Lord of the Rings: War in the North Hands-On Preview

We traipse through the snow in search of hidden treasure and orc guts with Warner Bros' new take on this unseen war.

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The Lord of the Rings story is known the world over for its epic scale and for the bonds between the members of the fellowship. Unless you've been boning up on your LOTR lore, the War in the North saga may not ring as true as the content of the films. This chapter takes place at the same time that Sam and Frodo are desperately trying to hurl jewellery into a volcano, and plays as the backdrop for Snowblind Studios' upcoming game.

We recently got our hands on the three-player cooperative game (the title will support two-player split-screen, two- to three-player LAN, and two to three players online in addition to a single-player mode). We took control of the dwarven tank class during a quest in the Misty Mountains. The demo opened with us flying towards our destination aboard the feathery backs of giant talking birds. We were dropped in a safe spot and given a chance to get to grips with the controls. As you'd expect from a console action role-playing game like this, each character's primary skills--shooting arrows, hurling magic, and swinging a sword--are mapped to the face buttons. More advanced class-specific skills like aggro management and area-of-effect spells are found in submenus by pressing the bumpers and are tied to cooldown timers to stop them from being spammed.

…and this is for courting my sister!
…and this is for courting my sister!

Though the game is still going through the tuning phase of development, currently if you manage to land a string of successful hits once you've reached a predetermined multiplier, you will achieve Hero mode. Hero mode is triggered by tapping the Y button once, and it unleashes a more powerful attack on your target. Against large enemies like ogres and bosses this can be a whirlwind sword attack or a jumping downward blow that deals considerable damage, but when using it against poorly armoured grunts, it's capable of lopping off limbs and heads with gory effects.

We found that the momentum required to engage Hero mode was surprisingly easy to gain when playing to the strength of each character class. This allowed Farin, the dwarf tank, to rush in and scoop up all of the hate, and in doing so kept the Ranger, Eradan, free to sneak in with stealth and backstab and bleed enemies, while the elven ranged fighter, Andriel, fired a volley of arrows from distance.

Recognising and applying the unique traits of each class to the situation is essential to survival and tactics, and by using our bowman as a scout we were able to take down a lookout perched on a hill before he could alert his brothers of our presence, giving us the upper hand when we launched from the valley below with blades glinting in the sunlight. While weapon-wielding soldiers can hit anything on the ground, targets sitting atop raised platforms can't be reached with conventional steel, dividing the group and necessitating the need to pick and choose whom to drop first, and with whom. Melee pounded away on shield-carrying footmen, while our group's marksmen took heads off with sharpened projectiles.

Clearing our way to a campsite complete with a cosy burning fire, we found that racial abilities aren't limited to combat. Inside a nearby cave was a chest filled with unremarkable vendor guff, but by lightly searching the room, our dwarven loot sense began tingling, highlighting a weakened wall that we could destroy to gain access to a secret room. It isn't all about lucre though; rangers can track enemies, finding hidden paths, while elves have an affinity for herbs, picking them along the path and using them to mix up potent consumables.

Did I ever tell you how I got the nickname
Did I ever tell you how I got the nickname "Pincushion"?

Inside the secret cave room was a second chest filled with much rarer booty. Rather than draw from a single pool of quest rewards, each character can interact with the chest simultaneously, each pulling out a random selection of items. Not all of them will be upgrades, but the fact that the game doesn't feature any form of soul binding on items means you'll be able (if you wish) to share gear more appropriate with other members of your squad as opposed to flogging them as vendor trash. Though it may change before the game ships, examining each item slot on the character menu brought up a scrollable list of applicable items and their relative performance. Items with green stats will upgrade your character, while items with red info will reduce your effectiveness in combat--not what you want.

While we dug our hands into our virtual knapsacks to check out our new goodies, we also took the opportunity to mess around with our skill tree. Like in any RPG, as you level up you will be gifted points that can be spent on improving existing abilities and unlocking new ones. Each class will have 20 unique aptitudes, and these include duel-wielding a second main hand weapon or switching from a support role to offensive damage dealer by upping your magic.

As we trudged on through the powder we eventually reached a high peak and the drop to a valley below. Flicking torches among a sea of dark bodies accompanied by guttural roars indicated thousands of amassing orcs below ready to get bloody. After taking care of a final small group of trash mobs, we jumped across a gap in the landscape and came face-to-face with a hulking snow troll as winged dragons circled in the sky above. Though the encounter had been toned down for demo purposes, our studio guides explained that the encounter will be a long and hard-fought battle and will reward players with suitable spoils for successful slaying.

Though we didn't have a chance to see them in action, since there's no Middle-earth monorail, once you've travelled to a location you can use teleporters scattered throughout levels to return to a central quest hub.

Judging from our time with Lord of the Rings: War in the North, its easy-to-pick-up combat system and group-focused gameplay should make for fun when you and a few buddies live out your own fellowship adventures online or on the couch. Get ready to don your cloak and dice up your fair share of monsters when it's released on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC in 2011.

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