Despite what the Lord of the Rings film series portrayed - of the fellowship, and the struggle to destroy the ring - the resistance against the evil of Sauron was far greater, and it spanned the continent of Middle-earth. In Lord of the Rings - War in the North by Snowblind Studios, you get a closer look at some of the resistance fighters who aided the Fellowship in the North.
While the story has three unique protagonists, none of which were in Peter Jackson’s film, the characters and storyline are closely interwoven with that of the books - and even more so with the films. A number of the movie locations - such as Rivendell and Bree - are in the game, and they're closely modelled around their cinematic equivalents. Rivendell, for example, is almost jaw-droppingly beautiful, and easily recognisable.
You'll also meet characters from the stories you're already familiar with, such as Gandalf and Legolas, as well as others from the fellowship. The story also takes you to some pretty dramatic locales - snowy mountain tops, demonic spires, and lush forests; the environment is diverse and at times gorgeous to behold.
Some aspects of the presentation do let the standard drop somewhat, like the way in which cutscenes portray your characters with a default set of weapons and armour - rather than reflecting the effort you have put into customising them - which really takes away from the immersion. Overall, though, it's a solid effort for the genre.
In War in the North you can take the role of either Eradan, a human ranger; Farin, a dwarven champion; or Andriel, an Elven Loremaster. The three characters give you a range of typical RPG archetypes, covering all the usual bases.
The human ranger is a good all-rounder, who can use melee as well as ranged attacks with a bow or crossbow, and can also dual wield swords. Farin is the company’s ‘tank’; a heavily armoured melee fighter that's designed to bear the brunt of the enemy attacks. Andriel rounds out the threesome as the fellowship's caster, who can perform healing spells and do other kinds of magic, including damage-dealing and utility.
As with most RPGs, characters increase in level as you progress through the game; the more kills you achieve and the bigger the foes, the more experience points you collect. As you level, you can choose from a range of character traits and specialisations.
There are a good number of specialisations to choose from, which ensures that aspect of the role-playing is well catered for. Specialisations are particularly important to consider at a team-level, as getting a good balance across your three-man (or rather dwarf, elf, and human) squad is particularly important when facing some of the more ferocious enemies.
The three unique characters are well suited to the online co-op focus of the title, which supports up to three simultaneous players. This is certainly what we would recommend, as it means the character's individual skill-sets can be fully exploited and utilised to bring down those who seek to destroy the fellowship.
This aspect of the game played well, for the most part, although we had some voice-related issues which may be related to the fact that all three NZGamer.com reviewers who were involved in our play-through had Kinects and headsets; the game's ability to customize your voice input is basic at best.
Additionally, we found some quirks with the way the game tracks and saves when playing in co-op. Progress for your character (including levels, loot, and so on) is only saved if you join a game in which you have advanced at least as far through the story as the host of that game. If you haven't, you can play along (even if you're much lower level, and therefore completely useless) but nothing you do will have any permanence for your local save-game.
Presumably this was done to ensure that players don’t miss any parts of the story, or to prevent "power leveling", but ultimately it means that finding a suitable game can be problematic and that playing friends can be unrewarding - by design. An odd choice, we thought.
A nice addition to the genre is that the characters here each have unique functions within the game world, which again reaffirms our belief that playing the game online with friends is the best way to experience it. For example, each character will have a different ‘tracking’ ability in the game; the mage can find herbs to create potions, the ranger will be able to see ranger weapon caches, and the dwarf can find hidden rooms or gold nodes to mine.
Lord of the Rings - War in the North rewards your curious nature by hiding gold and treasure chests in all of the various levels, meaning the more inquisitive you are the better the pay out. Unfortunately the AI won’t allow you to take advantage of these abilities, further emphasising the focus on co-op play with humans.
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