Lord of the Rings: War in the NorthIf you are as big a fan of The Lord of the Rings mythos as I am, you will appreciate the scepticism when a new Tolkienesque game is released.

It is all too easy when dealing with this source material to make one of two classic Middle-earth related mistakes. Firstly, some will try and rush the game out hoping that loyal Tolkien fans will just buy it because it includes the words “Lord” and “Rings” in it’s title. Secondly some will try and mess with the main story line or allow you to play a main character.

Two serious errors.

Firstly The Lord of the Rings fan is a learned person (I like to think! ;-) ) and will apply the high standards set by the source material to any product derived from it. Rushed LOTR game = epic fail. Secondly the story is the story, do not get involved with rewriting Tolkien’s plot, or trying to think up new things for the existing characters to say or do. Tolkien was a far better high fantasy story teller than you are. Much, much, MUCH better. Fact.

The canny developer, when handed a LotR franchise license, knows these two key things and thus avoids these mistakes and instead takes inspiration from Tolkienb’s universe and plays to their strengths by making the best game they can from this starting point.

Snowblind Studios clearly know what they are really good at by now. Namely Champions of Norrath & Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. Two great, expansive and well constructed games. And it’s clear that some echo of these past triumphs have permeated the world of “War in the North” which is no bad thing.

War in the North - Screenshot 1

They say three is a crowd… but this time it's in a good way…

LotR:WitN (as I shall now call it, as I do have a word limit for these things you know!) is an old school actioner with bells on. Bells worthy to hang in the tower of Isengard itself mind. These are some mighty fine bells.

Firstly it has at it’s heart a key premise to absorb. Tri-op. This is fantastic news as co-op games are a huge favourite of mine and something which we really should see more of in general, and adding a third player to the traditional “Two-op” can only be a good and exciting improvement. But “Ha!” I hear you say. “We all know that any multi-player type experience can be a real challenge to setup, and now you not only need to find one other, but two, count them two, others to join you!” Never fear fellow fellowship fellow! WitN (OK, I’m shortening it again… except I’ve just explained the shortening by writing more words… doh!) handles this very real world scenario with aplomb by providing you with up to 2 impressively able AI companions! Hurahh!

For once this actually works and your AI co-op partner(s) are neither rubbish nor invincible, but rather seem to react much as any other player would. This has more than the obvious benefit as not only does it make playing the game far more interesting and realistic when alone, it also really adds to the immersion when one of your team calls for help. You really are inclined to help, rather than coolly let them go down knowing they will resurrect following the fight. This is a significant achievement.

War in the North - Screenshot 2

Middle-earth looks plush, in a slightly orc infested way obviously…

The feel of the game itself is fast moving and structured. Much like other greats of the genre you travel through smaller “areas” as you traverse “zones” from beginning to end, a linear, but not uncomfortably so, experience (think more “Uncharted” than “Super Mario Bros.”), which whilst clearly direct is enhanced by the considerable rewards available through what limited exploration is available, encouraging the player to seek out hidden chests and stashes, fleshing out what might otherwise have become a slightly one dimensional journey.

Where any such “Action RPG” stands or falls is, of course, in it’s Action and well… RPG systems. So how does WitN stack up from what we’ve seen so far? Well the combat, whilst initially simple, expands as the story progresses with a number of skill tree based upgrade options increasing your combat approaches many fold, and remember there are three characters, each with their own three tree skill selection. A refreshing mechanic within the larger combat engine is the “critical” system which invites you to sieze on stunned opponents to finish them with a brutal exploit attack on their dazed state, add ranged, melee and magic attacks & skills to the ever increasing selection of equipment which you can combine to various ends and you have satisfying progression for your character, their equipment and the play styles available to you.

War in the North - Screenshot 3

Someone is getting the cold shoulder… *snigger*… apologies for the frosty reception!

So we have a faithfully realised and caringly designed game world featuring a well engineered and balanced co-op combat system with satisfying progression across the board. But most of all this package is focused to one end, co-op, and three player co-op at that. It pays off. Good with the AI, great with friends.

Action RPG comes to Middle-earth, and invites you to bring a friend. or two. And I for one am happy to be one of you’re plus ones if you ever need a DĂșnedain at your side…

Expect more on this when we get our hands on a full copy…

– Richard “Rax” Burley