At its very core, War in the North is a co-op RPG that’s all about the character progression and, let’s not lie here, the loot. Instead of their traditional, top-down dungeon-crawler view, though, Snowblind opted for a third-person view. As a result, War in the North is an action game with deeply integrated RPG elements. Players use attack combos right alongside their spells and skills, and the blend between the two styles feels quite seamless. The entire game can be played with one to three players (only one of each race is allowed in a given game, however) with the AI filling in the remaining roles. Split-screen, online, and mixed split-screen/online are all supported for the consoles, with just online multiplayer for the PC. Split-screen is a vertical split, which I found to be quite suited for the game (I hardly had to do the lean-in-and-squint at all!). Though online drop-in/drop-out is supported online, I couldn’t find a way for a local player to drop-in/drop-out.
The game follows three new heroes in the Lord of the Rings universe: Eradan (the human ranger), Andriel (the elf loremaster), and Farin (the dwarf champion). These three have been tasked with combating a great evil in the north (Sauron’s champion Agandar) while the Fellowship bears the one ring towards the fires of Mount Doom. The plot is fairly simple, but it does the job of coherently connecting the various areas in the game together. The story will lead players through an impressive variety of environments, including (but not limited to) Mount Gundabad, the Barrowdowns, and the Ettenmoors.
All three heroes are adept in melee and ranged combat, and players will spend much of their time happily thwacking or shooting away at enemies. They also all have the ability to call the Great Eagle Beleram (the fourth, non-player-controllable member of the party) by using the correct consumable. All their other spells/skills, however, are unique from the other classes. Each hero has three different skill trees with four levels. Investing points in any of the skills or passives of a tree will eventually unlock subsequent tiers within that tree.
The loremaster, for example, gets a tree that focuses on support and healing, one that focuses on offensive magic, and one that focuses on ranged staff attacks. The ranger, on the other hand, gets a melee combat tree, an archery tree, and a stealth tree. Character customization can get pretty deep as not only do players pick and choose which actives and passives they get, but how many points they want to invest in those skills (some skills only take one point, while others get stronger the more points you put into them). This might sound like you won’t end up with that many skills, but when I ended my first normal playthrough of the game at level 20, I had six active skills and a good number of passive abilities (including one that let me dual wield a staff and sword like Gandalf!).
Another way the heroes differ from each other is their ability to find secret areas. The ranger can find tracks on the ground which may lead to a ranger cache. The loremaster can find arcane runes on walls and reveal secret passageways. She’s also the only one who can collect herbs and craft them into potions. The champion can find fissures in rocks, which only he can break through, behind which lie hidden caves.
While the characters are strong and sustainable on their own, working together is certainly the most rewarding. If a loremaster notices her team getting pelted with arrows, she can summon her sanctuary bubble shield and deflect those arrows (and also heal everyone who remains inside of it). If a champion notices his squishy friends getting pounded into the ground, he can taunt them. There are even “co-op strike” combos where multiple party members execute a strong attack on the same vulnerable enemy. When a party member is incapacitated, other players will have a short amount of time to revive him or her. If not revived soon enough, however, the player will bleed out and you’ll have to restart from the last checkpoint. A nice exception to this rule is that AI companions cannot bleed out, so when they inevitably do something dumb and get themselves downed in a boss fight, you won’t have to break your back trying to revive them before they die. If you so desire, you can leave them incapacitated for the rest of the fight (though this isn’t really advisable).
Overall, the combat and progression in the game are suitably challenging without being too frustrating. There was a bit of a learning curve for me when I first started playing (culminating in tough boss fight) as I learned the ropes of controlling offensive and defensive play. This was likely due to the bizarre lack of a proper tutorial. After getting in tune with the gameplay, however, things went much smoother. I’ve heard some complaints about how “all the enemies are the same” in War in the North, but I personally didn’t have a problem with this. Yes, there’s lots of goblins, orcs, and Uruk-hai (note that there’s also undead, spiders, and a few other species in some areas as well), but for Pete’s sake, this is Lord of the Rings. Those are enemies to the free-folk of Middle Earth! Do people really expect Snowblind to throw in a dancing Panda enemy and totally break canon? Within these enemy races there are a whole host of different classes, such as Uruk-hai archers, dual-wielders, and two-handed weapon brutes or goblin sappers and grunts.
So now we get down to the real question. What about the loot?! Like many an addicting RPG, the loot is what keeps players eager to down the next boss or find the next secret area. While some of the items are class-specific, a lot of the equipment can be used by all the characters. There’s also a pretty neat item-set mechanic present. Some items come flagged with a set name, which, as predicted, will give you special bonuses for each additional piece of that set you equip. What’s different about War in the North, however, is that the actual pieces can differ with their inherent stats. For example, a player could pick up gloves from the Adamant set that are standard quality and require level 12. Later on, they may find another set of Adamant gloves that are rare quality and require level 16 and have a special stat on them. This is a nice way to allow players to collect set bonuses without the annoying tendency to “outgrow” gear before you finish a set. There are also elf-stones that players can socket into items to give them additional bonuses.
As we all know, no game is perfect - so what are War in the North’s flaws? Honestly, I found them to be few and far between. They’re mostly confined to bizarre decisions or oversights on the developer’s part. For example, why isn’t there an option to let the minimap stay on the screen (without keeping your thumb jammed onto the right stick)? Why is there no “repair all” option at the blacksmith? Even though there are strange, unexplained shops that are merely glowing walls as you progress through a hostile area, why can’t I repair my equipment at them? And why, oh why, did it say that my local co-op partner was waiting at a checkpoint to progress for two whole days? As I said, though, these are all quite minor and didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the game at all.
When all is said and done, War in the North really feels like the best co-op RPG I’ve played in a long time. It’s a game meant to be played with others, and I have a hard time remembering the last game that made me think that only an hour had passed when it had been four. The replayability is quite high as well. While the first playthrough is probably 12-15 hours, upon beating the game you’re put back at the beginning on a new difficulty, retaining all your levels and loot. In this new difficulty you can keep leveling up and earning new and better loot while combating scaled-up enemies.While opinions may differ, I can safely say that Snowblind did not let me down, and I can hardly wait to get back to saving Middle Earth.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.