This is going to hurt.

Lord of the Rings fans have been waiting a while for their beloved stories to meet a great game. So far, that hasn’t happened, at least not in some time. Electronic Arts had care of the franchise during the heyday of Peter Jackson’s movies, but not much came of it beyond a bad role-playing game and even worse 3D action games.

Now we have Lord of the Rings: War in the North, from Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and Snowblind Studios, a game that tries to do a little more than just get something out day and date with a movie. It’s better than the average, given the license’s troubled history. It’s just not quite good enough.

Snowblind’s bread and butter has been dungeon crawls in the style of Diablo. War in the North’s big idea is to marry that style to the cinematic approach of games like Gears of War. In theory, it’s not a bad idea, and at first it seems like the combination is going to work, but soon enough things fall apart. Eventually, it just boils down to another game of hack and slash and hack-slash some more.

Orcs. I hate orcs.Welcome to the Dungeon
The people at Snowblind have been crawling through tunnels and caverns a long time. They first made their bones with Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, a sharp dungeon hack sporting a gorgeous graphics engine from the early years of the PS2. Then they took a bit of a wrong turn with Champions of Norrath, a decently-conceived series that suffered from iffy execution – especially in the online mode – and the fact that no console gamer alive gave a lick for anything with the EverQuest name on it.

You can see where War in the North sets out to fix those problems. Online co-op gaming has come a long way on consoles now. The Lord of the Rings license still has some heat underneath it. You can see where the Gears influence comes in, too. Adding a close-in perspective and some story-driven flash seem like good ideas for shaking up the old kill-and-loot formula. At a very basic level, it’s not a million miles from some of the thinking behind Diablo III.

So from there begins the adventure. The notion is that our three heroes – an elven wizard, a human ranger and a dwarven ass-kicker, invented specifically for this game – are wandering around in the background of the story we’re all so fond of. While the Fellowship of the Ring moves south, they’re taking care of business up north, in Fornost, Mirkwood, the Grey Mountains, and other locales only known to serious Tolkien nerds.

The action takes place from a third-person view, but instead of using the high overhead perspective from Snowblind’s earlier games, the camera stays low and tucked in close behind the hero’s shoulders. At a first glance, then, this looks like a conventional 3D shooter or action game. Equipping and developing the heroes works more like Snowblind’s other productions, though, with skill trees to work through for each main character (granting special abilities and bonuses in combat) and a role-playing game (RPG)-style inventory that quickly fills up with lots of randomly-generated loot.

Gotta Loot ‘Em All
Not bad so far. Loot heals many wounds, and War in the North dishes out some fine loot. Everything a character wears or wields is visually represented on their gameplay model, from greatswords and bows down to gloves and boots, and those models always look sharp. Since they’re most of what we’re looking at through the bulk of the game, that’s a good thing. There’s not much opportunity to customize the items themselves, beyond occasionally slotting in “elfstones” that give certain items a bonus effect, but more complexity than that would probably add more fiddling in static menus than the game really needed.

That sort of thing distracts too much from the action, after all. War in the North tries not to break that up too much. In fact, the way the combat system works encourages a fluid, consistent, constant attack. Stringing together a lot of hits eventually grants a fighter bonus experience points. It also opens up the chance for especially punishing power attacks and finishing blows. Those come with even more extra experience (good) and tend to kill enemies a lot faster (even better).

Going to the Gray Mountains, better pack a sweater.In the first couple of levels, it’s fun learning how to game the chain system. The extra experience is worth the extra effort, and the special kill animations look great, as the camera cuts in close and a touch of slow-motion shows all the gory detail of that orc’s head coming off. It’s similar to what Bethesda‘s Fallout and Elder Scrolls games do for critical hits, but the technical execution here is much smoother. The animations of the attacker and victim blend together well – if a sword goes through a leg, that leg is what gets severed – and the camera almost always puts itself in the best position.

Gears of War of the Ring
What also happens in those first few levels, or may happen to certain gamers, anyway, is a weird flashback effect. A one point I was briefly confused as to what I was playing. See if you can guess what the trouble was.

I was cruising along, doing the usual dungeon-crawl thing, hacking through hordes of orcs and snatching up their stuff, until I hit a little scripted moment. A goblin was manning an emplaced ballista turret, shooting the hell out of my party of heroes. I had to outflank him, knock him off, take over the turret and mow down a wave of bad guys that conveniently charged out in front of my giant crossbow. Then I had to fight back a well-worn compulsion to run up and chainsaw the stragglers to death, until the flashbacks wore off and I remembered which disc was in the Xbox 360.

