Me and Smudge (especially her) have been looking at War in the North since it was announced. The initial reviews of buggyness were disappointing, and the fact that it just seemed to disappear from view after release. But, it’s been on the list.

GamersGate had it on sale recently, so we picked up a couple of copies, and installed them Friday. Trying it out at that point was probably a mistake, since we didn’t force ourselves off until 3:30 AM. After a slow start, it sends you off to the ruins of Fornast, which is one big level that keeps begging you to get the job done.

The general idea is to have three people to play the three main characters, but with two of us and the AI on one, it isn’t too bad. Great enemy detector; he’ll go charging off as soon as they spawn! I’ve been playing Andriel, the elf, while Smudge is playing the ranger, Eradan. The main problem is that everyone has items to interact with and secrets to find. So we’re not getting the secrets from the dwarf, and there seems to be no way to manage his equipment. We can hand him things, and he’ll use them if they’re better, but we can’t really see how good the current equipment is.

GamersGate just sells Steam keys for this game, so we have to go through that. Getting a game together was really easy, as we can invite through Steam friends. Some poor soul wandered in while I was figuring that out and got tossed out as I restarted as a private session. On the other hand, that started an in-Steam voice chat session that you apparently can’t turn off. Which would be fine if we weren’t already on Skype. Which would still be fine if the audio quality wasn’t crap. You know, if Steam wouldn’t keep showing off examples of horrible coding practices, I’d use them more.

We then did a second session on Saturday, and spent a while trying to figure out how to defeat Steam’s in-game chat by using alternate devices for Skype, but Steam ignores their own settings with ‘push to talk’ not working, and at least sometimes it ignores the mic volume control (which is linked to the main system volume control!).

So, with crappy audio, we tackled the next problem. The save game feature is… odd. If I started the session we were at Chapter 1 Part 10. If Smudge started it, we were at Chapter 1 Part 3. Both saves would dump us into a room with an encounter with a troll… which wasn’t where we were. Now, I think that’s the room we were about to enter, but we weren’t actually there. We eventually went with what we had, and with some work downed the troll. There was an encounter at a gatehouse that killed us (second real wipe we’ve had), but we got that on the second try (Smudge commented that it felt much more in control the second time; I don’t think I agree, but we did live). We wrapped up the second session by going back to Bree to get some business done, hoping that quitting there would also keep the save point from being so wacky.

Last night was our third seesion, and staying in Bree didn’t work quite as hoped. When we went back to Fornost, Smudge was in the right place, but I appeared in an area near the beginning of the second night’s session, and there were gates baring my way forward and back, and no access to a travel point to Bree.

However, exiting and reloading at that point worked, with the entire party appearing at the right point, and not with an encounter starting up immediately. From there, we had a few more set-piece encounters and then finally the boss. Or the boss’ minion, as the guy in charge was too busy to be bothered. Tharzog was tough enough though, as he’s capable of two-shotting anyone, and has a bunch of the more competent orcs with him.

It took us six or seven attempts to get him, and a fair amount of cursing. Our best attempt was probably the third one, where we got killed when Smudge ran out of healing potions and Tharzog had barely any health left. Up until that point, it really felt like we were in charge of the fight. The next few fights didn’t go as well, and the final attempt felt more like those to me, even though we did get him down. That ended Fornost, and we wrapped up needing to check in with the rangers on what else is going on out there.

So, the game is a bit buggy on load, and they really needed a better character animator (facial animations are particularly problematic, but a number of walk animations need help). The fully developed cinematic sequences (still in the game engine) are well done though, and the voice acting is good. Also, Beleram, the Giant Eagle, is the best animated character in the game.

Game-wise, it is more fiddly than I’d like. In one long encounter area we went up seven levels, and traded out all the pieces of our gear 3-4 times. (Another annoyance, the character select screen is static, instead of showing the current gear of that saved game.)

But, it is a fun, if fairly simple and action RPG. I haven’t played enough of those to say how the combat compares to others in the same general style, but its simple enough to not be hopeless for me to get somewhere, which is nice. The story itself does feel like it could fit in the cracks around the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring, which is really nice (I have some doubts about a dwarf and elf coming together without a lot more bickering, but it makes a lot of sense for game dynamics), and the lore seems spot on.