To put it bluntly, wedging a non-canonical story into the most well-known piece of fantasy fiction of all time is no small task; turning said story into a video game perhaps doubly so. Fortunately, like the One Ring itself, War in the North possesses some surprising qualities. Unlike the Ring, however, it begins to tarnish after a few hours.
War in the North is styled as a companion piece to the story of Frodo's now famous journey. As the Fellowship of the Ring travels to the south to destroy Isildur's Bane, another fellowship is formed – an unlikely trio composed of man, dwarf and elf – to trek to the north and ultimately dismantle the Dark Lord Sauron's machinations there. Along the way, the companions meet many fantastic monsters and creatures, including the great eagle Belleram, who is easily the best written and most interesting character in the story. Together they visit many locations and characters that were unexplored (or nonexistent) in Tolkien's mythology.
Delving into the environments is one of the highlights of War in the North. I confess that it was no small thrill to wander in the darkness of Mirkwood, or to battle liches in the fog-shrouded Barrow Downs. Locations are lovingly detailed, particularly the elven haven of Rivendell and the dwarven fortress Nordinbad. Walls are etched with intricate patterns, and arches have organic flourishes, evoking the well-crafted locations of the Peter Jackson films.
Of course, most of the environments primarily serve as backdrops for War in the North's main focus: Combat. At the outset, players choose one of three warriors, the dwarven Champion, elven Lore-Master and human Ranger. Each fits into the expected archetype, namely that of melee combatant, mage and all-purpose warrior. Each also has a different set of skills, though many share similar qualities (area attack, explosive ranged attack, etc).
The basic thrust of combat revolves around the Hero Mode. By landing successive strikes against an opponent, eventually you can activate a critical hit, which activates Hero Mode. So long as you aren't struck by an enemy, Hero Mode starts a combo counter that multiplies experience, increases damage and generally gives your attacks more oomph. Landing critical hits also has the added bonus of occasionally severing limbs and delivering a lethal blow with slow motion gusto.
As the story progresses, players battle increasingly difficult foes, gain new skills and gather improved equipment. It sounds like a winning formula, especially given the dungeon-crawling pedigree of developer Snowblind Studios, but it wears thin after a while. For instance, nearly every enemy encounter shares the same precise setup. The combat area is closed off – either by a physical gate or an artificial barrier – and players deal with a gaggle of melee attackers while archers and mages take potshots from a distance.
Initially, it's glorious to wipe out an entire horde of orcs, pushing them back, taking the opportune moment to impale those that have fallen and finally rending the head from the shoulders of the last remaining beast. After the ten-dozenth time, it begins to lose its luster. Sure, Sauron throws the occasional troll or two your way, but even these encounters become banal by the campaign's end.
This is partially because enemy variety thins out as the adventure moves forward, with wild men serving the same function (and using the same animations, if I'm not mistaken) as the orcs that preceded them. The more difficult enemies, rather than being craftier, simply ignore most hits and retaliate with unblockable attacks of their own. When I activated Hero Mode, for example, huge hammer-wielding orcs unflinchingly withstood the damage of my heaviest attacks and spells that knock most enemies to the ground (including my favorite ability, the mage's "You shall not pass" combo).
The whole affair is eminently more enjoyable when playing cooperatively either online or on the couch. Human players are naturally more effective than AI partners, and many issues – damage absorbing orcs included – are alleviated with coordination. Working together even awards experience bonuses.
And maybe it's only appropriate that The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is at its best when played with friends. After all, without the Fellowship, Frodo never would have made it to Mount Doom at all. As War in the North would have it, the exploits of its heroes were just as critical. The tale may not be as finely crafted as Tolkien's, but it's reverent of his work and worth experiencing – just keep in mind that you'll have to kill a lot of orcs to do so.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox version of The Lord of the Rings: War in the North, provided by Warner Bros.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.