Lord of the Rings: War in the North Review

There are so many games available at the click of a button and the authorization of a credit card these days that critic ratings, meta scores and top notch marketing generally differentiate the games that people are even willing to try to the games that never get a chance. Frequently buying a game, especially on PC or Console is an all or nothing proposition — a leap of faith. You might spend $60.00 on a game you play for 2 hours and $3.99 on a game you play to completion multiple times. Aside from rare demos, having a friend who already owns it or the occasional beta, there is usually no way to know if a game will be something you will like or even if it is any good. Generally, this leads gamers to lean heavily on meta score, marketing campaigns and general hype. When it comes to even trying a game that requires co-op play and multiple people to own the same title trying the game is nearly an impossibility. So how did Lord of The Rings: War in the North sneak through this barrier for me? War in the North has a meta score of 66, a bevy of so-so reviews, and requires multiple licences (one per player) to play cooperatively online.

Where it went right for me personally was showing up in a Humble Indy Bundle and the familiar LotR franchise name. I recall the bundle was not enticing to me at all, but, thanks to a theme I enjoy and a set of mechanics I usually like (RPG, Co-op) I decided to attempt to get someone else on board to play with me. I managed to talk my brother into getting the game and it appears as if one of my other friends also got the bundle, perhaps for this game or perhaps for another. Either way, I know three people who own this game — so let’s play right?

Well, truth be told, I have not played every game I own. I don’t know how many I have played and how many I haven’t but, I’d go out on a limb and say I have played only 65 or 70 percent of the games I own. This is a growing issue for many people who game via steam. Thanks mainly to bundles and holiday sales we now face an overflowing wealth of available games that we already own but haven’t touched yet! The 10 year old me with an super nintendo with 6 games is baffled by that last sentence. Compile that weird problem with my advanced age (I’m 27), a job, 2 kids and other responsibilities I am facing more potential gaming than possible gaming — that is the place where sale items and bundled games go to die.

So now Lord of the Rings: War in the North has to grapple and wrestle with the 157 other games in my steam library and attempt to eventually emerge as the game that is going to get played at a particular moment. Months went by and there were a few times when my brother and I almost got a chance to play together and then… it didn’t work out. Other games came and went and War in the North waited. That is until this weekend when my daughters were napping (one on my lap) and my 13 year old nephew was hanging out for the afternoon. We had, what turned out to be, two whole hours with nothing to do and two computers to do it on. Thanks to fast internet and two steam accounts with the game in the collection waiting to be downloaded we were off and running in 15 minutes. War in the North was getting its shot to impress us.

What it is

Lord of the Rings, War in the North is a 1-3 player, co-operative, action rpg. In some ways it brings games like diablo to  mind. Baddie killing, loot hunting action from the 3rd person. On the other hand, the 3rd person camera is tighter, and the combat is a little less clicky in ways that draw comparison to playing skyrim in 3rd person view. Characters have stats like Diablo 2 that grow as you level: Strength, Stamina, Dexterity, Wisdom, etc. Characters also have a skill tree like some of the MMO’s and RPG’s of old (and one of my favorite newer RPG’s: Torchlight). Combat is mostly clicking (or button mashing on a controller) to swing your weapon with a nice addition of toggling to a ranged weapon which requires first-person shooter like aiming via cross-hairs. Your character also has a few special abilities that can be used via an energy meter and skills generally augment those abilities. As I mentioned I played this game with my 13 year old nephew who, when asked, claims his favorite game is Skyrim. This game fits into that general fantasy theme, features skills and magic and at times did have a very skyrim type feel to it. I personally wont claim a favorite game but will admit: I like the genre, I like Lord of the Rings and a game that features cooperative fighting really lands in my wheelhouse. We were both a little confused up front, but stumbled our way through the controls and the early story. Essentially we were a group of heroes fighting orcs and goblins doing something for Aarogon (who I assume is King of Gondor at this point). What exactly the point of our mission was, well, we weren’t sure. We also didn’t mind not knowing because the game starts out with a bunch of enemies running at you and before you know it you are elbow deep in orc blood just trying to stay on your feet.