There’s a lot of Gears of War in this game, not just in a general sense but also in a specific one. Those turret set-pieces, so well-known to Gears players, are just a really obvious example. Also hauntingly familiar are the cooperative death-and-revival mechanics, several different enemy designs and Beleram the giant eagle, who will come down and carve up a crowd of bad guys providing there’s an open sky above them. (Xbox 360 veterans will remember that this is exactly how the “Hammer of Dawn” weapon worked, back in the first Gears game six years ago.)

Snarking aside, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (And in fairness, it works both ways — the bad guys in Gears are in many ways basically orcs with machine guns.) From a practical point of view, it’s no great sin to be derivative. The deadly sin in games is being boring. Unfortunately, War in the North is not quite innocent.

Don’t Feed the Trolls
By the third act of the story, as the action moves out to the Ettinmoors, those specific resemblances  start to thin out. The scripted set-pieces aren’t so clichéd and obviously familiar. At the same time, though, the level of difficulty jumps up considerably, and not in the wisest of ways. At a basic level, enemies take a lot more damage to kill. The player’s attacks are less likely to stun them, too – quick first strikes and counterpunching won’t put them on the ropes, which makes it much harder to start up a smooth attack chain. Big, powerful enemies like mountain trolls show up more often, the kind that won’t go down without a long and often repetitive campaign of sticking and moving.

There’s a line between battles that call for strategy and quick reflexes and battles that mostly call for endurance. Many of these are on the wrong side, whether because a few enemies are way too resilient (those bloody trolls) or because an endless wave of mooks keeps charging in. A feeling of uneasiness bubbles up after a while during some of the latter encounters – “Did I miss a scripting trigger? Am I going in the wrong direction?” – when the real problem is the unreasonable number of enemies that have to die before the game decides enough is enough and moves the plot along. Even worse, a lot of those enemies tend to be the same kind of enemies, calling for the same basic pattern of tactics to beat them, same as the last time, and the time before that…

All this speaks to the larger issue of pacing, how much time and effort should go in to bashing the way towards how much reward. Traditionally, dungeon-hacking games have a quick, staccato kind of pace – kill, loot, kill, loot, kill, loot, kill. Rarely does any specific instance of killing or looting take a whole lot of time or effort. The effect is to keep the player in a constant state of low-level instant gratification. Diablo is the classic example. That was exactly how Dark Alliance worked as well.

Ranged combat works beautifully...until the ammo runs out.What War in the North does, besides just changing the camera perspective, is change up the pace compared to Snowblind’s traditional dungeon crawls. Along with all the different cinematic bits and bobs, it has the pace of a game like Gears of War. Encounters aren’t over after a couple of speedy mouse clicks. They take a lot of hacking and hammering away before all the bad guys are dead and it’s time to hoover up the rewards.

This worked in Epic’s Gears of War games, at least in its better moments, because it had a lot of tactical depth. It was fun and challenging to have to move around an environment, shifting from one bit of cover to another, flanking and counter-flanking, using different weapons. What War in the North needed to work at this pace was a little more depth like that. As it is, too many encounters boil down to doing the same damn thing over and over again, especially given the way that a few enemy designs crop up so often through so many levels. They’re mainly a test of patience, and that patience runs out before the quest is over.

A One, a Two, a Three
Obviously, the multiplayer co-op mode does help out in that department. Even simple gameplay is almost always more fun when there’s another person to share it with, and in this specific case it’s much easier to use the different heroes’ support skills when you can coordinate with another thinking person. The elf’s healing and defensive spells tend to have an area effect instead of a specific target – they create a stationary circle with healing or whatever other handy bonus. It’s nice to be able to say, “put the anti-missile field right there,” instead of hoping that the AI is smart enough to figure out the right way to do it. This adds more of that tactical depth we were talking about, and it cuts down on the dying, also a helpful bonus.

On the other hand, playing with a friend points up some of the flaws in the solo game’s AI and level design. For instance, a sequence of siege encounters towards the end of the fifth act almost demands another human player, because the ally AI isn’t smart enough to figure out the division of labor that the objectives call for.

