seems you can continue on a harder difficulty right away, keeping your progress intact.
World-interaction is rare in WitN, but you can find some secrets, open some chests, destroy barrels and boxes in the hope to find trash and arrows and so forth. For an RPG this might be too little, but for a Hack'n'Slash this is actually quite acceptable.
Sadly, the number of sidequests is rather low, and especially in the lategame, you'll miss some diversity and reasons to stray from the pretty linear paths.
Overall, the gameplay works and can be challenging, but isn't as well-developed as I'd wished it would be, especially when considering rival titles.
Should an ally die, he'll crawl after the surviving players - when he's close, you can revive him and continue the battle as a team. The lack of dedicated revival items or checkpoints was a blessing and helped the game feel more fluid.
At a lot of points it gets clear however that this game was designed for coop playing. I have to admit though that the singleplayer works well, and the possibility to play on your own after your friends left is bliss.
Coop is a fun thing, yet it feels not significantly different from the singleplayer, which on one hand is a good thing, but on the other it takes away from diversity in dialogues and lowers the overall difficulty. On normal, neither I nor Alkaid had any issues beating Fornost. Granted, this is still the beginning of the game, but having my old equip from my earlier playthrough I was able to one-hit almost every single goblin and even Alkaid only got into trouble when suicide-goblins swarmed her.
If you have the option to play the game in Coop on your first playthrough, by all means, do it. If you or your partner have played the game already, it would probably get dull way too quickly. However, you won't get access to the harder difficulties without finishing the game on lower ones first.
The plot will tie in with the well-known Lord of the Rings novels and movies. If you haven't read the books, or at least watched the movies, do so before playing War in the North.
You'll appreciate some subtle approaches and references much more when you know the background.
If you only watched the movies, a lot of things might seem strange to you, like the whole Rangers-of-the-North thing, who were only shortly hinted in the movies, or the introduction of Radagast and Mirkwood.
In case you have no knowledge of Middle-earth yet, you'll probably find the game rather uninteresting, as Snowblind attempted to add to the existing rather than build a full story on their own.
We begin in Bree, where our trio of Eradan the Ranger, Farin the Dwarf and Andriel the Elf meet up with Strider, more commonly known as Aragorn. A short flashback about the recent events at Sarn Ford follows, telling us how the Ringwraiths fought their way into the Shire prior to Frodo's departure.
Never would be told why a man, dwarf and elf are venturing together, or why a dwarf of Erebor is so far from home. You'll be expected to simply accept that fact without any questions, which is a rather weak take on the matter.
Watching the Witch-king of Angmar meeting with a Black Numenorian, Agandaur, you get to see the antagonist of War in the North for the first time. He's a man, though powerful beyond measure and learned from Sauron himself.
In the following you're told to hamper his plans of War in the North, leading you to Fornost, the former capital of Arthedain, one of the three realms of men after Arnor was divided. It is there that you free Belaram, one of the Great Eagles of the Misty Mountains, and earn his trust. Through him the story progresses a great deal, and you even make the acquaintance of Gwaihir, Lord of the Eagles, at a later point.
Undoing Agandaur's efforts in Fornost with the help of Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond, your next stop is the Dunedain's camp at Sarn Ford, where you meet Halbarad, who was destined to wield the Banner of the King, woven by Arwen, at the Battle on the Pelennor Fields, but die in this war.
Halbarad sends you to look fro two of his Rangers who did not come back after scouting the area, and you make your way through the Barrow-Downs, where an army of of spirits and wraiths stands in your way. Finding both and rescuing one of the Rangers, your next destination is Rivendell.
You reach Rivendell shortly after the forming of the Fellowship, and you still may meet the representatives of men, elves, dwarves and the Ringbearer himself. Gandalf and Elrond tell you of a danger in the Ettenmoors, which was unusually void of trolls during Gandalf's passage.
Your next mission is clear, investigate and crush the enemy once more. Snowblind made use of the Mountain-Giants in this chapter, which is rather untypical. Agandaur seems to have corrupted one of the mighty beings of the Misty Mountains into attacking the Eagles and assembling an army of Trolls, and it is there that you meet Belaram again, who decides to accompany you til the very end.
|Don't worry, you don't fight any Warg in WitN.|
This city, Carn Dûm, is where the last chapter of the story takes place. I won't spoil the exact events there, but it all ends with Agandaur's death and a new sunrise.
The ending is rather short and leaves you with an unfinished feeling, unlike the adventures of Frodo and others, who expected to not return home after fulfilling their tasks.
It seems like Snowblind used all their dramatic talent until shortly prior to the actual ending, which makes it feel like a weak way to finish this game.
At the end of the day, they did a nice job, however. It was not uber-nerdy, made especially for Tolkien-nerds like me, but it sure had a lot of references and points of the overall continuity to present. The worst they did to the lore was Urgost, who survived the last fire-dragon Tolkien himself decided to kill, but in the end it does not matter.
They kept true to the tales of Tolkien for the most part, and despite my earlier predictions, they are to be applauded for that.
Final Words & Verdict
All in all, War in the North is a game with heavy flaws. That's not to say that this game can't feel enjoyable to you, but there's more that could have been done on many ends. It leaves you with the feeling that there could have been more to it than just performing the same moves over and over again.
While the lore-conflicts have been surprisingly tame, I honestly can't say it has done enough to interact with Tolkien's works.
The encounter with Radagast was exciting, yet short-lived. Same goes for the Elves you rescue in Mirkwood or the ties with the Rangers of the North. While the stage has been set, Snowblind missed quite a handful of opportunities to show off.
For as long as it lasted (I guess about 15 hours on my first solo-playthrough) it has entertained me well, despite its unpolished nature and the desire to keep the safety belt on.
War in the North surely is no gem among Action RPGs/Hack'n'Slash titles, but rather average.
It leaves me with the taste of wasted potential and the thirst for a coop playthrough on higher difficulties.
The biggest disappointment during my playthrough was the encounter of Wargs in Mirkwood during a short cutscene, with the leader howling, some Wargs being seen in the background afterwards, but I never encountered a single one in actual combat. I liked the model for the Warg, so why didn't they let me fight it?
Considering all the above, a 6.5/10 seems appropriate and well-deserved.
It's not a bad game, especially not if you can enjoy it in coop, using a gamepad (like, splitscreen on X360 or PS3), but for 50€ there should have been much more substance to War in the North.
Buy it once the price gets below 25-30€, or rent it for a fun weekend with two friends.