Here are my quick takes:

The good

  • Combat was fun, rewarding and challenging for us even on the normal setting. It’s not complicated but with just a few general moves you can have a lot of fun. There is a block, dodge, two weapon swings, arrow shooting, and 3 special moves for each character. Enemies can be weak and numerous, large and boss-like, have spells or can be rigged with explosives. Missions can be hold out in an area, kill all the enemies, attack a position or defend an NPC. All of that just in the first couple hours of gameplay. What’s more, the combat has a very rewarding feeling to it. When you hit an enemy they are knocked back and you can press the attack and pummel them into the corner or dodge away and manage a few foes at once.
  • Coop was mandatory but fun. Even if you play this game solo, your get two allies that fight with you. We chose the fighters while the 3rd healer character was an AI. The AI was actually not too bad, generally helpful, got into fights that it shouldn’t have here or there but overall wasn’t a problem. Playing with a friend or two (in my case 1) was a blast though. We could double team difficult foes, call eachother over for help or when one of us was “down” (meaning we were at 0hp) we could call the other over for healing (a mechanic similar to Left4dead where a teammate needs to help you up).
  • Loot was exciting and not overdone. A lot of time the problem with and RPG like diablo is that you spend half your day managing all the junk you pick up along the way. This game gave us items that were more or less useful without making us spend too much time managing them. We traded some items back and forth and sold some of our stuff 1 time while playing (and we could have opted not to). The combat was pretty non-stop and we, so far, hadn’t felt the need to spend time buying and selling items to progress in the story.

The bad

  •  As much as I wanted to be playing this game with a controller, the xbox controller implementation was lackluster. Maybe it was just me, but, having to control the camera with the other joystick and having to aim with the 2nd joystick is a major turnoff for a fast paced action game like this. Also the special abilities wound up being odd key combinations and just felt unnatural. I like that the support is there, but I just didn’t prefer it. Your mileage may vary.
  • The story was ‘meh’ and the game felt arcade like in it’s railroaded plot. I suppose this is a matter of opinion, but, it didn’t feel like anything that we did mattered to the story (I don’t think it did). There were times when the character had to talk and you got to choose the speaking lines… but, I don’t think the choices mattered at all. I also feel like there was no strategy level to level. You pretty much just kill everything as fast as you can… and that’s it. Not bad per sey, but, if you wanted a more meaningful experience this is not the game for you.
  • Forced 3-player co-op. I think the game is fine with 2, I’m sure it’d be better with 3… and that’s sort of the downside. You have a game that probably wont play well single player because there really is no true single player. There is single player with two AI team-mates you have no control over… eh. Even knowing that I like the game, I’d probably pass on it single player. And honestly with a $20.00 price tag and your friends needing to also drop $20.00 if they want to play on their own machine via steam… yeah, that gets to be a bit of an issue.

Final Thoughts

It’s not perfect — likely not for everyone and there are some serious barriers to getting this game played. Those barriers aside, it is a better game than its meta scores and reviews would lead one to believe. I personally am always on the lookout for a meaningful co-op experience; if you combine that with good combat and entertaining RPG elements you end up with a very limited scope of games to choose from. Lord of the Rings: War in the North is well done for what it is and despite its pitfalls is an overall fun experience. I can’t say I’d reccomend the game for $20.00 a piece but if you have 2 friends who want to play a co-op with better than average combat, a great theme and RPG elements I don’t know that you could much worse than Lord of the Rings: War in the North at your next available Steam or other platform game sale. Even at a measly 30% off I’d recommend it.

 

Mission: Space Exploration

Last night, after some recommendations from David and James I finally started up a game of Kerbal Space Program. The game is a sandbox rocket-ship simulator. As it is new and still in development the game is a little rough, the tutorials are not all there and there is a propensity to just be dropped into a world of rocket building of which you have very little understanding. That said, I had a rare moment of pure elation and excitement I rarely experience from a video game  and I wanted to write about it quickly.

