Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Video Game Assessment: The Lord of the Rings: War in the North (2011)

So, let's end the year with a few reviews of various video games, shall we? I think I'll be reviewing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, and The Lord of The Rings: War in the North.

First up is this game, The Lord of the Rings: War in the North, and let me say what a game it is. You might be expecting a weak video game here, based off the movie, hastily put together, a big cash cow for the new studio that took over the Lord of the Rings video game franchise. And you know what, you silly person you? You'd be wrong.

Now, I have to say that EA Games has never really enamored itself to me, and the Lord of the Rings video game franchise is one of the BIG reasons that I have a dislike of the publisher. There seem to have been a lot of missteps with the franchise... The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, the only "RPG" game in the franchise before this one, really sticks out in my brain as one of the subpar ones. I played that game, years ago now, and hated it. I wanted to like it. The Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite things in all the world, and I wanted to play through it in the worst way... and I came away from that basically vowing to never touch another LotR game again. It was just that bad. But then I heard some good things about this game, War in the North. A new studio had taken control of it, Snowblind, and everything seemed to be moving in the right direction.

Then I saw some reviews. The first review I ever saw was a brilliant one, telling of the game's positive qualities for fans of the movie or the book. The reviewer seemed to be positively beaming during the entire course of his writing the review. So, that was good. Then I saw some other reviews tearing this game to ribbons, and I grew worried and anxious. I was still very anxious about the game until I started playing it and...

Well, the game is interesting, I'll give it that much. It's brilliantly put together in a bunch of ways and combines tactics, RPG elements, lore from the book and the movie, and interesting characters and locations to make a decidedly very decent idea for a video game, but does it hold up? I guess that's the question. Does it perform well under scrutiny? Especially for the game having an M rating, the first in the franchise to have one... Does the game blow my socks off? Or does it disappoint?

Well, this is going to be a somewhat different review than I usually do. Sure, I'll go over what makes it good or bad, but mostly I want to talk about how this game is put together lovingly.

Yes, lovingly. I have to talk about it because, damn... it's absolutely true. I want to clap and cheer for Snowblind for absolutely loving this franchise enough to make something that FEELS like LotR and acts like LotR. It's not just the lore or the locations that they use that tells me this. It's the dialogue, which sounds like it should in the settings. It's the characters that act like they ought to act. It's the voice acting in general that really speaks of the fact that everybody involved seemed to have a stake in this franchise. Maybe I'm reading too deeply into it. Maybe none of what I'm saying is true. I guess it seems like these things are true to me. It's seems that this game was put together with loving hands, and, to me, it shows and is fantastic.

Yes, this game is really good. No, it's not the best game ever. It's certainly not a great RPG, but that's not what I wanted. I wanted a good LotR game and that's exactly what I got with this game. It's a pretty weaksauce RPG all around, being some kind of strange hybrid of a hack-and-slash game and a RPG like Dragon Age II or Mass Effect 2, going around with a hub system of friendly areas and fighting areas. There are sidequests and there are elements of exploration, and those feel great. I have to say I really like that here. In general though, the game is mostly an RPG in name only. Certainly there are choices one can make throughout the course of the adventure, and there are three characters that one can play, but there never seems to be a reason to really explore the RPG elements in depth. It feels very lightly put in, and that's neither good nor bad. It just kind of is. It works well here though, for what it's worth, and that's not always true with every game of this type. I think it's because the story has a foregone conclusion. But anyway, it works in my opinion.

The characters that are unique to this game and the characters that don't appear in the movie, but are mentioned in the books... those two groups of characters... well, they have fantastic voice acting and are really great to listen to. The characters that were in the movie though... UGH... it's painful to listen to Aragorn, Elrond, or Bilbo... I think because their actual actors were better... or maybe because the voice actors were trying unsuccessfully to imitate. Anyway, it didn't work.

The gameplay is mostly fun, but can be on the challenging and even frustrating side, especially in the areas of Mirkwood and, God help me, the defense of the Dwarven city... my God that was the frustrating side of difficult. Man, oh man... I must have died about fifty times there. It was particularly painful there. Anyway, for the most part though, the gameplay is fluid and fun without too much hassle or problems. It works like it should and I like it for what it is.

The soundtrack is also quite good, having a fantasy feel all around. It reminded me slightly of the Dragon Age games, and that's a good thing, I think. It sounded good.

The environments and locales are pretty well done, but sometimes felt a little too large, especially earlier on in the game. Fornost and Rivendell are examples I have to point out about this because they seemed such strange ones. Fornost is the first real area, fighting-wise in the game, full of goblins. You meet the big bad guy of this game there too. But it goes on so long, much longer than so many of the other levels in the game, and I'm not sure why. It's not really particularly engaging. Rivendell is pointed out here too because, for a hub world, it feels a little too large. Only select members of the Fellowship are there too... and I'm uncertain why. Why have any of them at all if you're not going to show all of them? It seemed strange. Rivendell is much larger than I would have thought as well and I have no idea. It sticks out in my mind because I don't quite get it.

Other than some hiccups in level design (which do seem to get better as the game progresses, just pointing that out), most of the game is really solid. I've seen a lot of average scores for this game, and, to me, it's easy to see how a person who isn't a fan of LotR can give this a middling review. It's nothing special for the audience of regular people out there. I'll tell you something honestly here: Don't get this game if you aren't a fan. You won't appreciate it. You won't. I'm sorry, but I think the reviewers just don't seem to understand how good this game is for the fan of the movies or the books. It's basically perfect because the game developers seemed to really care and put that extra effort into it. The eagles were a particularly nice touch, as well as Radagast the Brown, and the Barrow-Wights. Those were some of my favorite things in the game and they worked really well. Oh yeah... the dragon too. He was all the right kinds of awesome.

This game mostly made me want more of it and that's never a bad thing. It made me want The Hobbit to come out sooner than next year and that's not a bad thing either. Hell, in general I really enjoyed this game. It had an interesting a solid story and worked for the most part. I recommend it to fans. The game also looks very good at times if you're into that kind of thing. The ending is particularly noteworthy, but the eagles in general were lovingly rendered.

Anyway, that's my two cents about this game. I really liked it, maybe you will too.

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