A decade on from The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson's film trilogy has become inseparable not just from Tolkien's book series, but most fantasy in general. It's evident in the visual style of Game of Thrones; the music of Dragon Age, the way enemies in fantasy media move. It's just everywhere.
In that sense, I guess The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is trapped. It can't help but base itself on the movies, because the movies are all anyone remembers anymore. Unlike with Batman: Arkham City, there's no room for an alternate interpretation. Maybe that's a good thing, I don't know; the movies were pretty darn iconic. But does every new piece of Lord of the Rings media have to be based on the movies?
Anyway, however you might feel about its overall style, Lord of the Rings: War in the North is a competent beat-'em-up that reminds me of the old Dungeons & Dragons beat-'em-ups more than it does a straight-up RPG. Every one of its locations -- some familiar, many of them new -- is positively swarming with Orcs, Goblins, Trolls, and whatever other nastiness Sauron's minions can conjure, and all of them must be put down. I found it mind-numbing at first, but as time went on and I developed my skills, I began to feel that there was more to War in the North than met the eye.
For one thing, the customization is deeper than I was expecting. Each character can choose between a variety of one-handed and two-handed weapons, all of which have their own strengths and weaknesses. Both swords and armour can be upgraded via socketed gems, and they will even degrade over time. The skill trees aren't what I would call "deep" -- three trees for each character, with three paths for each -- but they aren't exactly shallow, either.
Still, it's a bit of a stretch to call War in the North a straight-up RPG. The three characters -- a dwarf, a ranger, and an elven mage -- are all basically pre-generated templates. It's even possible to switch between them at will throughout the story. There is no "role-playing" here in any sense of the phrase; even the dialogue trees are mostly there for show. It's not like you'll be making life and death decisions...or any decisions at all, really.
That brings me back to my chief complaint about War in the North: it's a bit too afraid to strike off in its own direction. Oh, the new locales are pretty interesting, don't get me wrong. But it also uses appearances by the Fellowship of the Ring and locations like Rivendell as a crutch. Even the main characters are reminiscent of the Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli power trio that was formed in Two Towers and persisted through the rest of the trilogy.
Conversely, I feel like War in the North is at its best when it's allowing me to glimpse corners of the universe I've never seen before. I enjoyed meeting Elrond's sons and investigating the Ettenmoors and the fortress of Fornost. The later levels in particular were striking in their use of colour and elevation, as well as their overall spookiness. War in the North's tombs gave me the creeps.
The other thing I like about War in the North is that its focus on co-operative multiplayer doesn't drag down the single-player game at all. If anything, it was actually easier to play with the A.I., because the computer-controlled players were much better about reviving me when I went down. When I played with other people, everyone was usually too busy to revive one another, which meant that the whole party went down (a silly mechanic, in my opinion -- I don't like time limits on reviving another player).
The co-op itself is fine, even if it doesn't really add anything to the actual game (in my humble opinion). The biggest thing it has going for it is the ability to invite a human player to fill one of the CPU slots at any point in the campaign. That's the sort of feature that even the co-op-adverse like myself will take advantage of from time to time.