I started the game and jumped right into sandbox mode. I didn’t understand the controls but I fumbled my way through and combined some number of parts into what I imagined would be a functional rocket. I was very wrong. This thing tipped over on the launch pad and exploded just before I ejected the pod with the astronauts who rolled away lamely. I tried this a few more times before I sighed and decided I needed to use the tutorial. I did two of the tutorials: Flight and Construction. I passed on space controls because I didn’t really expect plan A to work, so, I figured I’d sort that when I got that far.

After the tutorials I had a couple more rockets explode on the ground before I finally built a small rocket that managed to climb somewhere around 12k meters before running out of fuel and dropping like a rock. The tutorials were okay over-all but, they didn’t explain how to do anything better than a single engine rocket. I then built what I will call the mach 1. My first multi-engine rocket that worked. This thing was not pretty but, it got me up somewhere around 10k meters before the inevitable death of my pilots (we lost so many good astronauts last night).

Now it is about 11:30, I knew I had to be up at 6am for work but dang-it, I was determined and I have learned when a game makes you determined it is doing something right — go with that experience. So, I revamped my rocket, more fuel, more fins for control — better, stronger, faster. The mach 2 was ready for flight. I launched the rocket and everything looked great, great stability, plenty of fuel and finally I broke into earths atmosphere. I was doing it! At the moment where you cross the threshold from atmosphere to low orbit your view shifts. The stars come into view in bright focus, soft music begins to grow, the noise of the engines is gone and it was a moment of emotional happiness I look for in every game. I crave those moments where a game makes me really feel something, comradery, friendship, joy or even the bad emotions are okay because nothing is worse than walking away from a game saying “It was okay” and feeling like the last hour was just ‘blah.’

I was in space, I saw the stars before me, a universe of exploration — never-mind I was totally out of gas — the music had rolled in and I shivered with delight. It came from figuring something out, it came from my imagination of what people feel when they really make it into orbit it came from my human desire to achieve something through hard work that takes you somewhere unknown; and all of this in a simulation.

A real emotional experience. I was elated.

And then my rocket fell back to the earth because apparently you don’t just hang out in low orbit. Oh well, more work to do and you better believe I will do it and you should too. Go get Kerbal Space Program, have that moment and enjoy it. They are hard to come by.

My Criteria for backing board games on Kickstarter

I have become a pretty big fan of kickstarter. Being a fan of a service that is a way for game designers to get their games financed is a great thing to support, but can also be a problem for the wallet. The core problem being that there are a lot of great looking projects being made; each vying for your precious dollar and the attention of the masses. I would like to give my money in so many different places, help so many awesome people get so many great games made, but I just can not, and frankly I should not. Not every game is worth the investment, but how can anyone possibly know where the dollar is best spent on a site where unproven games, indy games, known developers and popular remakes all stand shoulder to shoulder? I have come up with some basic rules I follow.

Proven games don’t need to work too hard

Often times there are kickstarter project that are either remakes or reprints of a game that already has a track record Usually these are good track records hence the project to get a reprint or make of the already beloved game. This is ultimately a higher tier of kickstarter for me. It is a lot easier to put a games like this up against a game I might buy at my FLGS or online. The games tend to have reviews, fans and atleast someone on /r/boardgames who will say it is their absolute favorite game ever (for whatever that is worth) — but I digress. Say you like the game, watched the review are excited for the game and are ready to spend your money – however, there is still one catch. The difference between paying for shipping or taking the time to go down and get the game is the wait required by a kickstarter project. Most projects you will be waiting for at least a few months, maybe more. There are production runs that need to be approved, previewed, finalized and produced and this usually applies to cards, boxes, tokens and many other details. This waiting time can be worth it for getting a discount (below msrp prices) or, if the game attracts a big enough following, by offering stretch or earlybird rewards – but more on these later.

