Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What I Played: Lord of the Rings: War in the North

This got a brief shout-out from me both on Twitter and in my latest Read Play Blog response. But I think it's worth sparing a few more words here because I don't think Lord of the Rings: War in the North (PS3, 360, PC, and OS X) got the acclaim or recognition it deserved. On Metacritic it has something like 63 / 100. Google aggregates it as 3.5 / 5.

War in the North is basically the first LotR-inspired game I've played all the way through. I've dropped in on a couple of LEGO Lord of the Rings sessions, and there was some weird isometric puzzle one for the GBA for Fellowship of the Ring but I quickly lost the patience for that one. I've also heard tell of the LotR MMOs but MMOs are not my bag. There are games that predate the Peter Jackson movies, mods for preexisting games, and on and on, but despite my love for the books I never played any of them

I am a LotR video game noob and that is where this review is coming from.

JV picked up War in the North because he heard it was a fun hack 'n' slash game to play co-op and we can always use more co-op games. This was to tide us over until Reaper of Souls launched (and then dropped in price), and it ended up being incredibly fun in its own right.

The story of War in the North is contemporaneous with the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. Your party engages with Sauron's forces in his northern outposts and, it's implied, help the Fellowship by keeping Sauron distracted. Yeah, being unsung heroes!

The character setup is your standard thief/fighter/mage trilogy: a human ranger, a dwarven fighter, or a lady elf mage. (You also get a giant badass bird after the first dungeon, but he's strictly NPC.) Each class has its own set of skill trees (AW YISS SKILL TREEEEEEEES) for you to puzzle over. Whichever character isn't controlled by a player is controlled by the AI. After meeting Aragorn at the Prancing Pony, off you go to kick some ass and take some names.

The control scheme is intuitive: you have heavy and light attacks and you can defend and counter. Simple, but elegant. Overall the controls are responsive and the fighting is very fluid and easy to get used to. The level design is also fantastic and mostly succeeds at balancing the challenging-versus-fair tension necessary for every successful game. There are long runs of minion hordes, endurance fights against siege weapons, wave survivals, and rewarding bosses and minibosses. (And no bullshit escort missions!) 

Other reviews judge War in the North for being too repetitive, and I see how it could be, but since my personal heaven is an endless hack 'n' slash, I could not give a flying fuck about "repetitive." It's what it says on the tin! MASH THE BUTTONS. KILL THINGS. KNEEL BEFORE ZOD.

The loot system is also impressive. Each helm, armor, or weapon has its own unique style. The same helm will still look different on the ranger than it does on the dwarf or the elf, so every item in the game has been designed three times over. The artists for War in the North did a superlative job with the design.

I freaking loved this game. I did. I loved the hell out of it. It is just sheer fun to play. You can go back and replay previous missions (though you won't be able to fight the unique monsters, minibosses, or bosses) or, if you want to grind or just see how much ass you can kick, you can choose one of two bonus "survival" levels: Lorien or Osgiliath. They're not part of the story in any way. You can just go and kick ass for the hell of it, or to grind a bit for the next dungeon, or to stock up on ammo and potions. Not to mention there are, of course, a wide range of difficulties you can complete the game on if you want to go for that True Completionist Mode. 

I do have a few beefs, however.

1. The story is just too short. You can finish the game (which takes place over the entire trilogy) in a weekend, and that just doesn't feel right for something as epic as Lord of the Rings. I mean yeah there are some sidequests and things, but that's not enough. It could have benefited from some Fallout level NPCs, sidequests, and world exploration.

2.  Ally AI is just dumb as a sack of bricks. Theoretically you can tell your AI player (if you're not playing with two other players) to "attack" or "defend" with up and down on the D-pad, but in practice it's useless and overall the AI-controlled characters are idiots. JV and I played as the mage and the dwarf, respectively. The mage has a pretty essential spell called Sanctuary that blocks enemy missiles and (after some early levels up) heals. It is the backbone of the game. And every time JV would cast it when we needed some healing, the AI-controlled ranger would just stand RIGHT OUTSIDE the dome unless I maneuvered my dwarf as far away from him as possible (without stepping outside the AOE). 

However, the game was designed to be co-op, so I can see why the developers wouldn't want to sink a lot of time into complex AI. The game is designed to be played with other people, not with the computer and definitely not on your own.

3. But the worst issue, by far, is bugs. Game-breaking bugs. This might be less of an issue if you play online or on PSN (which seems to be the style of play the devs were considering the default), but playing co-op with JV was riddled with issues. At one point near the end of the game, because we teleported back to town to do some maintenance before facing a boss, the boss never loaded. The save was totally ruined and we had to start all the way from the beginning. Dying also seemed to trigger some weird buggy issues, as did trying to drop into a game with a higher-level character. We were able to play around these by playing the game on Easy (no dying), doing dungeons in straight runs (no teleporting back to town), and always playing together (no significant level discrepancies). 

Despite these issues, War in the North doesn't get the love it deserves, and I'm bummed that in the 3 years since its initial release, there hasn't been a sequel, a reboot, or at least some fucking patches. It's easy to get into, it's fun, and overall it's designed well.

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