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Like most nerds, I have been a Lord of the Rings fan since around the beginning of time. So you can imagine how I felt when I saw the new trailer for War in the North. (Don’t worry, I’ll link the video in at the end of the post so you can see for yourselves.)

It promises to be an amazing single player medieval fantasy action RPG, without the loss of story or the endless repetition of an MMO.

And I want to believe them. I really, really do.
It’s just that I don’t trust the developers.
Or the publisher.
At all.

This whole thing smacks of copycat marketing. I can just imagine how the idea formed in the mind of some top EA executive: “Hmm, I’ve been playing this new Dragon Age: Origins game for like 35 hours straight! It’s an amazing-single-player-medieval-fantasy-action-RPG, without the loss of story or endless repetition of an MMO! Too bad it’s a brand-new franchise. Just imagine if we already had an established fan base for a game like this! If only EA held the rights to a popular fantasy role-playing franchise, we could totally cash in… hey, wait a minute!”

So yes, I believe it’s an attempt to duplicate the success of Dragon Age by making a nice-looking clone game wearing a fresh Lord of the Rings T-shirt.

But it’s not just the recent success of Dragon Age that makes me think this is all just a lot of hype. Does anybody remember a few years back, when the LotR RTS “Battle for Middle-Earth II” was coming out? Remember Hugo Weaving’s deep monotone voice booming that “the final battle of the War in the North is about to begin?” They made a huge deal out of expanding the LotR franchise to never-before-seen places and events. It’s like this: “all the huge battles in the LotR movies took place in the south of Middle-Earth, but there was an even more awesome and less well-known war taking place in the north of Middle-Earth that you never get to see, and we’re finally going to show it to you!” And BFME2 was very nearly a super-amazing game. Except that EA spent way too much effort on hype and not nearly enough on gameplay, so that it ended up only being an average game; fun, but not earth-shattering.

And now in 2010, lo and behold, a scant four years after the release of the over-hyped “War in the North” RTS game, we see the announcement of a sure-to-be overhyped “War in the North” RPG. Except this time, it’s actually called “War in the North,” because they just couldn’t think of a better title. Except that they already had a better title, because of the simple fact that they already had a better game in the works.

In 2006, a new game was announced under the working title “Project Grey Company.” This was soon revealed to be a cool-looking LotR action-RPG entitled The White Council. The concept art for this game looked really sweet. It looked like it had an interesting and original plot, and it was really going to bring some awesome new places, characters and events to the LotR franchise.

And then in 2007 it was inexplicably cancelled.

They say it was due to “management problems” or some such. It was replaced by a purely action-based game called “Lord of the Rings: Conquest,” which sucked, to put it mildly. I’m not certain, but I think Conquest may be the worst-rated LotR game ever made, and there have been some real doozies, like that ill-begotten farce of a console RPG known as “The Third Age,” for one.

But why cancel such a promising game just to replace it with a poorly-bundled package of tripe? That excuse EA gave about “management problems” was pretty ambiguous. What I think really happened is that someone in “management” had a “problem” with the game. As happens so frequently in the game market, another brilliant idea was squashed by an egotistical executive who thinks he’s smarter than everybody else and can come up with better, more lucrative ideas. I’m sure whoever this goober was used all sorts of rhetoric about how the age of RPGs was over, the market was dead, that action games were the latest big thing, and that to make real money off of LotR they needed to make an action game instead of an RPG. That’s my take on how The White Council died.

Unfortunately the hypothetical executive’s sentiment that I posited here completely misses the point of the entire LotR franchise, and that’s why Conquest was such a bland, worthless game. RPGs owe LotR for their very existence. If we acknowledge that the parents of the modern RPG were the well-suited pair known as “Dungeons” and “Dragons,” then that makes the Lord of the Rings a grandparent four times over, which in turn must make J.R.R. Tolkien a very happy great-grandfather indeed.

It’s a given that the role-playing game and Lord of the Rings go hand-in-hand, and losing sight of that fact is to lose sight of the essence of both. But of course EA doesn’t care about that. They’re a company — they just want to make money. Of course, they could have made bank with The White Council, because of the simple fact that good games usually make good money. Yet for a while, it seemed as if EA had doomed the LotR franchise to mediocrity, which is the equivalent in the gaming world of a slow, lingering death.

And then Dragon Age: Origins happened. The RPG gods (aka BioWare) finally released their Wunderspiel, a fantasy RPG in the style of Baldur’s Gate that was designed to single-handedly revive the dwindling fantasy RPG market. The bigwigs thought it was just a niche market game, that it wouldn’t really be noticed, that it would be the last hurrah of the genre, the last of the dying breed of fantasy role-playing games that actually involve both “fantasy” and “role-playing.” I don’t think anybody except BioWare expected it to do as well as it has. Some people think that somebody at BioWare must be prescient or something. They’re not. They just know the great secret: if you take well-prepared, fine-quality gamer-crack and bundle it in a pretty package with lots of wonderful little goodies mixed in, it will get spectacular ratings and IT WILL SELL LIKE MAD.

Which brings us back to War in the North. After Dragon Age’s big success, EA has announced what amounts to a lite version of what The White Council would have been. Instead of an epic fantasy RPG with real depth, we’re getting a good-looking RPG with no real substance to it. EA still doesn’t get it. It looks like they think that it was Dragon Age’s pretty package that sold, rather than its carefully-crafted gamer-crack.

I want to be excited about this game, but I’ve just been burned one too many times. Anyway, check out the teaser trailer below. It’s a visually impressive trailer, at least. As for the actual game, we’ll have to wait and see.

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  • zohner

    As I read this, I couldn’t help but think about the video game in JPod being destroyed by a skateboarding turtle.