Platform: PS3 (also on Xbox 360, PC)
Developer: Snowblind Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (WBIE)
# of Players 1 – 3 (online 1 – 3)
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)
Attempting to expand upon a revered and well-established canon such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth saga is indeed tricky business, particularly in the case of The Lord of the Rings trology. Get it wrong and it’s a trip into the bowels of Mount Doom as some poor development team and publisher face the wrath and ruin of legions of longtime fans. Fortunately, The Lord of The Rings: War in the North delivers an epic (and Mature-rated) tale that ties in nicely with the trilogy as well as an addictive hack & slash that’s challenging and highly replayable. It also marks Snowblind Studios’ first current generation title (finally!) and yes, they’ve done a very solid job here. The visual presentation is grand and fitting, the music is perfect and the familiar gameplay is brutal, simple and about as fun as can be for a game of this type. The game is not without its flaws, however. Some chinks in the armor show up in the form of a a weird sound bug in one area, occasional AI stumbles plus a wee bit too much repetition of quest-related dialog. Nevertheless, this is one journey well worth taking whether or not you’re a fan of the books and films.
NOTE: As the game isn’t out just yet as of this writing, online play won’t be covered here. This review focus on the game’s single player campaign and dips a toe into co-op play. Also, this a a huge review. Sorry about that, but I really like this game quite a lot.
The story takes place at the same time as events of the Rings trilogy, beginning a few days before Frodo and his friends reach the Prancing Pony in the small village of Bree. Your party of three (Andriel, a female elf lore master, Farin, a male Dwarf Champion, and Eradan a Human ranger) arrives and meets up with the first of a few familiar faces. If you’ve read the books or seen the film you can probably figure out who’s the ranger sitting quietly at that corner table waiting for the Hobbits to arrive. After telling your own tale of survival at Sarn Ford against the Dark Riders, it’s decided that your team needs to head North to stop the plans of Agandaür, a powerful servant of the Dark Lord Sauron. Agandaür has set in motion events intended to decimate that upper portion of Middle Earth and yes, it’s all up to your heroic trio to put an end to his evil plans. The plot has a nice “So, THAT was what was happening while the Fellowship was doing its thing in the South” vibe throughout, dovetailing with elements from the film and books as you travel to new (and very familiar) places.
What’s also great about the game is how it allow players to see and hear as much or as little of the grand story and deeper history of Middle-earth as they like. Of course, it’s a far more rewarding experience if you speak to everyone you can and hear all they have to say, as the additional information adds extra depth to the experience. The feeling I got from the game was very similar to how I felt when I first played Star Wars: Knights of The Old Republic on the Xbox. While this isn’t as lengthy an experience (nor similar in terms of gameplay or overall scope of adventure), it just might do what KOTOR did for Star Wars in terms of bringing non-fans into the Tolkien camp. Action is third person but the game truly feels like one of Snowblind’s great isometric RPG’s I initially thought I’d prefer the traditional view, but here, the game has a more cinematic quality that only a third-person game can provide. Especially as the game engine (the developer’s own) is running what looks like the bulk of the cut scenes.
Like some good tales, things start off small and slow initially (but pick up quite rapidly as the looming danger makes itself known). Bree offers up and a handful of fetch-quests common to the genre as well as a one-time mini-game where you can earn some easy coin if you enjoy riddles. Of course, you’re not here to play twenty questions, you’re here to lay some goblins, orcs and trolls out flat with whatever weapons you can lay hands on. Naturally, Snowblind is only too kind in submitting to your will, but you may not thank them once the enemies start hitting hard and fast.
Once you step outside of Bree and hit the first combat area, Fornost, it’s totally ON as a primal action RPG experience. Combat is simple and direct here:Square is your standard strike, Triangle is a slower heavy attack. Strikes can be modified with the addition of assorted offensive and defensive skills which need to be unlocked as you gain levels. Each character has three main skills and a grid with anywhere from six to nine sub-skills. Leveling up allows you three character points and one skill point per level, so you need to choose wisely what you wan to take into battle. If you find that you hate your character’s build, fear not. You can purchase an expensive token that allows you to redistribute all your spent points so you can create the perfect fighter.
