Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Lord of the Rings: War in the North

On Monday, with Tuesday gaming night fast approaching I found myself looking around for something more interesting to do with the gaming group.  Titan Quest had been ok, but felt pretty bland, and while the multiplayer worked ok it didn't really add anything to the game.  We just sort of moved along in a little pack and clicked on things until they were dead, and didn't really need to talk or discuss what we were doing because it was all pretty brain dead.  So I was interested in finding something a little more exciting, something that really benefited from all three of us playing together.  I just happened to stumble across Lord of the Rings: War in the North and saw that it was 1) an action RPG and 2) designed for co-op with 3 players.  How extraordinarily convenient.  I mentioned it to my friends, and we all took the dive based on the premise alone.  Two of us played last night (the third leg of our gaming holy trinity couldn't make it, darn you Mr. Heals!) and overall I walked away moderately impressed, but more importantly, quite satisfied.

Lord of the Rings: War in the North (WitN) was developed by Snowblind studios, the folks behind a number of similar games, including some decent Dungeons & Dragons action RPGs on the original Xbox.  Much like Lord of the Rings Online, players take on the roles of characters that worked behind the scenes during Frodo's death march from the Shire to Mordor.  In this case, your group of three characters, a dwarf champion,  a human ranger, and an elf loremaster are tasked with running interference against armies of orcs and goblins to prevent them from invading the Shire before Frodo gets out.  It looks like we'll be traveling across Middle Earth, meeting famous figures from the book (Aragorn gives you your first quest) while slaughtering minions of Sauron and his lieutenant Agandaur by the hundreds.

You can't keep us apart.  We're like family!
The three characters in the game are set.  You can choose which of the three you want to play, but you can't change their names, pick their classes, or anything like that.  All three characters must be present in each game (no more, no less) so if you play by yourself, the AI controls the other two characters.  If you play co-op, each player picks one of the three characters, with no duplicates allowed.  You won't have a group of two dwarves and a ranger.  The characters roughly fall into the rolls described by the holy trinity of MMORPGs - tank, dps, healer.  The dwarf Champion is the most logical tank, being a heavy melee class with the best armor.  The Ranger is the most logical dps character, using a bow and melee weapons to deal damage at any range.  The Loremaster is the support class, providing healing, buffing, and some damage as well.  That's just at the start though -- each character has a skill tree that you spend points in when leveling up, and it's possible to focus the Champion on ranged dps, the Ranger on tanking, and the Loremaster on dual wield melee dps.  The trees are pretty short, but in a game like this any sort of customization is good.

The thing that struck my friend and I most distinctly was that the game is clearly, obviously, and wonderfully tailored for co-op play.  Co-op isn't something tacked on as a necessary feature, the game was designed with co-op in mind.  A big example -- all loot in the game is randomly generated for each character and if you find a chest, every character gets to loot the chest and gets a full share of loot from it.  There's no competition for loot, and no concerns about taking things that might be better for your buddy over there.  Instead, the loot I picked up wouldn't have even existed if I hadn't been playing in my friend's game.  When we found things the other player could use, it was easy to trade as well, since you can simply send items from your inventory to any of the other players directly.  No dropping things on the ground and hoping they pick up the right thing. The game is intense enough that communication matters, and we were talking far more than we ever did during Titan Quest.  Teamwork matters here, and that's a great thing for a co-op game.

What do you mean you never saw Gandalf do this?  What a slacker!
Which brings me to the gameplay itself.  It's pretty standard button mashing action RPG fare, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  I found it both engaging and relaxing, and really hit the spot for an evening of gaming. Each character has a normal and heavy melee attack, a ranged attack, and a selection of skills from the skill trees.  Hitting enemies enough time will make them vulnerable to a critical attack, which if done right will reward you with a fancy finishing move played out in slow motion.  It's also possible to do headshots with your ranged attacks for bonus damage.  Nothing deep, but solid and fun.  The skills are varied and interesting, everything from a "sanctuary" spell cast by the Loremaster that prevents ranged attacks from entering (but not leaving!) to heavy melee aoe strikes by the Champion.

The graphics are decent, but not exceptional, due no doubt to the game's console pedigree.  Dialog is voiced, both for the player characters and the NPCs, and your characters will even do battle shouts or announce skill usage during combat for certain skills.  The sound effects and music seemed good, and fit with the Lord of the Rings theme.  I don't recall anything glaring like death metal blaring as we charged up a ruined canyon into hordes of exploding goblins.

All that said the game certainly has some issues.  I was playing using an xbox 360 wired controller, so camera control and movement was fluid and easy for me.  My friend was using a mouse and keyboard though, and it took some time for him to get used to the sometimes wonky camera movements.  The game is clearly a console port, and both the control scheme and user interface reflect that.  It's not insurmountable, but it does take some getting used to, and I think the game is probably best played with a game pad.  Strangely though, the list of controls in the menu refers only to the mouse and keyboard even if you have a gamepad plugged in, though the in-game tutorials and loading screen tips thankfully report how to do things with the controller.

The other rather strange issue we had was voice chat.  The game apparently has voice chat built in and enabled by default, but has absolutely no settings to control it anywhere in the game at all.  We were connected through Skype and when the multiplayer game started my friend's voice started echoing in my headphones, while he was hearing my voice from both his headphones and his computer speakers.  We figured out pretty quickly that WitN was providing voice chat and turned off Skype, but the control and quality of the voice service was inferior to that of Skype and we'd have rather stuck with Skype.  There was no way to turn it off though, so we were stuck.  I'm assuming there must be a .ini file or something we can edit to shut it down.

Reviews of the game have been pretty luke warm, and if I was playing the game single player I could understand that.  I don't doubt it would get repetitive, and the relatively weak story wouldn't keep me going.  Co-op though, the game is a lot of fun and deserves a much higher rating than the reviews are giving the game as a whole.  If you're interested in WitN, play with some friends to really enjoy the game as it was meant to be played.

Overall we had a good time and I'm looking forward to playing it again next week.  We made it to level 6, but are still in the first area of the game, so playing one night a week WitN could last a couple of months.  I think we've finally found a game that we can all enjoy and play together, at least for now.  Finally!

No comments:

Post a Comment