The Lord of the Rings trilogy that came out in the early 2000’s is my Star Wars. They were released when I was the perfect age (11-13 years old) to fully enjoy the fictional mid-evil adventure before I became a jaded adult. A worthy complement to the movies was a surprisingly good licensed video game published by EA and developed by Visceral (known for the Dead Space games) that contained the events of the third movie and was aptly titled The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
The Return of the King game is a mindless button masher hack and slash with RPG elements that explored the events of the third movie. It was the ideal game for a young dumb kid who wasn’t skilled at games and is easily mesmerized by the state of the art triple A graphics for the time. It also contained a game play feature that has become a thing of the past; local co-op.
My friends and I played the shit out of Return of the King long into our early college days. When I saw the announcement and trailer for The Lord of the Rings: War in the North in early 2011, I immediately pre-ordered the game. A new modern gen (at the time) LOTR co-op hack and slash game was exactly what I craved (and still crave now).
The premise of the game was fairly benign, a dwarf, an elf, and a ranger teamed up to hold off evil in the northern Middle-Earth while Frodo slowly made his way south to Mordor to destroy the ring. I didn’t care about the story, any excuse to make a new LOTR couch co-op game was fine by me even if it involved a loosely mentioned event by Tolkien in the LOTR canon and featured three made up characters that were shamelessly trying to reflect Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn.
Similar to Return of the King, my friends and I played the shit out War in the North. We recently replayed the campaign again a few weeks ago marking my 8th or 9th time completing the game.
Developed by Snowblind and published by Warner Brothers, War in the North was released on 11/1/11 in North America. The holiday season of 2011 was loaded with huge releases in video games as Dark Souls was released on 10/4/11, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception was released on the same day of 11/1/11, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was released on 11/8/11, and the famous Skyrim was released just 10 days later on 11/11/11. Being lost in the crowd was a major factor in the game barely selling 700,000 copies leading to the end of Snowblind (has since merged with Monolith).
It’s unfortunate that no one bought this game as it will forever be one of my favorites. It was exactly what I wanted at the time, a local co-op game that is a modern version of the Return of the King game. It had the satisfying hack and slash game play while incorporating skill trees, addictive looting with inventory management of new gear and weapons, and modern PS3 graphics.
War in the North hasn’t aged the greatest but the cut scenes still look incredible in 2017, and it contains two of the most important features; well-paced fun game play and replay ability.
Each character has their strengths and weaknesses. The dwarf is a heavy brute who can absorb and deal a lot of damage, the elf has weak melee attacks but can cast healing spells and craft potions, and the ranger is a fast, elusive, and balanced warrior. Each character has secrets that only they can see when playing the game; the dwarf can see minerals which can be mined and weak walls that can be broken down, the elf can harvest plants and mushrooms, and the ranger can see hidden ancient secrets left by his ancestors. To receive the full experience of War in the North it is best to play with three friends to uncover all of the secrets and to work together as a team.
After completing the campaign, the difficulty for new game plus increases keeping the balance and integrity of the combat intact. To full max out a character and to beat the game on legendary difficulty, 3 playthrough’s are required.
The plot of War in the North is very much shoehorned in the middle-earth canon, but familiar locations and characters will be encountered during the campaign. This comes off as corny at first, but interacting with the characters from the known story line allows the player feel like they are playing a LOTR game, not just a hack and slash game with LOTR skins.
A challenge mode, similar to the one featured in Return of the King, is present in the game allowing the player to face off against waves of enemies which become increasingly more difficult. I didn’t dabble in these much and forgot they were even there when I played again for the first time in years last week, but the challenges offer more replay ability to the game serving as a good compliment to the short campaign.
War in the North is not without its flaws. Minus the PS3 version of Fallout: New Vegas, this is the jankiest game I have ever played. Of the 8 or so times I have played through the 10-12 hour campaign, I encountered bugs every time. Some of the bugs include text stuck on the screen, sound effect glitches that play in a never ending loop, characters and enemies popping and out of in game cut scenes, huge frame rate drops, and freezing which has bricked my PS3 requiring a hard (and possibly harmful) unplugging of the system to reset it. It is truly remarkable that so many obvious easy play tested bugs remained in the game.
There are dialogue trees when talking to characters in the game whom offer side quests and additional story. These dialogue options offer nothing to the game and feel like late additions to the game to make it feel more like a Mass Effect style RPG. The side quests also feel like last minute additions to a linear game in an effort to be more “modern” as completing them does not reward the player with anything that can’t be obtained through grinding.
War in the North is an amazing game and is probably the last of its kind. The LOTR license is focused now on the open world action RPG mixed with Assassin’s Creed and the Batman Arkham game play with the Nemesis System. Those games are much more successful and fit the demands of the current gaming audience leaving the simple linear hack and slash gameplay behind.