Proven games I have backed: Odins Raven’s, Werewolf, Coup

Indy games need to play the crowd or bring the price down

Now, what I am saying is based on nothing more than my history as a kickstarter backer. I have not run a campaign, I have not done in depth research on the subject of kickstarter effectiveness or crowd funding. I have read and considered almost every board and card game kickstarter for the last 6 or 8 months and I have voted with my dollars.

What I have seen is that the indy game maker (and I love you guys) needs to work harder to make their kickstarter work. Just throwing a game out that has nothing but a description a rule book and a video of play-through does not do enough for me. I am buying into a game that hasn’t been printed yet, hasn’t won any fans or awards and I have very little insight into the testing process or really anything about the company behind the game. So we start on shaky ground. Investment into art is nice to see, a play-through of the game, especially one where people are having fun playing the game, is also great. But more importantly if I am going to back you on your project that may be the next big hit, and may be the next big flop, I want a few things.

  1. I want to be getting a deal. Listen, I know I am going to be one of the first! I could even have my name in the rule book. I don’t care. You are getting to hold on to my money for as long as it takes to get the game made right? I want a deal on it. It doesn’t have to be big, and I know margins are tight, but I want a deal, you knock 5 dollars off what you will sell it for later and I am already starting to get interested.
  2. I want rewards. I know rewards are typically given as prizes for having a good campaign, and that is fine. I need the game to be gathering steam as you go (yes, I will tell friends and co-workers to help out). If you are gathering steam and rewarding people while you pick up more and more sales, yes, get those rewards out make them fun, make them cool. You don’t need to reinvent the game, get sleeves for the cards, get new art, more art, better art. Give away 1 more role card, better meeples, bigger meeples. Little things like that that make you feel like you are getting something extra for my support go along way.
  3. I want an experience. I know you are busy and you have things to do. So do I, and while I’m at work, it is pretty cool to get an email every couple of days updating the project, where you are, what strech goals have unlocked, what ones are coming up. Even remind me to tell my friends or like it on facebook. I have stuff going on and I can’t watch your project all the time. But email detailing the experience you and hopefully your supporters are having is critical to make me continue to support (and maybe even add more funding) to your project.

Are my criteria for backing a game sharp and strict? Possibly. I have a lot of things I could be doing with my money and even a lot of other games I have yet to play or add to my collection. Kickstarting can be a really fun experience for everyone and if there is enough of an incentive and your game looks fun (don’t forget my previous statements are predicated on if I think the game looks fun) I will back your project wait out the production of the game and hopefully you will make some money for your hard work. I want you to be successful, I just have to be a consumer, not a charity.

Indy games I have backed: Dungeon Roll, Compounded: Better Gaming Through Chemistry, Dragon’s Hoard.

Sounds like a big difference to me

In my earlier life I put a lot of emphisis on durability cheapness in my compuer periferals. Duribility mattered for traveling to lan events, cheapness was because my bottom line was very low. I hated to see good equipment broken and when it came to cheaper headphones that was something that happened all the time. Now however I have learned the value of the expression ‘you get what you pay for’, and then some. I have become a headphone snob/junkie.

Now, when I say snob I just mean, I am beginning to care more about quality than anything else. There are some people out there posting on amazon saying, “I had this and this headphone and the decible output on the base was less satisfactory at 1200 mhz.” F those guys, you think that helps me figure out of this is a good pair of headphones or not? No way! I want to know are the headphones comfortable, do they have good sound (I don’t care how many mhz’s) and are they going to last long enough to make them worth the hundreds of dollars they sell for.

Enter the Sony MDR 7056 Professional Large Diaphragm Headphones. Some good advice from a former soundboard student these headphones were recommended as good sound, great durability at a reasonable price. Now 80 bucks is nothing to scoff at but I needed help at work. With a large wide open room and only crappy little earbuds to protect me I had a hard time getting work done for not being able to concentrate. These headphones saved my butt and the sound they produce I think is quite awesome for the price. I didn’t think the headphones would make that much of a difference but man, was I wrong. With these headphones at work, I knew I needed better headphones for home and gaming.

