Monday, January 30, 2012

Game Review - War in the North

Game Review - Lord of the Rings: War in the North

Score +12/-12

Lord of the Rings: War in the North is a tactical first-person "shooter" where you play one of three heroes. The story is set during the War of the Rings in J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy. It tells a very different version of the "War in the North", a commando-action story of war thwarted than the desperate battles in the strategy game Battle for Middle Earth II. It was meant for online cooperative play, but there is a good enough single player campaign.
+ The artwork for the landscape and maps is very nice, and very closely follows the visualization in the Peter Jackson (director) Lord of the Rings motion picture trilogy.
+ The character gear, especially the outfits, are very varied, highly-detailed (down to patterns, and even the weave of fabrics), and in theme with the overall art direction.
+ Character faces and expressions (and character movement) are quite well done with motion capture. Movement animations are fluid and natural.
+- Many movie-quality cutscenes with good dramatic elements and mythos-appropriate dialogue. Also, these are dynamically run using the in-game characters so that they wear what they have been equipped with. However, some of this was sloppily done as weapons blanked out for conversations still show elemental FX (such as flaming weapons) and sometimes weapons are replaced by stock weapons (e.g., Eradan sometimes has a two-handed sword even if you had equipped him with a pair of axes). These should have been ironed out in QA.
+- Overall good use of system resources with maps that have the illusion of a wider world but have actually limited movement range. However, later game maps start to have too many long stretches which can cause stuttering as the system loads objects and textures (especially in the sewers in the final game area -- should never have been shipped like this, as mid-range machines which could run the game passably might find it impossible in just that area).
- Many terrain features look passable but are not. Some can be dodged past but not walked over. Some map stages employ short drops to a new area which conceptually should be easily traversable but you cannot go back. This not only breaks immersion but can be confusing during gameplay. Also, lots of areas on the world map, as well as some that can be revealed by finding map scraps -- but you can't go to them, so what's the point?
+ The skill system narrows down the interface to just 4 buttons for powers by having modal powers (e.g., usable only when blocking) or having skills that enhance existing skills. This eases skill use (but also reduces the breadth of skills).
+ All three characters have three classes of skills which let them play very differently. Overall, there are approximately 9 character play styles.
+ Starting around late middle game, there are more situations where proficiency in both melee and ranged combat become useful, so that whatever style of character you build, you will see good use from their skills. The final boss fights also feature this.
+ You are not stuck in a strictly linear do-or-die game. If you need help with the difficulty, you can shift down a difficulty level, replay a level (with reduced enemies), or try a challenge map to get more XP (experience points, which gets you levels and more competency). In this way, you can level up and get some gear before continuing the campaign.
+ You can overhaul your character. This is important in any point-based stat and skill system where you really don't have any guidance about how to put your points and can easily "make a mistake".
+ Enemy appearance is paced out so that they try to give you at least a slightly different experience with each enemy even if some of them share the same tactics.
+- AI control and equipment management is simple because it is all automated. However, gross AI cheating (e.g., skills gained far earlier than possible for the player) is annoying. And if you give something to the AI, it is gone forever and you cannot access the item if you switch to playing that character. Also annoying is that you can't give them potions, especially when they are in trouble and need one. The engine can tell the AI character to call for help, but you can't just toss them a potion or increase their supply. Something that could instead have been done is to have a group equipment pool where the player's current character can see who has equipped what, and can have priority over equipment. The AI then chooses equipment from the rest.
- Needs more playtesting with difficulty levels. The first boss encounter was the toughest because of how it was set up. The rest were comparative cakewalks afterwards. Some encounters involve getting swarmed and can be harder than boss encounters.
- Replayability is low. Each difficulty tier is basically the same game and the same gear, but with jacked up numbers. There's nothing new to see or do. By the time you finish the game on Normal Difficulty, you are probably a bit over level 20 and have a strong skill set that can't be further enhanced.
- A lot of gear but you switch quickly to just a few new ones you find in stores. On the up side, this keeps the game experience quite fresh. On the down side, quest rewards of gear and looking for secrets just to find more treasure, are a waste of time.
- Way too much loot and too easy to get more. This glut makes money meaningless. Even overhauling your character ("respec"), which costs 16,000 gold, is trivially easy to do.
- Needs some sort of character storage.
- Quests generally give useless rewards: Equipment becomes quickly obsolete, and you can farm for gold or XP anytime you want. A more useful reward would be a perk or skill point -- something lasting. But since the skill tree is so small, that is useless too. A perk would be nicer, like learning something that grants a +0.1 damage multiplier against orcs or while in Mirkwood; or a technique that gives a slight power regeneration bonus.
- Character progression by XP too severely favours melee, where you can get large XP multipliers.
- You cannot find some secrets with the incorrect character. Sometimes this requires multiple play-throughs of a map to use the appropriate character when you can't switch characters yet. At least one quest objective requires the location of a secret by a particular character. This is not appropriate for Single Player. They could just have allowed, in SP, everyone to find all the different character-specific secrets since all three characters are right there.

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