The usual suspects are pretty much absent from this outing. You have one opportunity to cross paths with the likes of Frodo and Aragorn. But aside from that, you’re on a whole different mission. As it turns out, one of Sauron’s top lieutenants is trying to conquer the northern region of Middle-Earth and will bring his forces down to intercept Frodo and the ring. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to stop him.
The downside to this idea is that you never really get to care about these guys. There’s a dwarf, a man, and an elven mage. I just finished the game and I can only name one of the three. They have zero personality and you’re left wondering 1.) why they’re together and 2.) why they care so much. It takes about 8 hours of movie for Gimli and Legolas to become buddy-buddy, so why should we believe that these two are friends?
So what works? The game is fun. It’s got solid (although repetitive) combat and enough RPG elements to make it interesting. It’s not an RPG though. There are maybe two or three choices in the game. The conversation dynamic is horrible, as I doubt there are any consequences. I’d prefer cinematics and just remove the conversation branches. And when it comes to weapons/armor/etc, it’s a constant upgrade system. What this means… I have steel armor on. I eventually find something better. And then something better. There’s no choice, because you’d clearly want the better option. I wish there were lateral choices that weren’t so obvious.
What else works… The most charismatic of the lead characters is actually a fourth character, a giant eagle named Beleram. I remember his name because I actually cared. You don’t play as Beleram, but you can “summon” him in the middle of fights to swoop down and attack enemies. Useful for bosses and tough enemies especially. Watching an eagle attack a troll is a cool sight, and allows you to focus on those pesky archers for a few seconds. I was also most invested in Beleram’s story. He’s injured at a critical moment in the story and I felt more emotion in that moment than the entire rest of the plot.
I was concerned that I wouldn’t appreciate the story. But I actually thought it was kind of cool. You’re hunting Sauron’s lackey across the Northern regions of Middle-Earth and you get to explore some areas not really tapped into. The levels are all fairly unique and felt fresh each time you changed locales. The lead villain was somewhat engaging and the final battle felt like it was important. Along with unique levels, we also got treated to some unique enemies that the LOTR films didn’t really show us.
In Fellowship of the Ring, they skipped over a section of the story where Frodo and the boys come across “barrow wights,” which are essentially a zombie/banshee kind of creature. Well, in War in the North, we get a whole level where you fight the undead and get to see this location fleshed out. We also find ourselves in the mountains and come across an angry stone giant, something only hinted at in the literature. It gave us enough source material to remind us that it’s a LOTR game but didn’t beat us over the head with familiar faces.
So what didn’t work?
Even though the story was interesting, our three main characters felt boring and flat. The game was created that you could play with two other people. But playing solo means that you have to choose one at the start of each level. This is the only way that you can equip items and upgrade them in a certain way. I tried this once and I just didn’t like the other two characters. I ended up playing as the dwarf for the entire game. It wasn’t satisfying to play as the defensive healer of a mage and the human ranger just didn’t feel nearly as fun. So I would gather armor and weapons and just sell them because I didn’t want to play a whole level as one of the other characters, just so that I could give them fancy new armor. I assume they did some sort of auto-leveling, because I managed to beat the game and they usually held their own, but I didn’t like the lack of control over them.
I ran into a few glitches which required me to start the level over, which was frustrating. If I died, the game liked to load back to a point where I was already screwed. There was one sequence where you have to defeat two trolls before they break down the door to this Dwarven fortress. Well, when I died, it loaded a game where the trolls were already at the door. In about 15 seconds, they would break it down… meaning I would then restart again. It was an endless loop. I had to back out the main menu and reload so that it would give me a fresh start on that level. Just kind of frustrating.
The battle system was engaging but generally repetitive. At first, the M-rated fatalities were pretty cool but after the 80th decapitation, it starts to lose its charm. The bosses, which were usually unique in terms of character, were plain and boring to fight against. I always managed to find a blind spot and just hack away, requiring zero thought.
One of the only customizeable features that would kind of make this feel like an RPG are stones that can be equipped to your armor and weapons to give them unique qualities. Somehow though, these stones are not very common. I ended the game with probably four or five open slots. I had five stones that all gave offense boosts but they could only be equipped onto weapons and my 2-handed axe only had one slot, so the rest went unused. It felt like I missed out on something.
I was glad that they took a risk on an original story set in the world, but I wish that they had showed some more love to what Tolkien created. Either that or allow us to create the characters (let us name them, pick a race, pick a class, etc). That way, if the character feels boring, we’re allowed to fill in the blanks. The game was fun though, even in the final minutes. Again, it was repetitive, but for an action adventure game in a world that I personally love, I was pleasantly surprised.
But because I love the world of Middle-Earth and I know they could’ve done better, I’m giving them a 3/5 rating.