I did a lot of searching around the internet over the period of months looking for a good pair of headphones with a good microphone for chatting and comfortable enough to wear for hours on end.

This is what I found.

Christmas Headphones

The Sennheiser PC 360 headset for Pro Gaming was the result of my efforts researching. What stood out about this series? The headphones are full ear covering but not noise canceling which means air can get in and out and keep your head from getting too warm. Another advantage is that these headphones have no control halfway down the cable for volume controls, rather the volume control is on the right earpiece and the boom actually works as the mute button; when it is down, it is active, when it is up, it is muted, easy enough. Finally, instead of leather ear cuffs, which can feel a but sticky and hot at times on your face, these ear pieces are felt, comfortable and cool.

The sound is excellent, even my friend’s voices on Skype sound better and I didn’t think those could improve, heeeyooo! The point is, I now know that a good pair of headphones is sometimes worth the price for good sound and better comfort.

I think a cheaper pair which also might be just as good is this one here. The Steel Series 7H also looks like a great pair of headphones and a shade cheaper than the Sennheiser, I haven’t tried them on, but my research extensive as it was for gaming headsets makes me think this would also be a good pair.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a new game!

I’ve got my tree up, I’ve hung my stocking, the manger scene rests on the windowsill, my house, the neighborhood are all decorated and teaming with Christmas spirit. Family, friends and coworkers are in the holiday mood and yet, something is missing – or at least is was. To me, it’s just doesn’t start to feel like Christmas without the Steam Holiday Sale, fortunately, it started yesterday and I’ve already begun to reap the deals.

If you’re not using steam to manage your digital copies of most of your pc games, where have you been? Steam has been around since the early 2000’s originally being developed to help distribute and update Valve games such as Counter-Strike, Team Fortress Classic and Day of Defeat. Slowly though the steam platform has grown to house around 1,400 games and is estimated to manage a 70% share of all digital game distribution. Needless to say, if you’re not on steam already, you should be.

Moreover, on the week of, and post Christmas every year, steam puts on a fantastic sale featuring massive discounts on all the game titles of the past year.

Any games you hadn’t yet purchased throughout the year might end up being a part of a sale. These titles change every day at noon so it is a new gift every day to see what games you might be able to curl up with on the cold winter night to come in the new year. I picked up Amnesia the Dark Descent already and who knows what else I’ll find this year.

Happy Holidays and a very merry steam holiday sale to everyone!

A little bit about indie games and me

So, this week among other things such as some holidays etc that you might be hearing a bit about, is also the week that the Humble Indie Bundle number 4 is online selling for whatever you want to pay. Indie game developers have been forced to get really clever in their marketing and that means trying some tactics like this deal. 5 games in a pack, pay whatever you want, pay above average and get two more games. Simple, fun and a good cause.

It’s a pretty successful way to buy a handful of fun little games for a nominal price and everybody wins. I am the proud owner of the 4 normal bundles they have released in the last year and a half. I have gotten some classic games from the bundles like Trine and World of Goo that were definitely worth the price of admission. But let’s face it, it feels good to help out some people chasing their dreams and putting a lot of time, effort and probably money into their own pet project.

I have dreams and pet projects too; I feel for these guys and gals, hence, playing to my emotions, the marketing works. I also urge others to check out what they have to offer, hint hint, try the link above, it is probably worth your money.

My other quick note on Indie Game Developers is mainly a note on the fact that I am semi-part (I’ve been to two meetings thus far) of a really cool Twin Cities group called IGDATC which of course stands for Independent Game Developer Association chapter for the Minneapolis/St Paul (Twin Cities) metro area (a great time for an acronym if you ask me). These guys and gals are passionate indie game developers willing to give you advice on projects, tell you what they have learned and how they have been successful or not in the past. If anyone is interested in what a meeting is like, you can check out last month’s meeting which they so nicely recorded for everyone to view. Also if it were me and you want to watch I’d start around 44:30 as I couldn’t really stand the first guy (not a regular member anyway).

As for me I’m off to try one of the games from the bundle called Night Sky. It is pretty good so far.