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War in the North: For Want of a Button, an Age was Lost
by Ron Dippold on 11/13/11 03:35:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Establishing that I am not Hating War in the North

I enjoyed Snowblind's Lord of the Rings: War in the North - I've beaten it twice, once as Champion (dwarf tank) and once as Loremaster (elf battlemage). If you like beat 'em ups and Tolkien lore it's ripe with beatdowns and official lore about what was going on in the North while the Companionship were busy down South. You can tell there's some real love here.

Many people do Hate War in the North

But the critical reception is decidedly mediocre, and I think that comes down to one specific, easily fixed, issue.

It's not that the three classes are poorly differentiated (giving a bow to the tank and forcing ranged only enemies? what?). That's survivable, especially when playing co-op. The animation is a little awkward, but the voice acting and models are pretty good, and the great eagles are just fantastic.

War in the North's huge flaw is not what it seems to be

I just read a review of Snowblind's Lord of the Rings: War in the North in Game Informer that complains about unblockable attacks. You can't blame the reviewer . It really is annoyingl - you can be smacking down a troll and suddenly he just pivots, while you're in an attack animation,  and sends you flying.

Then you lie flopping on the ground for several seconds before you can get up. Bosses and mini-bosses can do this to you as well, and the troll can even haul you in for a long sequence where all you can do is pound the X button. So frustrating.

So here's a secret that will make the game immensely more enjoyable - the dodge key is instant and nigh unblockable. If you're dodging, nothing can hit you. Suddenly it's a whole new game. Once you know this, it's fun, and the game is obviously balanced for someone who knows this. But the game doesn't communicate this well at all. Oh, it tells you about dodging, but it's just another of a flood of tutorial messages.

Control and Test Group

I only learned this on my fifth(?) battle with a troll, when I was about to tell the game to go to hell. The troll did his sweeping movement, I mashed the buttons in frustration... and he missed. Wait, what? Obviously it wasn't the attack or strong attack buttons, and a little experimentation revealed that it was the dodge button. I could roll my dorf around the troll like a demented hedgehog. You can't touch me! Aaaaaahahahahaha.

I asked some others I knew who were playing the game. Did you know...? Why no, they did not. And they praised me for making the game fun again. Aw shucks!

What can we learn?

In the Good Old Days, it was reasonable to expect your audience to figure out what they were doing wrong if they were constantly failing. But that assumes they know it's a good game to begin with. With a game like Dark Souls it really is your fault, and you know going in that it's up to you to figure out what you're doing wrong. But most games (especially licensed games) do have broken mechanisms, so the player is fully justified in assuming it's just your game that's broken. Hence the bad reviews.

I estimate that this single problem lowered the average review scores about one to two points (it's a 7.5 to 8 out of 10 game for me), and substantially harshed its word of mouth, so in this is a huge problem.

How do I fix it?

War in the North is quite good for a licensed game, and obviously was a work of love for some of the devs. I salute you. It's also obvious that it wasn't viewed as a AAA title by the publisher, so it suffers from lack of budget, resources, and time. How much more it could manage, I don't know, so I'll offer three options off the top of my head.

First, and cheapest, is to have the other characters tell the player when they get tagged by a troll 'You need to dodge!'.  Use a simple counter (did you get hit by the last 3 major attacks?). It's lazy and potentially annoying, but less annoying than being smacked around for the rest of the game.

Second would be to give the player a dodge window. When a boss (or mini-boss) starts his attack, flash 'B!' up on the screen. Possibly even slow everything down (bullet time). I'm not sure how well this would work - once you knew about dodge, it could get annoying. Or it might feel pretty epic whenever you're rolling under the troll's fist and the sound drops a couple kHz. Worth a quick prototype.

Third would be gating: emphasize how important dodging is, give the player a challenge that's impossible to pass without dodging, and emphasizes how important it will be in the future. This requires good voiceover and has a lot of fun potential as well.

In my mind, the best would be a combination of the third and first options, just in case the player didn't get it (you can never underestimate the player).

Option three takes a bit of time and budget, but we'll never know why even options one and two were never used as bandaids. I'm guessing a near complete lack of proper use of playtesting.

So how about you?

The lack of communicating to the player how important the dodge button is is a real problem. It cost sales. It lowered review scores. If there ever was a low hanging fruit, this is it - How would you fix it? You can ignore or work with your lack of resources.

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Eric Schwarz
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It's actually kind of staggering to me that players would fail to notice the dodge function. Considering you'll find it just by mashing the buttons on the controller (or - gasp - reading the manual), it's sort of depressing that games apparently need to tell players exactly what to do at every turn. Sure, it's a design problem that could have easily be fixed, but you really have to wonder at one point a developer needs to start making up for the incompetence of players.

For what it's worth, I had a lot of fun with War in the North. I think most negative reviews come down more to the fact that a "simple action RPG" just isn't enough to impress these days... more an issue with ever-climbing standards, especially amongst reviewers, and less with games themselves.

Paul Shirley
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After trialing it on OnLive I'm not surprised at all. Yes, I did find the dodge move by button mashing on my PC but the game failed big time to give enough clues about how the UI works. Assuming players will understand all the conventions of a genre is one thing, assuming they can also guess every implementation detail without help is a step too far.

It's not exactly a complex game but it managed to feel hard to work out.

Ron Dippold
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Sorry for the late, late, reply, but - there was no manual with my game and the dodge button isn't useful at all against trash. Only the mini-bosses and up. I found it by button mashing, but I was pretty torqued at that point. I do think that if you're going to take away player agency for up to 20 seconds (while visibly damaging their health all the while) you do need to make it extremely clear how to avoid that.

Joe McGinn
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Ha! Laughing because the same thing happened on the mellee fighting on one of the Crash Bandicoot games I worked on. Crash is an agile [but small] guy, so we gave him these cool dodge-and-counter moves on enemies - slide through their legs, jump up on their heads, stuff like that. It was AGONIZING trying to get the users to do the dodge move. People really didn't like the act of dodging. Eventually we put a sophisticated tutorial in that gaurenteed every player in the game new how to dodge/counter before they were out of the level, and *still* most of them wouldn't do it.

Ron Dippold
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Sorry for the late, late reply, but I have to agree with this.

if I'm in a game where I'm supposed to be beating things, hitting the dodge button instead of heavy attack does in some ways feel like a failure. Especially when you're playing the dwarf champion. Obviously I got over it, but it does take a little mental effort to hit that dodge button instead of trying to sneak in just one more hit (which never works).

Greg Wilcox
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As one of the few folks who reviewed the game and liked it a lot, I'll admit to also reading that brief dodge note and ignoring it until one mid-boss battle where it was getting annoying until I said out loud "this game needs a damn dodge button!" right as i recalled that "oh yeah, DUH!"

I'd LOVE to see Snowblind patch up the game and add more maps, as it was a fun game to blast through three times for me and I wanted more areas to explore. Hell, it looked like some parts of certain maps were going to be bigger, but it seems that they were clipped out during the dev process...