Ranged weapons are also key to victory. Farin gets bows, Eradan gets crossbows while Andriel’s staff
shoots magic bursts. For my first play through, I stuck primarily to Andriel up until she reached level 10, then played as Farin and Eradan for a bit before switching back to the elf maiden for the rest of the adventure. Not only can she shoot spells faster than the guys so their arrows or bolts, she’s the only character that can harvest assorted plants, mass heal the party and whip up much-needed potions. Not just the standard health and power potions you can buy in the game’s shops, either. Some of her brews allow for amazing boosts in attack, defense and other stats and one can even bring you back from death’s door once it’s crossed. More on dying and near-dying below… Of course, Farin and Eradan are no slouches when it comes to their own ranged weapon skills.
That the game has all three characters using both melee and ranged attacks and not one exclusive of the other should make it a learning experience for some players who generally stick with one class in their RPG’s. If you neglect melee for ranged or vice versa, you’ll be pushing up daisies sooner than you think, as the AI is fierce and wants nothing more to have you dead on the ground so it can dance on your corpse. As mentioned above, skills are absolutely needed in order to kill as many enemies as quickly as possible. You’ll find that mindless swinging can be pretty useless when a battle has packs of rampaging goblins, archers on ledges or other high spots, a magic user casting spells AND something (or somethings) large and very, very pissed of coming your way.
There are a wide selection of swords, axes, maces, clubs, bows, crossbows and staves available as random drops, quest rewards or from treasure chests. Everything is random, but you can buy unique items in most shops and some will have slots for Elf Stones, powerful gens that add effects to gear they’re placed in. Like the weapons, they’re also randomly acquired, so it’s best to not waste them in weak gear unless you have a few duplicates to spare. It would have been awesome if there were ways to craft gems of your own or adds slots to any weapon or item. However, even without these features, getting new gear is always a thrill, especially when it’s something better than what you had previously.
Your crew of three doesn’t fight alone, as the game has you meeting up with a few characters not seen much (or at all) in the films. You also get the companionship of Beleram, a massive Great Eagle that can be called down upon enemies in some outdoor maps provided you have the proper item in your inventory. Beleram’s presence is a big part of the storyline and it’s clear from the cut scenes and his excellently animated character model that the game’s art team loved putting him in the game. Sadly, outside of some great cinemas that show dynamic action set pieces, there’s no opportunity to play as a Great Eagle. I’d love to see a LOTR game that adds these gorgeous, powerful birds as playable one day (and Snowblind will be the folks to ask to do the job if I had any say in the matter).
For the first few maps, and especially before you’ve put some better skills and weapons into play, the game can seem overwhelming when you’re suddenly forced to fight something big, ugly and ten times as deadly as you thought. If one of your party falls in battle, they don’t just drop dead from their wounds. Mortally wounded characters will crawl around a bit until you run up and hold down the X button to revive them. This takes a few seconds, but trying to revive a downed ally while three orcs and a Troll are rampaging around his or her soon to be corpse will often lead to a Game Over screen and a kick back to the last auto-save point. If this point happens to be before a boss fight, you’re thrown right back into the fray with the boss at full health (ouch). If it’s anywhere else, you get booted back to the beginning of an area or the spot that the game last saved.
Speaking of saving, the game uses a completely automatic system so you won’t have those “HOLY $#T!, I FORGOT TO SAVE!” moments should you get caught up in some of the more hectic battles. In fact, the game saves after you shop, repair items, talk to characters and after all story points. It works so well that you’ll wish more RPG’s did this. Granted, I also know taking total control away from some players is akin to sacrilege, but at least what’s here works well enough that some of the naysayers will eventually accept it. Oh, a quick note about character customization: It’s basic and not really needed, but it’s here, allowing you to select from a few faces, hairstyles and eye colors for each hero. I made my Andriel’s hair lighter and changed her face once, tweaked Farin’s beard and gave Eradan some five o’clock shadow and never touched it again. Still if you feel like playing with it, just look for mirrors located in peaceful areas..
In terms of difficulty, the game can indeed be pretty hard on the default setting, but it’ll be worse for you if you’re not properly using skills, maximizing kills and repairing/upgrading your gear. The game’s default setting is Normal and there’s NO notation of how to change it in the slim manual nor anywhere on the options screens. Amusingly enough, I was about a third of the way through before I figured out there was an Easy difficulty available. If you REALLY need to use it, on the main menu, hit the Select button to call up your saves and switch to Easy difficulty. Of course, by the time I’d discovered this, I was long committed to the game’s challenge and had not a care about restarting as a level 1 character just to see most enemies fall away like dominoes. I’ll eventually replay this on Easy, but more than likely it’ll be after beating Heroic and Legendary modes. My guess is Snowblind wants players to be a little overwhelmed and a lot afraid (especially of anything larger than a man) as they battle in some of the more hectic locations.
