Despite my worrisome levels of Lord of the Rings nerdiness, I was stoked for The Lord of the Rings: War in the North for an entirely different reason than its setting. I was stoked because it was developed by Snowblind Studios, the same developer behind one of my favorite games ever: Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance.

I'm not sure what, exactly, made—and still makes—2001's Dark Alliance one of my favorites. Its story was unremarkable, its top-down camera was bland, its graphics were fine but hardly gorgeous. It was, for me at least, a game that was more than the sum of its parts: Played through as a co-op experience with someone else in the same room, Dark Alliance proved to be ridiculously fun and addictive. Its light RPG elements took the back seat to the action-y gameplay: Enter dungeon. Hack and/or slash the hell out of any number of monsters. Open up chests and smash open barrels and pick up coins and junk. Repeat. Over and over.

So my expectations for War in the North were both high and low at the same time: I didn't expect the game to reinvent the wheel, but I did hope it would offer that same sort of addictive, meat-and-potatoes fun.

And for the most part, that's what War in the North delivers: A significant change in perpective aside—the camera's now behind your character rather than looking down on them—War plays remarkably like the sort of hack-and-slash game Dark Alliance was. Some might call the gameplay repetitive or unoriginal, and they wouldn't necessarily be wrong—time after time, you're thrown into an area with two companions, either controlled via computer or multiplayer, at which point you bash in orc heads and barrels in equal measure. Repeat. But rather than boring, I actaully kinda think of it as... comforting? There's a groove to be found in hack-and-slash games like these, and if you can settle into it, it's a weirdly calming and enjoyable experience of combat and exploration.

Plus, sometimes you get to summon that giant-ass bird up there (he also talks!) to take out bad guys, which is something that should probably be instituted in all games.

That said, while War mostly picks one thing to do and does it well, the seams show: its role-playing aspects feel tacked on, and the voice acting's phenomenally flat. The story has three playable heroes—Eradan, a ranger; Andriel, an elf; and Farin, a dwarf—facing a powerful lackey of Sauron, Agandaûr, as he causes problems in the northern parts of Middle-earth. It's a story that doesn't offer many surprises, and while much is made of the idea that this is a complementary gang of heroes to the Fellowship of the Ring, nothing that these three do ever feels as epic or important as... well, anything in the actual Lord of the Rings. Pulling elements from both Tolkien's books and Peter Jackson's movies, War nails the aesthetic and the vibe of Middle-earth, but story- and character-wise, it all feels kind of second-rate.

War in the North is also rated M, which a deliberate focus on visceral combat—and, frequently, hacking and slashing through wave after wave of orc while black blood splatters all around is satisfying and fun. At other times, it feels remarkably unoriginal—even some of the bad guys seem swiped from other games. When you're in that aforementioned groove of semi-strategic button mashing, none of this is a problem—but when you're not, it's a bummer to realize that War could have stretched itself a bit more, both story- and gameplay-wise, but didn't.

The camera I'm of two minds about: On one hand, the behind-the-character view is more cinematic, and can definitely set the feel of Middle-earth in a pretty impressive way, like this—

—but most of the time, the game just ends up looking like this:

It's times like these—especially when more than one character's in there, swinging around an axe or a staff—that it seems an overhead perspective would've better suited War's hack-and-slash gameplay. This isn't helped by the fact that while the game's clearly designed to be played with real live humans as your companions—it's significantly more fun that way—playing with comptuer-contorolled characters frequently leads to chatoic pile-ups. One big gameplay element that feels like it should be an obvious option—switching beteween characters on the fly—isn't an option at all, which means if you're playing alone, you'll sometimes find yourself at the mercy of both the camera and your robo-companions.

But maybe I'm being too hard on War in the North, because at the end of the day? The gameplay's solid. A Middle-earth as well-realized as this one is a nice one to visit. And the combat—much like that of Dark Alliance—offers simple-but-effective thrills. As long as you aren't expecting it to stack up among this fall's ridiculous lineup of ambitious, high-profile games, you'll likely have some fun with it. I'm still digging the game, for sure—and while no doubt a good portion of that is due to the things Snowblind did right, I'd be lying if I said that at least part of it wasn't my fondness for both The Lord of the Rings and the general principles of hacking and slashing. And also having a giant talking bird as a buddy! I mentioned that, right?