There is another great war in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings saga, a bloody battle set in the northern regions of Middle Earth. This front is the setting of The Lord of the Rings: War in the North, the fantasy world's equivalent of the Allied invasion of Normandy, says developer Snowblind Studios.
They're the creators of hack and slash action RPG greats like Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath. They consider War In The North their spiritual successor to Dark Alliance, with the same brand of accessible and addictive kill-loot-reward action. Snowblind's new game is darker, more graphically violent and more muted in tone than those enjoyable dungeon crawls.
The War In The North, is the fiction's D-Day, Snowblind says, compared to the better known war in the southern regions of Middle Earth. Think of that one, the southern front assault on Mordor, as the Operation Barbarossa, if you'd like to keep the (slightly shaky) WWII comparisons going.
"If it wasn't for the heroes in the North, fighting at the same time," Michael De Plater, design director at Snowblind says, "even Frodo's quest wouldn't have mattered because they would have been outflanked by these massive armies."
We saw those massive Orc armies teased at the end of our first hands-on look at the game, played on an Xbox 360. Our demo of War In The North started with a flight, our mini-fellowship of one Elf mage, one Human ranger and one Dwarf warrior riding on the backs of talking eagles, into the Misty Mountains. It was a battle we'd seen in part before.
Our brief adventure on the Misty Mountains led us to a dwarf fortress overrun by Orcs. Taking control of my wily Dwarf, I experimented with his ranged crossbow attacks and melee axe attacks. I hacked. I slashed. I shot Orcs in the face, slower than my Elf counterpart. Swapping between the two range option is button-press quick. Shattering the shield of an Orc is its own attack, necessary to dispatch well-armored infantry. As a group, we picked off Orc squadrons, some firing down upon us from high ground, others assaulting us with sword and shield.
Each character has their own unique skills and attributes. The staff-wielding Elf mage can craft items, summon shields to protect the group and see hidden items, like herbs, in this world. Rangers are skilled at tracking. My Dwarf was capable of smashing through hidden walls and unlocking hidden passages, and on the battlefield, performing a war cry that prevented him from being knocked down by giant Trolls.
Combat was pure hack and slash, with a few twists. Should players string enough standard attacks together, they'll be granted with a Heroic Mode modifier, which will add a damage multiplier to attacks and cause Orc and Uruk-hai limbs to be lopped off and fly in all directions. The two-button attack system is accessible enough, but layered when factoring in dodge rolls, critical strikes, upgradeable skills and the various weapon types War In The North is stuffed with.
The game nails the addictive draw of kill, loot and upgrade. There's no small amount of dropped goodies for players to snatch up and outfit themselves with, from helmets to armor to class-specific weapons. Players will see their characters customized with armor items and weapons, including some unique sets and socketable weapons, and can manage the distribution of loot fairly easily. In the unfinished version of the game we saw, it was simple to drop and exchange weapons, armor and items between members of your fellowship. A robust skill tree also lets players specialize their magical and physical skills to their liking. It seems to have all the makings of a highly addictive action-focused role-playing game.
As you can see from some of The Lord of the Rings: War in the North's screenshots, however, this is a game less colorful, more muted than its previous efforts. It enforces the look and feel of Tolkien's fiction as explored in the movie trilogy, but may disappoint in terms of graphical flourish.
Still, we have faith in Snowblind that they'll be able to deliver a compelling original story and exciting gameplay for fans of fantasy action to lose themselves in when The Lord of the Rings: War in the North ships for the PlayStation 3, PC and Xbox 360 later this year.