As the story progresses and the levels grow in scope, you’ll see some amazingly beautiful indoor and outdoor locations. The art direction is impeccable throughout and there are some excellently laid out stages that while linear, make for some truly tough combat areas. It’s clear that Snowblind went for the most realistic game portrayal of Middle-Earth to date outside of the films and at times the game seems as if it would indeed make a fine movie. Dungeons are suitably dark an foreboding, the trip from Fornost eventually takes your team up into the deep snow and a few outstanding mountain settings and if you hate spiders, there’s one creepy stage that’s absolutely infested with them. As for enemies, Goblins, Uruk-hai, Trolls of a few types, Barrow Wights, Undead, and some surprises will come running crawling, climbing, leaping and otherwise ambulating your way. As for bosses, no spoilers here other than to say some of these guys aren’t as hard as they appear. In some cases, the enemies some bosses bring with them to the party are deadlier than the bosses themselves.
Still, there are some battle royales to be had. A few areas with explosive ballistas offer up the chance to blow enemies apart, there’s a great siege late in the game that’s seemingly impossible for a while, and a brief, hellish trip through an Orc camp that has only one way out which involves surviving long enough until MORE Orcs burst onto the scene. The game throws you straight into at least one boss fight with no preparation, so keeping your gear up to date is a must. Seeking out hidden areas helps in getting some cool gear. Each character has areas only they can locate, so solo players can either keep switching heroes to seek out hidden treasure, or play the game multiple times if they want to focus on building up one skill set. In co-op, players can find their character-specific hidden areas and in the case of Andriel and Farin, share the wealth. Open a chest or bash a crate open and all players in a session can pick up items. It’s a great solution to loot snatching and you can even give your co-op partners gifts of gear that’s their class should it be part of your drop count.
In terms of quieter spots, there are a few enemy-free areas, one of which is important to the plot (so I won’t reveal it here) as well as shop/warp portals located in enemy zones. Most of the battlefield warps are placed at midway points of stages, so you need to fight to reach them. Sell off your old gear and junk items, buy extra potions or warp back to town – it’s your call. The tricky part is warping back to town or cap, as heading back to action on some maps will place your team at the beginning of an area while others will drop you close to the warp point. This can be good or bad news based on how you’ve been doing, but the bright side here is the chance to earn experience through combat never gets old.
As for the soundtrack, Inon Zur’s score is brilliant, effective and moody in some spots, thrilling and frighteningly precise in others. Is some maps, the sense of dread is amplified thanks to the mix of sound effects and music coming from your speakers. It’s definitely one of the better game scores I’ve heard all year. The voice acting is solid as well. I initially didn’t like Agandaür’s voice (I thought he sounded more like someone’s angry boss than a servant of Sauron), but I got over it as the game went on. My favorite character in the game would have to be Beleram, as the dev team managed to get a full range of emotions out of a talking eagle and not make it look silly. I’d bet good money that he gets a lot of fans after the game ships out and yes, it would be nice to perhaps see more of him in some DLC at some point.
Split screen Co-op play is smooth and as good as the main game. With two players (how I tested it with a friend over the weekend), the third is AI controlled. As far as I know, three players can’t do couch co-op (I can’t imagine all this running on three tiny hard to see screens for those that don’t have the room for a massive HD setup, but if it’s in there, my apologies). Given that the game requires a profile save for each player (or Player Two using a character from the PS3 owner’s profile), I’m thinking the online play will offer a lot more freedom in how you set up matches. As far as I can tell, you can’t play as three Andriels, Farins or Eradans. You’re limited to one of each race and whatever gear you have equipped.
A few problem issues rear their ugly heads here and while they’re not game-killers, they range from pesky and minor to downright annoying things that should have been fixed or done better. Undead need to fully rise from the ground before they can be attacked and will sometimes warp away from you a few feet if you’re in the spot they’re rising from. When buying new gear, you can’t compare stats to what you have equipped unless you’ve memorized what your hero is wearing. Slotted gems are permanently affixed to whatever you put them into, which is a shame when you have to sell off a formerly effective weapon or armor piece and want to keep the additional effects. I didn’t mind this one at all, but for some gamers, the lack of a true auto-map will be frustrating. While the maps are primarily linear, it’s very easy to miss a hidden area in some locations because the game has spots where once you hop down, you can’t backtrack at all.
