Lord of the Rings: War in the North (WITN) is a fun three player co-op hack and slash, but is it worthy of Mordor?
Snowblind Studios has created a new story in the Lord of the Rings universe that is built around three playable characters: Farin, Champion of Erebor (Dwarf), Andriel, Loremaster of Rivendell (Elf), and Eradan, Dunedain Ranger (Human). As with any LOTR story, there are numerous other strange and confusing names, but the gist here is that you have three different warriors banding together in fellowship to combat a growing dark force in Middle Earth. This evil is being brought about by Agandaur, a lieutenant in Sauron's bretheren.
Your journey takes you to several places throughout Middle Earth. Many familiar, and not so familiar, friends and foes from the LOTR universe are featured too, including Beleram, the giant eagle, who you ally with early on in the adventure. The story and character development, at least in terms of learning about their past, personalities, and relationships, takes a backseat to old fashioned hack and slash action, which is nearly constant. That's not to say that the characters aren't unique in their styles of combat, abilities, and certainly their apperance, especially given the variety of armor options that you find along the way. However, the characters do feel generic and have very little depth to them.
That said, the story and characters, and the story-telling (mostly advanced through cutscenes and interactive dialogue sequences), is certainly sufficient to provide for a good platform for a co-op romp. In playing WITN, I was at times reminded of good times playing D&D Heroes or Gauntlet: Legacy on the Xbox, although WITN has more depth in terms of player customization and upgrades. Taken for what it is, an action-heavy, third person, co-op hack and slash, WITN is a lot of fun, despite just a few issues.
The issues themselves aren't bad, but they're noticeable. First, some aspects of the levels. There are several occasions where you are on a platform that is just a few feet taller than the floor below. You cannot simply run off of this platform and make a very realistic hop down, you instead my run over to where the stairs or ramp, or what have you, are. It's a bit of a letdown to see that type of strictness in the character movement ability, but these invisible walls are actually fairly common in the levels. When you run up to what looks like an alternate path or a secret area, only to be met with an invisible wall, it's annoying.
I also thought that Snowblind short-changed themselves on some of the level design, using things like large, awkward switches to control doors and 'turret' style weapons to dictate an entire area. Something more creative or co-op inspired would have been more agreeable.
The enemy AI has strength in numbers, often attacking you by the dozens, in horde-like waves. They don't really need much of an AI in that sense, but the friendly AI (assuming you're not with two other gamers) does have some trouble at times. I noticed this primarily during a few areas in which we were under heavy ranged attack. The friendly AI had trouble falling back into cover, and because of it they were taking massive damage, to the point they need reviving. Fortunately, while they may not be smart enough to know when to run, you can use the defend command (press down on d-pad) to have them fall back on you. You can then use up on d-pad to send them back to Attack mode.
It's interesting that when the AI characters level up, they do not use their upgrade or skill points until you manually do so -- unless you have them set to Auto Assign. But, being that I want to have that granular control over my fellowship, I prefer to assign the points manually. However, you cannot do so until you switch to those characters at checkpoints. I would have rather had the ability to distribute those upgrade points at anytime, like how you can in Dungeon Siege III, for example.
At first, I thought the combat was too slow and too basic, but it grew on me during my second and third hour of play. Once you start leveling up, finding or buying better equipment, and experiencing more of Agandaur's minions, the experience improves significantly. Combat is performed through light and melee attacks (X, Y), ranged attacks (simple hold LT to take aim), and through blocking with LB. You can sprint with RB, and also roll -- very handy -- with B. Power and Health potions are used by pressing left and right on the d-pad, and you can execute Power moves with LT and a face button. Power moves are specialized attacks or abilities unique to the character. Andriel has a healing sphere called Sanctuary that she can call upon, and Eradan has a powerful overhead sword attack. You can unlock more of these powers in your Skill tree, as well as a variety of other skills. For example, Andriel has three sets of Skills -- Sanctuary, War of Command, and Power of Staff, with six, nine, and six skills (respectively), beneath those main tiers.
In addition to a Skill system, characters are defined by traits including Dexterity, Will, Strength, Stamina, Melee, Range, and Armor. Each time you level up, you have a few points to distribute amongst these traits to help define how you want your character to be. For me, I kept Eradan strong on melee, even though he is also a skilled archer. Farin gets built like a fortress in terms of health, because he's my brawler, and for Andriel I focused on ranged attacks and healing. Given that you can switch characters at each checkpoint, you can dabble with all of them to get them set up just how you like them.
Of course there is equipment and inventory to monitor as well. Equipment types include head, shoulders, amulets, body, gloves, right and left hand weapons, ranged weapon, left and right rings, leggings, and boots. You can carry several of each time of item and give items to other players, as long as they are capable of equipping it. Each piece of equipment is rated for its Value, Armor, and Durability, and items do deteriorate (slowly) with use. I thought Snowblind did a really good job of making the items interesting -- when you find a treasure chest or buy a new item, you are generally getting something pretty special. Unlike a recent RPG I played, Dungeon Siege III, WITN doesn't overwhelm you with dozens of different objects of the same type. You don't spend a great deal of time managing inventory at all, and I really liked that.
In addition to buying and finding items, there is also a basic alchemy mechanic in the game. If you locate and collect certain items you can combine them to create a health potion or other useful item. There are thirty-two item slots (with support for "stacking" of identical items), so you're not likely to run out of room.
Character traits, Skills, Equipment, and Inventory are all managed by pressing the Back button and using LB/RB to move between the categories. You can also see how many coins you have here, which determines what you can buy. Coins are found in objects (boxes and barrels unfortunately) and from fallen enemies.
As far as the presentation, WITN is actually not a great looking game. Stiff facial animations on the main characters are partly to blame, but the textures leave room for improvement, too. The levels are of good size and are colorful, but there is a fairly consistent lack of 'pop' from the graphics. Framerates do well, though. The sound package, on the other hand, is quite good, although the voiceovers and repeated dialogue lines can eventually get annoying.
To the summary...