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Lord of the Rings : War in the North Review (xbox360)

Ever since the first announcements I have kept a lazy eye on this title and it’s development. Being a long term fan of Snowblind games, it was exciting to hear they were back in the ’hack n slash’ genre, not forgetting they had tapped into one of the richest backdrops in the world of fantasy and RPG.

Given the furor of big name releases in the close of the year did this sleeper make a successful challenge for ’under the radar’ tile of 2011?The game’s narrative takes the player on a parallel journey to the standard Lord of the Rings fare, following a secondary fellowship of three heroes. Having the choice of Ranger, Eleven Magic user and Dwarven Warrior opens up a variety of strategic options that allow you to play the way that suits you.

 The game offers a range of classic environments drawn straight from the story we know, along with a fair arrangement of other environments, although I must admit wandering around Rivendell is somewhat fascinating. There are also a broad range of familiar characters hanging around the game for you to interact with, including an achievement for talking to a certain fresh faced Hobbit, this also highlights one area that can be time consuming. Dialogue, there seems to be an enormous amount of dialogue and options, but they are generally channelled into the same result. Perhaps at one stage of the development they were aiming for some Mass Effect conversation trees with ramifications, but now it’s not really there. However if like me you are not generally nosey about the goings on in Middle Earth, then rapid presses of the ’A’ button and the path of least resistance are for you.

The gameplay is pretty solid, two standard attack buttons for melee that can produce combos, add to that the ranged options and each characters unlock able skills or buffs. The end result can leave you with a variety of builds on a first play-through, of course a follow play-through would offer up a afull set of skills quickly enough. While your adventure is well channelled with well timed mobs appearing for battle, the game still feels fresh, weapons hit with resounding contact and mixing your skills through a scrap soon becomes second nature. I’ll go and say it now, this is no Dynasty Wars or Dragon Age, War in the North offers really satisfying combat often sealed with a nicely styled execution move. Even more so satisfying when you have leapt onto the back of a troll to finish it off Legolas style.

 Not forgetting that encounters usually offer up loot, and be happy to know there is plenty to go around, the loot you pick up will be geared towards your character and that is okay, because itis not 100% for you. Often you will pick up something really exciting only to find it is for the Champion or Magic User to wield, again I am happy with this because it shows balance and regardless of whether you play with the AI or Human partners it still feels nice to ‘gift’ them a new treasure.

 An aside on the loot is that unlike the painful Dungeon Siege 3, items are not class based and inflexible, they do change your appearance and they can be quite cool. No ‘Bullet Witch Tights of Striking’ here. There are also magical armour sets, that individually may seem less vaulable than the piece you are wearing, but combining multiple set pieces generates some impressive buffs to bolster your stats.

 The AI does have highs and lows, often you find yourself last man standing while the other two crawl toward you for healing, of course once you go down it is time for game over and turn back the clock a few minutes. The AI concentrate on a few of their skills and wield them with abandon, there is certainly more depth and strategy when you are shoulder to shoulder with humans, but it does not detract from the game enough to cause worry. Local co-op is supported through a split screen, although being old school I wish it was displayed in the classic isometric three quarter view as in Dark Alliance.

The campaign is relatively short, but completion allows you to continue with your leveled character, so you can enjoy destroying the first few levels at least before thing toughen up a little. There are also plenty of side quests and a couple of one off, endurance type missions to play out for extra experience and bonus loot. Not to mention finding all the secret stashes.

There is also considerable assistance offered by the giant eagle Beleram, beautifully animated and soothingly voiced, the big bird adds a nice dimension to the storytelling and at the end of the game left me regretting a snap moral decision that I had made earlier. The personal impact of this was more effective on my resulting victory than any other game I have played. Speaking of the end-game, I personally got so wrapped up in the campaign that I had completely forgotten about that other fellowship that was trudging into Mordor trying not to fall over all the time.

Overall, this title is bags of fun. Admittedly it will never win any awards, but I believe that with Christmas out of the way it will start to win fans with any gamer that picks it up for some pre-next Christmas Hobbit and Middle Earth shenanigans.

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