Take one scene where two giant trolls and some cannon fodder charge a gate to batter it down. After a couple of tries, it isn’t too hard to figure out a basic strategy to counter them: the dwarf slows down one troll, the ranger delays the other troll, and the elf takes care of healing and crowd control. Unfortunately, it seems like the AI is a little too binary in its thinking to work out the three-way split. That usually leaves a single human player to die tackling both trolls alone, or get caught up fighting the munchkins while the trolls beat down the door.

The Eagles are coming!Looks and Personality
On a technical level, the co-op mode works fine, which speaks to how far things have come since the days of PS2 online gaming. We almost take that for granted now. Some things will never get easier or harder in game-making, though, like telling a good story.

In keeping with the move to a more cinematic dungeon hack, this is very much a story-driven game – lots of voice acting, lots of realtime cinematics, some BioWare-style conversation trees to keep the dialogue from coming out the same every time. The practical reason to do all this is to give the player another reason to keep on hacking and slashing. Loot is a fine motivator up to a point, but it never hurts to add some more incentive, to make us fight on in hopes of seeing happens next. So does the story here help pull things forward? Well…

One of the irritating conventions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is that only hobbits, of all the Speaking Peoples as they’re called, are allowed to have a sense of humor. They can smile and occasionally crack jokes if the situation calls for it. Elves, dwarves and humans are typically not so blessed. They have to march through their adventures with a permanent expression of grim-faced determination.

Aside from a couple of shopkeepers and the like, plus a short hidden cameo for old Bilbo Baggins, War in the North doesn’t have a lot of hobbits in it. There is, as a result, hardly a line of cheerful, entertaining dialogue in the entire game. It’s all momentous epic fantasy mush, like the King James Old Testament crossed with a day-old bowl of oatmeal. Radagast the Brown lends a daffy charm to his single scene (he’s a Wizard, and so exempt from the aforementioned rule), but he’s gone almost as soon as he shows up.

It’s irritating, because the cinematics in between stages and quests are often lovely to look at. The great mythic beasts are especially cool – giant eagles, giant spiders, a hellishly impressive dragon. (That dragon also comes with a cool little misdirecting plot twist attached.) The bits where people start talking, though, put an itch in the finger that sits over the “Skip” button.

Again, it’s important to point out that this is more a problem with the license than the actual efforts of the writers behind the game. They had to work within an unfair set of constraints, constraints that Peter Jackson’s movies actually cheated on a bit (the films include a surprising amount of comic relief that was nowhere to be seen in the novels). Chances are they could have come up with a more well-rounded script if they were working in a milieu that let them throw in more personality – the Conan stories, say, or Fritz Leiber’s sword-and-sorcery yarns. Something where a writer’s permitted to sometimes lighten up the mood.

Hear No Evil
After all these complaints, it’s important to recognize some of the fine engineering and artistic work in this game. Design problems it may have, but for the most part War in the North looks and sounds great.

Put an exclamation point on the “sounds great” part, in fact. Whoever put together the sound design here earned their money. The effects are rich, powerful, crunchy. Their timing and positioning give a great sense of feedback. You don’t really need to look very closely know you landed a good solid hit on a target — the cracks and thuds and meaty slicing sounds get the message across. Likewise you don’t have to see a wave of enemies to know that it’s coming. The bellows and screams of those orcish hordes in the distance are nice and scary.

Don't let this happen to you.Which is not to say that they don’t look scary too. War in the North has the benefit of being able to work with the art direction from the Jackson pictures – Warner Bros. now has the rights to the pictures, which previously belonged to Electronic Arts – and the modeling of the orcs and trolls is a spot where that especially shows. They have that ragged, primitive, almost animalistic look that the costuming in the movies did so well, and the animators made sure it worked well in motion. When a troll rears back and puts its giant club through the floor, you can just about feel it.

In the end, though, there’s only so much fun to have admiring the spectacle. This isn’t something we just sit down and watch in a dark theater for two or three hours. If War in the North is going to expect us to fight through something towards 20 hours worth of quest – plus extra challenge missions that sit outside the central plot – it has to come up with more ways of holding our interest while our hands are on the controls.

In another game, set in another fantasy universe, Snowblind just might be able to give us a game that does that. Here’s looking forward to the possibility, at least. Punt this figure up a few imaginary points if you definitely have some friends to play with, but all things considered War in the North earns a 60 out of 100. We played it on the Xbox 360, and it is also available on the PC and PlayStation 3.