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

Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360

Also available for: Windows PC

From: Snowblind Studios/WB Games

ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence)

Price: $60

Snowblind Studios gets kudos for telling a new "Lord of the Rings" story - set chronologically parallel to J.R.R. Tolkien's story and featuring his iconic characters, but starring a new set of characters created expressly for the game - instead of retreating to yet more recreations of the same old battles.

The flip side, of course, is that Tolkien's most ardent fans will be first in line to pick apart "War in the North's" fiction. Andriel the Elven Loremaster wields magic that's pretty out of step with Gandalf's arsenal. A giant talking eagle, while a very well-developed character who is great fun to summon in battle, will nonetheless remind some of Sean Connery voicing a dragon in "Dragonheart" more than anything from the "LOTR" universe. Finally, while the fellowship occasionally checks in with your party, the result of those check-ins often leaves you feeling like a second-string hero. "North" tells a comprehensive side story with branching quests and numerous mandatory and elective dialogue paths, but it's one that will strike some as a dungeon crawler with Tolkien trimmings instead of the other way around.

Fortunately, if trimmings are enough and you like dungeon crawlers, the rest of the news is pretty good.

For starters, while "North" prioritizes action over role-playing, it offers a satisfying array of role-playing elements. Each of the three playable characters - Andriel, Eradan the Ranger, Farin the Dwarf - has a separate level cap of 40. The primary attributes stick to the basics, but combine those with the branching trees of acquirable special abilities and there's a satisfying sense of growth throughout the adventure. (In case you're curious: Yes, you can switch between characters during a single campaign. And yes, your characters' stats carry over if you replay the campaign, which returns the favor by offering a harder difficulty setting.)

"North" also dishes out loot, and plenty of it. Every piece of your characters' clothing is separately interchangeable, and weapons and clothing alike can be modded with stones that grant special offensive or defensive characteristics. Your weapon and clothing choices are visually reflected on your character, and finding a rare sword that looks awesome and flaunts special bonuses is almost as fun as wielding it. "North's" system of rare loot isn't as extensive as, say, "Diablo," but it's pretty satisfying.

Ultimately and overwhelmingly, though, "North" is about bloody, vicious combat. This is the first "LOTR" to get a Mature ESRB rating, and that rating is earned: You'll carve through armies of orcs, trolls, skeletons, spiders and more, and the game's insatiable appetite for combos and critical attacks results in carnage that lives up to Tolkien's depictions of war.

"North's" combat does have a variety problem, often pushing out successive waves of the same enemies instead of mixing them up across shorter battles. The satisfying impact of the combat does much to offset the encroaching feeling that killing one troll will probably just result in two more appearing, but it's impossible to completely ignore. If you play solo, the combat A.I. of your allies also leaves something to be desired, though they're exceptionally adept at healing you when you're down.

For the optimum experience, though, co-op (two players splitscreen, three online) is the way to go. Having three competent fighters instead of one is obviously helpful, and the downside - that you'll have to work together to stay alive instead of count on the A.I. to bail you out - simply makes the combat more exciting. Fortunately, "North" is flexible enough to let you play solo or with different configurations of friends within the same campaign, so you'll always be able to push forward whether friends are available or not.

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