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Page 1 of 3Snowblind Studios has something of a pedigree, even a legacy to them. Their most famous title, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, released back in 2001 for the PlayStation 2 (and later, Xbox and GameCube), was a controversial one. For many fans of the Baldur's Gate series, it symbolized the birth of a trend towards more action-oriented, console-built games from Interplay and other RPG developers, which would come to a head with the legendarily-bad Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel. Despite these notions, Dark Alliance was able to not only end up as one of the most fondly-remembered console action-RPGs ever, it would also set the trends in action-RPGs for years after. Snowblind would later reuse this same formula for Champions of Norrath, an EverQuest-themed action-RPG which went on to receive similar accolades, and Justice League Heroes in 2006.
Now, five years later, Snowblind have brought back their tried and true action-RPG design for The Lord of the Rings: War in the North, providing many of the same strengths as previous titles. While their trademark hack-and-slash gameplay is as enjoyable as ever, however, the edge has been dulled somewhat by repetition. As a co-op experience it's a fun, action-packed outing, but the single-player game takes some compromises as a result of this multiplayer focus. As a full-on Lord of the Rings RPG, however, it comes closer than just about any game before it.
Hacking, Slashing and Conversing for Middle-Earth
Coming into War in the North expecting the usual Snowblind action-RPG, I was rather surprised to discover that it resembles a traditional RPG much more than their dungeon-crawling hack-and-slash legacy would suggest. Though many aspects of the gameplay remain, including a focus on combat, loot progression and character leveling, it's hard not to notice that War in the North plays much more like Mass Effect 2 and other modern action-RPGs, complete with the same dialogue wheel system that BioWare has made is trademark over the last few years. While the structure of the game is more linear and focused than other RPGs like Mass Effect or even The Witcher 2, with a set path through the various stages, and about 20 side-quests throughout the game, there's far more here than many players might expect.
War in the North revolves around three fixed player characters: Eradan the DÃºnedan Ranger, Andriel the Loremaster of Rivendell, and Farin the Champion of Erebor. Despite the impressive titles, the three characters slide firmly into basic archetypes, with Farin (or "not-Gimli") as your standard warrior/tank, Andriel ("not-Arwen") the mage, and Eradan ("not-Aragorn") a mixed fighter equally skilled with both sword and bow. Each possesses three distinct skill trees which further allow one to customize them, while they all share the same basic Strength, Dexterity, Stamina and Will attributes, which determine melee damage, ranged damage, health, and power (mana). Level-ups are fairly frequent, but not too frequent, coming at a rate of about once per hour of gameplay, and each grants three new attribute points and a skill point; by the end of the game my first time through, my party was closing in on level 22, but as I completed all the side-quests, 18 to 20 should be the average for those who stick to the critical path.
Rather than allowing for significantly different character builds, progression is focused more on specializing the existing characters - it's possible to turn Eradan into an invisible, sneak-attacking dodger, for instance, but he won't be out of luck in a straight fight or when using a bow either. In my experience, it was best to avoid min/maxing too much, as a generalist will thrive much better in the varied situations the game offers. Thankfully, characters can effectively be reset both by starting a new game/difficulty level and by purchasing Respec Tokens from stores, so you'll rarely find yourself in a situation you can't tackle.
The combat itself is a bit of a departure from previous Snowblind games. Rather than taking a top-down perspective similar to the Diablo series, instead, War in the North plays like a more conventional action game, with a behind-the-back camera and Gears of War-style aiming mode for ranged attacks - if you played Hunted: The Demon's Forge, you'll know what to expect. Melee attacks are separated between light and heavy, with heavy attacks typically being less efficient damage-wise and speed-wise, but necessary for breaking an enemy's guard or staggering them. Ranged attacks are character-specific - for Eradan and Farin, they rely on arrows and bolts, while Andriel can fire magic bolts from her staff, but these have a cooldown period and draw from her power/mana bar. Despite the three character classes and specializations, each of the three are capable in all forms of combat, so don't be afraid to get the Loremaster's robes dirty in hand-to-hand fighting.
There isn't a traditional "light, light, heavy" type of combo system in the game - instead, after doing enough damage to an enemy or knocking one over, a small pointer will appear above it, signaling that you can perform a critical strike. Critical strikes provide more XP and do more damage than standard ones, often killing instantly, but more importantly begin a "Hero Mode" combo chain, which continues until it is broken, either by taking damage or not dealing it quickly enough. Hero Mode increases damage output significantly, can break the guard of weaker enemies, and also puts a multiplier on XP - the longer you can continue fighting without being interrupted, the more XP you'll earn and damage you'll do. Hero Mode isn't necessary to use, and frequently is made difficult to use both due to the use of active skills and the enemies you'll be facing, but it will speed character growth and it provides a great sense of momentum to the fighting - getting a good streak going in an action-RPG can be satisfying, and reinforcing it through Hero Mode and critical strikes was a great design decision by Snowblind.
A focus on loot is one of Snowblind's other hallmarks, and War in the North offers up a large variety of weapons and armor to mix and match. Progression in equipment is near-constant throughout the game, but the presence of slotted items (which one can insert Elf-stones into, providing extra stat and damage bonuses), set items, and powerful unique items help to make sure you'll still hold on to some of your more valuable gear even once it begins to become obsolete. However, certain modifiers, such as elemental damage, are relatively rare to find, which is a bit refreshing compared to Diablo and other loot-heavy games, but means it's possible to go through the game without ever discovering those modifiers. Aside from the regular loot, which continues to gain in power on higher difficulties to match your over-leveled character, you'll also find your standard potions for both stat boosts and healing, as well as junk items to sell and crafting ingredients, applicable only to Farin and Andriel.
The big downside of combat (and, summarily, gameplay) in War of the North is sheer repetition. While hacking and slashing is handled well and is a lot of fun, it quickly grows repetitive despite the odd "turret" section. Flinging exploding ballista bolts can only break up interest for so long before it too becomes a bit tired, and although the game provides a decent enemy variety, the basic Orcs, Goblins and Trolls constitute 95% of your opposition, with a handful of bosses thrown in. There are a few additional enemies, such as giant spiders, but there's just no getting around the fact that the lack of enemy variety and tactics necessary to defeat them can become grating after a while.
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