Having just slain a small country’s worth of orcs and trolls in the chilly vistas of Mount Gundabad, my fellow adventurers and I arrive in Rivendell for some much needed rest. Pottering around, I chance upon none other than the celebrated Bilbo Baggins, hobbit adventurer extraordinaire, but the only thing he wants to talk about is me.
“You know,” he says, sounding familiar and yet somewhat off, “someone should be setting down this story of yours.” He offers to chronicle my exploits – of course, I take him up on the offer. He’s Bilbo Baggins, the unlikely hero who helped destroy Smaug, once holder of the One Ring! How could I turn such an opportunity down? So I tell him of my murder spree, a mundane, bloody affair; eager and excitable, he transcribes my anecdotes, breathlessly praising my valour and exclaiming how ‘riveting’ my life as a hero has been. Bilbo Baggins – a hobbit whose adventures are renowned throughout Middle Earth, a hobbit whose cousin and adoptive heir is currently embroiled in one of the most important quests in the land’s history – is calling my stories entertaining, incredible, legendary.
This superfluous side-quest (one of many) stands as an embodiment of all that is wrong with Snowblind Studios’ latest game – it’s unimaginative, slight, incredibly arrogant and very guilty of using audience recognition of The Lord of the Rings as a crutch to compensate for a lack of convincing character development and engagement with the spirit of Tolkien’s mythology.
War in the North’s ostensible heroes are Eradan, a Dunedain ranger, Farin, a dwarven warrior, and Andriel, an elven ‘Loremaster’. Each has their own set of strengths, weaknesses and special skills – Eradan has stealth abilities and is handy with a blade; Farin is stacked with stamina and can mine gold for trade; Andriel is skilled in magic and has a unique capacity for being unwieldy and fragile in combat. However, a set of gameplay elements do not well-rounded characters make, a fact Snowblind struggles with.
These heroes are devoid of any kind of appeal or personality outside of their capacity for grim violence – their names and appearances are vanilla enough to have a place in any poorly defined fantasy roleplaying game; their dialogue consists solely of exposition and the occasional trite observation regarding a villain’s morality; and their interaction with one another is minimal outside of the requisite calls for aid during battle. Only Farin comes out the other side vaguely humanised, a couple of off-hand comments during cut-scenes positioning him as a classic ornery dwarf in the vein of his direct inspiration, Gimli. As a result, it’s hard to find any kind of pulse in the battles fought as the characters are little more than functional vessels roaming Middle Earth for the sole purpose of engaging in bloodsport.
Further, the game consistently avoids tapping into the spirit of The Lord of the Rings. The tale finds its heart in ordinary men who, when faced with impossible odds, go to extreme lengths to ensure that the right thing is done. As a result, Tolkien’s work is infused with a sense of desperate action and an acute awareness that, if one fails, the catastrophe that follows is on their shoulders.
War in the North refuses to engage with that in its narrative. Characters who know well the precariousness of their situation – Gandalf, Elrond (who is inexplicably Minnesotan here), Aragorn, Gwaihir – look to the game’s protagonists and have nothing but praise for their valour and efficacy on the battlefield. When they talk to Eradan or Farin or Andriel, they talk as if victory is guaranteed because our heroes are involved; when quests are assigned, all these hallowed figures from the Tolkien stable – people whose wisdom we’re assured of because of our background with the stories – simply can’t stop enthusing about how awesome the player-characters are and how success is surely inevitable with them on board. It couldn’t be more obvious that the game is positioning its heroes as the kind of superhuman warriors found in dollar-store fantasy novels, not the complex and decidedly human characters that anchor Tolkien’s work.
It’s an attitude that carries over onto the battlefield. The game’s simple combat system consists of a Standard attack, a Heavy attack and a Ranged attack, all of which can be modified through the ritual of levelling-up. While this system is fitfully fun when cutting ridiculous swathes through paltry orcs and Uruk-hai, attack patterns form quickly and the spontaneity of trial-and-error discovery soon devolves into grinding tedium. This model of hack-and-slash gameplay is not only ultimately boring, it simply doesn’t fit The Lord of the Rings – the mind-numbing inevitability of mashing X and Y (and sometimes tweaking those attacks with the Right trigger) diminishes the impact of the story by turning a war into a light skirmish with a foregone conclusion.
This isn’t to say War in the North is irredeemable. It’s a reasonably good-looking game – the setting for the final chapter, the Witch-King’s fortress of Carn Dum, is perfectly distressing with its jagged iron and blood-coloured rust – and the aggressively dumb combat is intermittently satisfying in the way only climbing up a troll’s back and stabbing him through the head can be. But much of the excitement comes from the gleeful slaughter of a lengthy chain combo or the black comedy of calling a giant eagle onto an unsuspecting orc – hardly the meat of the game.
However, that War in the North is most successful when it does something relatively idiosyncratic is peculiar given how much it pillages from more successful works. The combat aesthetics, with its bloody in-game animations and gratuitous gore, seem lifted from Gears of War, while the game’s multiplayer-oriented gameplay and recovery systems recall Left 4 Dead. Even the largely dispensible dialogue system comes courtesy of BioWare. For such a magpie studio, Snowblind doesn't seem to be able to comprehend what exactly makes these elements work in their sources.
Of course, War in the North is best played with friends – designed as a multiplayer experience, it does at times call to mind nostalgia-tinged days playing Gauntlet and Hunter: The Reckoning. However, this also exposes more serious problems, and not just how unforgivable Andriel is to the person controlling her. Chiefly, it highlights just how much Snowblind has relied on multiplayer as a way of making the game more difficult. Played alone or with a friend and witness the non-player cohorts absorb three to four times the damage player-controlled characters can. Such a system seems like a disincentive to multiplayer generally.
No Lord of the Rings game to date has truly captured what it is that gives the books their power, their appeal and their poignancy. Vivendi’s rough-and-ready Fellowship of the Ring made overtures towards that by emphasising the normalcy of Frodo’s life with a never-ending prologue. The rushed-for-deadline Gameboy Advance Games Of The Films unintentionally captured the frustration of adapting to an unfamiliar conflict by being visually incomprehensible. But we’ve yet to see a studio understand that The Lord of the Rings isn’t just orc murder and hushed discussions about a Great Evil shot in soft light – it’s about ordinary people exhibiting unsurpassed bravery and perseverance against impossible odds; it’s about people doing whatever it takes to prevent wrongdoing, even if they have no experience in what they’re called to do.
War in the North, by being a blunt object of a hack-and-slash game with a facile story and an aversion to genuine characterisation, adds itself to the long list of Lord of the Rings games that just aren't Lord of the Rings games.