Sparky's Update - Lord of the Rings: War in the North

Hey gang! It's probably going to be a quick update this week. I've only been playing two games over the last week: War in the North and Crisis Core. I've barely scratched the surface of Crisis Core, so I will say little of it for right now save that I'm enjoying its mechanics and not at all enjoying its bland story. That might change, as I do dearly love the trappings of Final Fantasy VII and the game is still getting started. But enough of that for now. Let's move on to the game I've really been playing.

Oh, I'll also quickly review Jonathan Maberry's third and final (for now) Pine Deep novel, Bad Moon Rising. Short version? It's one of the best horror novels of the last decade or so.

A Real Mixed Bag

The next few paragraphs are probably going to make it sound like I hate Lord of the Rings: War in the North, but I want to be clear up front - I'm really enjoying the game. It's an addictive, loot-based action-RPG set in Tolkien's Middle Earth. That right there is enough to get me hooked. Each of the three characters has a very specific role, but a lot of wiggle room in his/her skills to make the character feel unique to your particular choice of playstyle. Some of the environments look great, blending a bit of the movies with a bit of what appears to be inspiration from Lord of the Rings Online. That's a good thing - that game was beautiful. The music is superb, as I've come to expect from LOTR games. It seems to be original compositions, though I'm not entirely certain about that. Character models look fantastic, taking likenesses from the movies along with a bevy of characters both original and literary.

So it kind of pains me to have to describe what War in the North does wrong - and holy shit, does it do a TON of it wrong. Some things are apparent right off the bat. While the visuals look great and the enemies and characters have a nice bit of variety to them, you'll notice a massive amount of clipping both from bodies appearing where they're not supposed to (half in walls, running around stuck in an environment item such as a rock, etc.). Given that I rarely care about graphics, this isn't a big deal to me. But that's just the tip of the iceberg, I'm afraid.

Storywise, the game starts with your three protagonists thrust right into the Prancing Pony for a meeting with Aragorn on where you need to go to help distract the Enemy from his business. And that's it - you're given no introduction to the three protagonists. There's little backstory given, save for bits dropped throughout the game's various town locations. There is literally no reason to care about these protagonists and their story whatsoever, and that's maybe the worst thing I can say about any game based on Lord of the Rings. The story insists on interweaving with the events of the novels, a poor decision in my opinion, as Tolkien had notes on thousands of years of Middle Earth lore to draw upon, not to mention the countless possibilities of a story skirting the main story altogether. Instead, they've made a game that insists that you follow the main stories told in Lord of the Rings without actually being any of the great characters involved. You're stuck with three of the blandest, most generic fantasy characters I've seen.

And then there's the core mechanics of the single player game. Let me get this out of the way - the multiplayer is great, if you can find two partners who can help "carry the load," as Samwise said. No complaints there. However, the single player experience is loaded with stunningly bad design decisions. Let me explain in several parts:

1) Character selection is only possible between lengthy action sequences or by returning all the way out to the main menu. This would be fine, except...

2) Switching characters does NOT transfer over items you've given said character, but experience and game progress DOES. I played through most of the first area as the dwarf champion, giving my other characters all sorts of nifty items and equipment, thinking I'd be able to go through later and sort out who would wear what, who would get certain sets, and then selling it all off in a big lump. Didn't work that way at all. The AI controlled characters picked outfits and weapons I'd given them seemingly at random. When I switched over to those characters later, I was horrified to learn that each one carried only his and her stock items, but still had to deal with high level enemies at the exact point I'd left off with the dwarf. Fuuuu-

3) You CANNOT control your AI companions' skill growth or inventories! This is the dumbest part of them all. I could deal with playing the champion the whole game - he's a little damage dealing tank with a nifty buff. What I don't like is not being able to control the focus of the other characters. I need the lady elf to be a healer, which thankfully does seem to be the focus of the AI controlling her. The male ranger is seemingly a bizarre mess of a character when controlled by the AI, split between being a weak archer (I've handed him stronger bows, but I have no way of telling if he's equipped them or not) and a weak dual-wielding glass cannon. Or rather, in his case, glass pea shooter.

Those three design decisions are almost fatal flaws. What I wished I'd known, and you should too if you decide to play through this game (and hey, it is a fun game), is that you should stick with one character throughout the first dungeon. Just go with whoever you've picked, get through the lengthy initial areas, and bam - you have the ability to replay that first area piecemeal. You don't have that option in the middle of the area, but once it's completed, you can redo it, one small chunk at a time. This allows you to not only get a feel for the character, but gets you the loot you'll need to properly equip your characters.

Whew. So yeah. Good game, just some stupid decisions made.

Bad Moon Rising

I talked a little last week about Dead Man's Song, Jonathan Maberry's (and it is Maberry - sorry for the misspelling) second in the Pine Deep trilogy of horror novels. It was a great book with a few glaring problems, well worth a read for anyone desperate (or not) for a real goddamn horror novel. Well, just twelve hours after picking up the third novel in the series, I finished it - and that's not at all an insult to the book's length. It is, without question, the finest horror novel I've read in the last decade.

Bad Moon Rising is almost purely action-driven. The characters have been well established by this point, and while emotions run high in the novel, there's no awkward breaks in the plot for surreal, overly saccharine love scenes as in the last novel. It's a grim novel, full of blood and tears and a whole metric ton of bodies. Yes, it's vampires and werewolves, but unlike those glittery emo kids' novels, this is a man's horror novel, full of blood, gore, and nary a single emo girl in sight.

If there's one problem with Maberry's finest work yet, it's that he uses foreshadowing with all the subtlety of a baseball bat across your forehead. It's an annoyingly bush-league writing trope that reveals the fates of several characters far in advance, and it lessens the impact somewhat. It's not enough to really detract from the novel, but it is worth noting.

And that should do it for this week. I'm going to continue playing through War in the North and Crisis Core, so expect more on those next week. Have a good one, folks.