The Lord of the Rings: War in the North Hands-On PreviewBy Jake Gaskill - Posted Mar 09, 2011
What We Already Know: The last time we saw Snowblind Studios’ action-RPG The Lord of the Rings: War in the North was at Gamescom 2010, and the time, we were only privy to an eyes-on demonstration of the co-op-centric title that seeks to fill in a massive chunk of the LoTR universe by telling the story of the brave soldiers who battled their way through the northern regions of MIddle Earth. It was these armies in the north that made Frodo and company’s journey, and ultimate victory, possible in the first place. If that sounds like a rich template on which to built a sweeping epic adventure, you’d be right.
What We’re Seeing Now: For GDC 2011, Snowblind let us go hands-on and play through the first portion of a mission that took place on the snowy, mountain paths twisting up Mount Gundabed on the northern portion of the Misty Mountains. The traditionally dwarf controlled fortress has been overrun by orcs, and it’s up to us--a wizard, a dwarf, and a human ranger--to scout the area, and clear out any sorry orcs along the way. After being dropped into position aboard the backs of some helpful eagles, we set off to do some damage.
The game is built specifically for three-player co-op, either locally or online, and while it’s possible to play with two bots and jump between them as you see fit, Snowblind really hopes you play with a friend, because it makes the experience that much more satisfying, especially when you see how the various classes interact with one another one the battlefield. For our play session, we assumed the role of the human. Armed with our broadsword and bow and arrows, we started our mission.
The first thing that struck us when the mission booted up was just how stunning the blizzard covered mountain surroundings were. Looking closely at our characters revealed frozen beards and hair and even the formation of ice crystals on our weaponry. The level of detail is rather remarkable, and it extends to the character movements, animations, and designs.
Pushing forward through the snow, our party notices a band of orcs trudging up ahead. An orc scout stands on an overhanging ledge near the group, keeping an eye out for ambushes and ready to alert nearby reinforcements the moment an attack breaks out. After a moments deliberation, we draw our bow, aim down our arm and quickly let four arrows fly in less than three seconds. They hit the orc scout, causing him to tumble off the ledge and into the chasm below. The orc party turns towards us, and charges.
Now, each character class has three charge attacks that beef up their three standard moves: an area attack, a strong attack, and a special attack. So for instance the wizard’s special ability creates a protective dome around the character that other players can use like a typical bubble shield. The dwarf triggers a battle cry that prevents him form being knocked over by enemies and draws aggro as well. And the ranger becomes invisible, letting him perform sneak attacks.
As the orcs bear down on us, trailed slightly by a towering troll, our group unleashes a series of ranged attacks to buy us a few seconds to get into position. Per the Snowblind developer walking us through the demo, we target the troll in an attempt to aggravate him enough to cause him to bash a couple of his buddies in his rage. As the troll flails wildly, we take the opportunity to carve through a mess of nearby orcs.
The combat has that typical hack-n-slash design, but it has a fantastic weight to it that makes every hack and slash feel utterly devastating. And because of the M-rating, certain sword swings result in some very serious, but not over-the-top, severing of limbs and decapitations. A particularly gnarly animation triggers when you hit an enemy with a headshot, as their headless body stutter steps for a few seconds, and the hands grasp at the neck hole before the body finally collapses. For anyone wondering about the violence and gore in this game, rest assured it’s Lord of the Rings at its most mature and intense.
Every enemy you kill nets you experience points, and if you kill enough enemies fast enough, you’ll trigger hero mode, which gives you a 2x multiplier. Leveling up lets you add skill points to a variety of abilities, but you aren’t limited to the traditional abilities usually found within those classes. So if you want a mage with mad duel-wielding skills, have at it. Want a dwarf with strong magic attacks? Go for it.
Also, whatever character you play as, whether in single-player or online co-op, carries over his/her experience, so no matter where you’re playing, you’re always leveling up. When you play single player, you’re entire party levels up, but when playing co-op, each player levels up according to how well they perform. There will also be stat comparisons at the end of levels to show how each player performed, which adds a competitive edge to the cooperative gameplay. Once you finish the game, you’ll also be able to play through again using your leveled up character.
After disposing of dozens more orcs, the dwarf notices a portion of rock that is glowing yellow. Since we had three screens sitting next to each, we could see the glowing rock on the dwarf player’s screen. However, on the human and wizard screens, the rock wasn’t glowing. That’s because only the dwarf can spot unnatural elements in the world. But should there be a special herb ripe for the picking, the wizard would be able to spot it. Or if there were tracks left by someone/something we wished to track, the ranger would be able to see them. This is just another, rather clever, way that Snowblind is expanding the depth of the co-op experience.
Thanks to the dwarf, we were able to find a hidden treasure chest full of loot, which brings us to the inventory system. Whenever a party finds loot, everyone gets their own, which eliminates any nasty fights among teammates. When you receive new items, the game will tell you if it’s an upgraded version of something you already have, or it will tell you that you can’t use it. If you can’t use an item, you can choose to drop it or give it to a teammate who can use it, again pushing the idea of a true fellowship among players.
We push on through another wave of enemies before reaching an ominous cave that we were unable to explore since that was where the demo, sadly, ended. To be honest, I had zero expectations walking into the War in the North presentation, and I came out of it desperately wanting to play it again immediately. I’m just a casual Lord of the Rings fan, and I can't wait to see more. And for die-hard Tolkien fiends, War in the North might just end up being the LoTR game they've been waiting for for a long time. We’ll know for sure if this ends up bring the case when the game lands on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC later this year.