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Again with War in the North.

I’m using this game to explore some questions because (a) I am currently playing it and (b) because it’s a relatable property even if you’re not playing it—I feel safe assuming that many of you have seen the Lord of the Rings movies or know of them. War in the North is a third-person action RPG set in the movie-adaptation version of Middle-earth (or something so close to it that its familiar characters and locations resemble actors and designs from the films). It focuses on a cast of new heroes battling Sauron’s forces mostly in environments drawn from Tolkien’s lore but not seen in the films.

This isn’t really about War in the North, though. It’s a flawed, fun game that I’ve been enjoying as a fan of Middle-earth and as a gamer looking for light RPG elements, a dose of combat, and some handsome scenery. Still, I can understand why it’s not connecting with some players and reviewers—it’s not a richly complex combat challenge or a deeply varied RPG experience. It’s a light, straightforward affair for casual co-op play and a good deal of Middle-earth sight-seeing.

No, I’m singling out War in the North again because of Game Informer‘s review of it, in which Joe Juba writes:

The conceptual framework is solid, and with some extensive tuning and polish, it would be fun to play. Just thinking of War in the North reimagined as an old-school isometric adventure (à la Dark Alliance) gets me pumped up…but it’s too late for that now. [via]

That bit got me thinking (again) about how games get reviewed.

How much should a game be marked down for driving a reviewer to want the game in a different form? Is it fair to penalize a game for not being another game? How much responsibility does a reviewer have to buy into a game’s premise when reviewing it—and how much of the premise must be accepted?

I mean, if a reviewer thinks that RTS game would make for a great shooter, is that a fair mark against the game—the fact that it is not some other game? I feel like that’s somehow analogous to complaining about a film’s genre or casting; these can be legitimate gripes (“The lead actor was a bad fit for the part”) but they can also go too far (“Tommy Lee Jones should have played the curmudgeonly mentor—I like Tommy Lee Jones—so this movie isn’t what it could have been”).

It’s not that a reviewer is out of line to say “This game made we wish for a new isometric RPG” or “This developer has had greater success with isometric RPGs” but to what extent should a game be faulted for not being something else?

I’m all for reviewers reporting their honest opinions. Isn’t there a difference between reporting one’s opinion and faulting a game for not sharing them, though? To some extent, I should not review RTS games because I objectively suck at them but were I to do so anyway, I think I’d separate my opinions of the medium from a value judgment of the game’s success at fulfilling its own promise. The very best RTS game still makes a crappy FPS.

To what extent should a reviewer grant the game its premise and measure how well it executed that premise—and not how close it came to what the reviewer’s prefers?

I think you should review the game you got. That can be tricky, though, especially as borders between game categories continue to blur. A game with RPG elements might make for a lousy full-on RPG but a great shooter. If a game’s marketing plays up its RPG elements, but the actual game focuses on its job as a shooter, is it fair to fault the game for the expectations set by the marketing department?

As artworks, as products—reviewing games is a complex business.