Lord of the Rings: War in the North Eyes-On Impressions: A Party of ThreeS

Two things described by J.R.R. Tolkein in his Lord of the Rings trilogy haven't been seen yet in video games: Bloody, brutal violence, and the War in the North. An action RPG due out in 2011 will deliver both.

The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is the first M-rated game for the saga, after a slew of games rated between Everyone and Teen. It will be a canonical inclusion of The Lord of the Rings saga, with the full license and blessing of the Tolkien estate, and actually being mentioned by Tolkien (albeit briefly) in his works gives the game some intrigue for fans.

Snowblind Studios, the outfit behind Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, showed us two boss battles that test different aspects of the cooperative play the game will demand. In a 20-minute demonstration, we saw the three main characters - elf, dwarf and human mage - flying over Myrkwood on grey eagle. There they were waylaid by - forgive me, this guy's name escapes me, but he rode a dragon and has some magical affinity. And a really evil-looking helmet. The battle demonstrated the need for a human mage's Sanctuary spell (depicted above). It casts a bubble that repels ranged attacks. This was key as Whatsisface rained down attacks on the poor elf trying to revive the downed dwarf. They came so frequently that revival was impossible, until the mage arrived with the Sanctuary. Ultimately they prevailed.

Lord of the Rings: War in the North Eyes-On Impressions: A Party of ThreeS

The second boss battle against a troll featured more brutal action than the first, and action befitting an M-rating. Characters left the scene spattered in blood. The dwarf took one hell of a beating in the troll's grasp. Then again, he did stab the troll in the eye.

Teamwork is brought out in the three classes racial abilities. Elves, being trackers, will spot illuminated trails that neither dwarves nor humans can notice. Humans can find herbs and other substances and, with a crafting skill, turn them into healing or other potions and compounds. Dwarves can spot weaknesses in subterranean walls, which expose alternate routes or treasure rooms.

At all times you will be adventuring with two companions, even if you are playing single-player. The other two will be run by bot AIs. I noticed in some melee combat that some stun attacks put foes into a bullet time, but I couldn't track fast enough to see if it was represented that way to others in the party, too. Snowblind says a final determination on this has yet to be made.

It's a very handsome game with well voiced cutscenes, and places the compelling Lord of the Rings realm in the hands of a developer with solid RPG credentials. Fans of both have good reason to look forward to a unique entry in the series.