Moving to moderately annoying: Some enemies can get stuck in odd animations every so often, not leaping out of hiding spots or worse, not acting at all. One crucial battle has Trolls standing in place at an important spot looking at a door (duh!) until you put a few arrows or magic bolts into their backs. Then, they come after you, mad as hell and looking for blood. Unfortunately, if you run far enough way, you can watch with amazement as one (or both) will go back to the door and do absolutely nothing again. Not good. Finally, one or two familiar faces look a bit…. weird. I know that exact likenesses of some of the actors from the trilogy couldn’t be used, but, yikes. Still, for the most part, everything else looks great. One quirk should you decide to swap out characters is whatever you don’t have equipped automatically ends up in your new hero’s inventory and if you give the old character those items and her or she doesn’t equip them, they’re lost should you decide to switch back at some point. Granted, the amount of cool gear to replace stuff you’ve lost is near endless, but it would have been nice to have a storage chest to keep things safe for as long as you like.
As for bigger woes, there’s that sound bug I mentioned earlier and while it only lasts for as long as you can run through the area where it takes place (about 2 – 3 minutes or so), the ear-drilling sound of whatever machinery is grinding way will have your teeth grinding away while it lasts. I tried to duplicate the error by replaying the map, but I couldn’t access the mountain cave again, as it’s part of an important plot point that has the placed ruined afterward. Trust me, you’ll know it when you hear it. If you somehow don’t get the sound bug (I’ve only played the PS3 version and can’t say if it’s in either the PC or 360 game). The side quest dialog issue isn’t that bad, but it’s a bit sloppy seeing it crop up a few times during the game. What happens here is you complete certain quests, get your well-deserved reward and walk away only to speak to the person a minute later and get the same quest offered again as if you never completed it D’oh!. The good thing here is your journal updates properly, so you don’t have to go and tackle an area that gave you grief for naught.
Lastly, not a complaint, but more of a “What the heck?” issue I had with the lovely over world map. It’s a tad deceptive, showing over 35 locations and will make some feel the game has you traveling to ALL those spots at some point. Unfortunately, many of these are only “Places of Interest” from the films and books. There are two great, tough Challenge maps (basically, Survival Mode against waves of enemy types and bosses) that are really fun to play. I wish there were more than two, but again, I can smell some DLC cooking in the future (hopefully). For those that care about length. I’d say it took me about 36 hours to get through the game with a good deal of grinding (I completed Normal Mode at level 22) and item farming by exploiting some warps so treasure chests and crates refilled themselves. In the end, how long it takes YOU to finish the game will be based on your combat skills and equipment. That and you’ll probably want to start it up again as soon as those end credits finish rolling.
Finally, to those concerned about that Mature rating: Yes the game is pretty violent, but not in a supremely gory manner (it’s not Mortal Kombat by a long shot). Some kills result in nasty decapitations or amputated limbs, there’s a lot of thick blood splotching about and that’s about it. If you need it, there’s actually a gore filter that cuts the violence level down to that found in the Teen-rated LOTR games published by EA and Black Label Games on the PS2 and Xbox a few years back. I’m hoping there are folks who can pass on to parental units who like the trilogy yet are fearful of any M-rated games “corrupting” their teens that this game is enjoyable enough with the filter on
I’ve actually a great deal more to write about (my notes were about nine pages long!) , but I’d better stop here. Currently, I’m replaying the game on Heroic and I want to see how much harder it is with my current party. Yes, the game saves stats and items, so you restart with all your goodies and gold from the endgame intact. As far as Trophies go, I unlocked 76% on the first play through, so I’ve a few left to nab for that Platinum. I usually don’t care about that stuff, but when a game is this rewarding, knowing you’ve gotten all you can out of it makes it all the more enjoyable. Bottom Line: This game is an absolutely spectacular adventure that fits right into Tolkein’s works. It’s REALLY great to see Snowblind back and doing what they do best (warts and all). I’m hoping they’re up for another fantastic trip into Middle-Earth in the near future. I know I’ll be among the first to buy a ticket for the full tour…