In our last couple of visits to Middle-earth, we were struck by how much more brutal the action has been recently. It is interesting that this is the first time Warner Bros. has been able to use the rights to Tolkien's books in conjunction with Peter Jackson's movie trilogy. Another feature to point out is that this action role-playing game features a strong cooperative element as you delve into Middle-earth's violent conflict. We spoke to Ruth Tomandl about Lord of the Rings: War in the North to find out more about the story, the added features, and what the game has in store for fans of the lore.
GameSpot: This is the first time that you've been able to work with the movie license while you have the rights to the books. How does this change your approach to a new Lord of the Rings game? What can you tell us about the story?
Ruth Tomandl: Having both the rights to the films and the books has definitely allowed us to take the approach we want: We're not restricted to just what was shown in the films and can work with the entire background of the world as revealed in the books. We really wanted to use the opportunity to go to new areas of Middle-earth that players haven't seen before and to tell a new story. Everything in our story is based directly on the books, which have tons of detail and history to draw from, and we're very careful that all of our work fits within the lore.
The story of The Lord of the Rings: War in the North takes place during the War of the Ring, but instead of following the Fellowship of the Ring, you'll be sent on your own quest to the north to investigate the gathering armies there. You'll encounter characters that appeared in the films, but as the game progresses, you'll go farther north as Frodo and the One Ring travel farther south. Basically, you're fighting the same war but different battles.
Having the film license is great as well because the films set a very high bar for visual quality, and we're excited to work in that style. The films have been what most people think of when they visualize Middle-earth, so we've worked to make the new locations and characters in War in the North look like they're from the same universe as the films.
GS: What can you tell us about Agandaur, the story's main enemy?
RT: Far back in the history of the men of Middle-earth, a group of Numenoreans basically went over to the dark side and became servants of Sauron. Like the mouth of Sauron, Agandaur is a descendant of that group. He's Sauron's top lieutenant, sent to the north to organize an army and attack the free peoples on another front. Agandaur is ambitious and ruthless and is unfortunately doing his job very effectively.
GS: How hard is it to balance the narrative and the action? Does one outweigh the other?
RT: Particularly with a license like The Lord of the Rings, where narrative is so important, it's vital that the story and action support each other. Because The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is an action role-playing game and combat is what you're spending most of your time doing, we make sure that what you're doing during combat helps tell the story. For example, conversations in town unlock new areas and battles. The Lord of the Rings is the story of a war, so we're trying to do what J.R.R. Tolkien did so well and tell that story.
GS: The game appears to be much more violent than anything we're used to in this franchise. Why did you decide to take the bloodier route?
RT: We're really glad that we're able to show the brutality of combat the way that The Lord of the Rings books did. The War of the Ring was a violent, dangerous time in Middle-earth, and like the films, we're able to show that danger by making the combat more realistic. We haven't added gore just for its own sake but to reemphasize the danger of your quest along with the price of failure.
Middle-earth is a beautiful place, but it's also a very dangerous place, and it's important to stick with your allies and protect your home from your enemies. J.R.R. Tolkien didn't sugarcoat that, and we're not either.
GS: Tell us about this "interdependent co-op" in War in the North. What was the reason behind focusing on cooperative play rather than single-player?
RT: We wanted to focus on co-op for The Lord of the Rings: War in the North for two reasons: First, that's where Snowblind's strengths really lie; and second, working together as a fellowship is one of the major themes of The Lord of the Rings.
Snowblind Studios has a long history of great co-op action RPGs, and The Lord of the Rings is the perfect match for that kind of game. We want to make a game that's fun to play with your friends on the couch, so you can experience more of Middle-earth together. The co-op is a blast, and the AI allies that take over in single-player are pretty smart, so all the work we're doing to make the co-op great will directly translate to single-player as well.
The story of The Lord of the Rings really emphasizes how important it is to have allies you can trust, work with, and rely on, especially during wartime. So working as part of your own fellowship helps tie the gameplay back into the overall narrative.
GS: On the subject of co-op, will there be offline split-screen or online?
RT: We're supporting two-player split-screen on both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, or you can play online with two other players, or you can play split-screen on one console and have someone else join you online over Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network. You can play online on the PC, too. We want to let you play multiplayer however you like, and we're making it really easy to get into a multiplayer game.
GS: What kind of areas will we be visiting in the game? How much of Middle-earth do we get to explore?
RT: We've revealed very few of the areas in The Lord of the Rings: War in the North so far, but if you look at a map of the northern part of Middle-earth, there are very few places on that map that players won't be traveling to. At the beginning of the game, you're close to the Shire, but as the game progresses, you'll travel all over the north as part of your fight against Agandaur's armies.
GS: Could you tell us a bit about the three classes and their features, as well as how they evolve throughout the game?
RT: The Lord of the Rings: War in the North's three main characters are all fighting against Agandaur for their own reasons and in different ways.
Eradan is a Dunedain ranger and part of the Grey Company, and he's a master tracker, quick fighter, and an expert archer. One of his unique skills is evasion, which allows him to move undetected by enemies. This not only lets you flank enemy groups, but can also let you revive your fallen allies without being seen.
Andriel is an elf from Rivendell; she's an agent of Elrond, sent to investigate the armies gathering in the north. She has more crowd-control abilities than the other two, but she can be customized to be very effective in melee combat as well. She has the ability to create a shield that protects the whole fellowship from enemy ranged attacks that can also slow down, damage, or stun enemies, depending on what choices you make in her skill tree.
Farin the dwarf is from the Lonely Mountain, Erebor, and has come to help repay his people's debt to Bilbo Baggins. He's the best tank of the three and has abilities that let him draw aggro and increase his armour and stamina. He has some crowd-control and ranged abilities, but his strength is really wading into a battle and fighting in close quarters.
GS: What do you have in store for fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's work?
RT: Being fans of Tolkien's work ourselves, we're very excited to travel to new places in Middle-earth. There are a couple of places in particular that I've always wanted to see, and I'm thrilled with what they're like in the game! I think that'll be one of the most exciting things for Tolkien fans. Seeing more of how the events of the War of the Ring have affected Middle-earth and how wide-ranging those effects were will resonate with fans too. The books tell of many battles in the war; Lothlorien, Erebor, the Shire, all came under attack and had to be defended. Playing the role of one of the heroes called upon to fight those battles will be very exciting for those of us who love The Lord of the Rings.
GS: Thanks for your time!