Lord Of The Rings: War In The North is rooted in epic literature, but it has miserably low narrative standards. The three protagonists come from nowhere, have no real agenda, dodge explaining the pesky puzzle of how they formed their own Fellowship, and blather as canonical characters listlessly pat them on the back. Playable characters include Eradan, legend’s mildest human ranger; Farin, a dwarven champion who at his most exciting resembles Gimli on Prozac; and Andriel, an elven loremaster who does her best to be a combat-mage in a universe where the entire charm of magic is its ancient mystery and nuance. On the subject of subtlety, these three forge an alliance with giant, talking, goofy-looking eagles that are technically sprung from canon, but flex their jowls in an awkward, Muppet-like fashion that makes for harder suspension of disbelief than The Owls Of Ga’Hoole. Together, these ambulatory voids venture to well-rendered bucolic lands to lop off thousands of limbs in the hopes of vanquishing a watered-down, emo ringwraith.
Options are scrimshawed upon the bones of the Dragon Age series, from Bioware-lite conversation nodes to linear, grinding brawls. The nodes are embarrassingly similar, with the left choices being the extended “Investigate” options. As players level up, there are skill trees, but they aren’t divided into functional categories. The one true separation from Dragon Age’s controls comes in the lack of tactics or ability to switch characters.
The game’s determination to avoid gamer interference runs deep; War In The North would prefer players keep their filthy mitts off the story. Attempts at depth are excruciating. Try something daring, like challenging a dragon to a fight, and companions negate the choice. You can’t even assist Bilbo with poetry without him deferring to Arwen for the final draft. When intersecting with the more urgent story of Frodo and the One Ring, players are made to feel like they’re at a corporation’s holiday party where the boss wants to make a show of how important those imbeciles in the mailroom are. Popular characters from the books and films vouchsafe how your three heroes, still soaked in fresh Uruk-hai blood, maybe kinda sorta could matter. So while combat is ferociously direct, conversations stick with warm platitudes, as if young gamers (or older ones who still need condescension) are listening. The childish dialogue matched with the M-rated gore comes across as ghoulish. It’s unclear who this game is really for.
Especially galling are signs that folks really cared about making this game. The effort to maintain Peter Jackson’s tone is apparent; every piece of loot feels hand-painted in Alan Lee watercolors. And yet it’s all rendered meaningless through endless repetitive death.
If battles spill across a bridge or through a door, players had better hope their companions aren’t anywhere nearby; due to poor collision detection, their feet become as impenetrable as Helm’s Deep. War In The North features online and local split-screen multiplayer, but that mode’s only notable feature is that it allows conversational relief from tedium. The AI is nearly identical for thousands of enemies, except ones that dance in place due to bugs, so tactical discussions boil down to “I have more spiders on me than you.” That AI simplicity extends to companions in single-player mode: They’re so feckless in boss fights, they’ll spend as much time being revived as swinging their swords. In some cases, battles trap players forever while they hack at bosses with five million health points, constantly reviving each other from the brink of death, perhaps pretending this peril is all part of the journey. But breathing life into this game shouldn’t have been up to the player.