The Lord of the Rings: War in the North First Impressions

Snowblind and Warner Bros. Interactive toss players into the War of the Ring.

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The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is an original title from Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, the latest holder of the Lord of the Rings license, and Seattle-based Snowblind Studios. The game will be the first title from WBIE that will take advantage of the Southern California-based publisher's consolidation of Peter Jackson's epic movies and JRR Tolkien's book rights by blending elements of both in its narrative. We were recently able to see reps from Snowblind demo the game to get a feel for what to expect from the upcoming title, which puts a new spin on the events from the classic story.

The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is a self-described action adventure role-playing set during the War of the Ring, which found Sauron tearing through the free people of Middle Earth on his run for the one ring and dominion over the continent. While the Peter Jackson films showed off one front in the battle, War in the North drops you into the northern end of the conflict and casts you as one of a trio of fighters. Our live demo consisted of a short run through Mirkwood that showcased the game's three character classes and cooperative gameplay mechanics.

The start of our demo began with an introduction from Snowblind studio head Ryan Geithman who laid out the studio's goal of incorporating cooperative gameplay and then segued to a cinematic that set up the level. The impressive movie showed the game's trio of characters--a human wizard, an elven archer, and a dwarf warrior--flying on great eagles to Mirkwood in search of another wizard. Unfortunately, Sauron's forces attack, causing the trio to make an unwieldy landing that went straight to a battle with an armored foe.

The fight quickly showed off the unique dynamic needed for success in the game, as each of the characters had a very specific role to play. The human wizard is the team's spellcaster, which means he'll be keeping mostly to defense and support in combat. For example, his sanctuary spell creates a sizable dome of mystic energy around him that will shield players in range from magic and ranged attacks, as well as restore their health over time. The elven archer is a ranged attacker, although he appears to be serviceable in close-quarters combat. The dwarf warrior is pretty much exactly what you'd expect him to be: a pit bull with an axe that wades into enemies. Once the trio dispatched the foe, another cinematic kicked in, showing the eagles doing their part by taking out a wraith and setting up the first objective in the area--seeking out Beleram the eagle for directions to the wizard they came to find. Once the eagle was tracked down, we got a look at the game's conversation system, which organizes the chat tree into two basic categories; those that let you plow through on the story's main critical path and those that fill you in on lore for more background on events.

Once the trio had its marching orders, the next order of business was making its way through Mirkwood to the wizard, which is where we got a better understanding of how Snowblind is structuring the game to encourage cooperation between players. In addition to their unique roles in combat, each member of the party has unique racial traits that are invaluable while exploring because of the way each character sees and interacts with the environment. For example, the elf is the only party member who can see tracks made by enemies, such as wargs, which are a good sign that there's trouble ahead. The human is able to harvest certain types of plants and other items that are only visible to him; he can then use them to create magical artifacts or potions that he can give to other party members or sell. Finally, the dwarf is able to detect secret doors and treasure the other party members can't. detect As a result, it's in the party's best interest to stick together when exploring.

The demo took the trio through a chunk of Mirkwood where the enemies scaled up from standard warg packs to orc warriors and shamans. The shamans could cast their own version of sanctuary, which required the party to coordinate closely. We were able to see what happens when party members go down, too: They'll limp around for a bit and can try to make their way to a comrade for a revival before going down for the count. The demo ended in a series of caves where the group came face-to-face with a cave troll that appeared to be incredibly tough, even when the team members were sticking to their individual roles. The dwarf got the worst of it because it's never a good idea to go toe-to-toe with a cave troll. On the upside, the beating he took showed off a button-mashing mechanic that kicks in when you're being throttled by an enemy.

Besides showcasing combat, our demo also showed off the basics of the RPG elements in the game. As enemies were dispatched, they dropped colored orbs that could be collected for health, mana, and experience. The quantity of orbs dropped will be based on the basic toughness of your foe and if you're able to perform one of the game's brutal finishers on your foe. While we didn't see it in action, we were told that the experience you earn will be used to unlock skills and abilities that will be organized into unique skill trees for each character. While your unlocks will still fall within each character's core role, Snowblind is aiming to offer a range of customization to ensure that you'll be able personalize your character to some degree.

The one aspect of co-op play not specifically shown off in our demo was the range of options available to players when setting up a match. Besides the standard online option of three players on three different consoles, Snowblind is aiming to support different configurations, such as two players on one box joining up with someone else in another location. Another key option is the ability to tweak how much experience is shared among your group. At the moment, the plan is to have the game's default set so that it equally shares experience, but you'll be able to go in and move a slider to tweak who gets how much experience if you want. As with most co-op games, the game host will own the game save, so party members won't be saving their progress; however, they will get to keep both loot and experience. This should be handy when playing their game in single-player, which will pair you with AI-controlled party members. In terms of modes, it appears you'll have three options: quick start, story campaign, and challenge missions.

The visuals in the demo we saw were looking sharp. The in-game cinematic featured a high level of detail the showcased a nice array of little details on characters and the environment. This extended into combat as the various spell effects were well done and added dramatic punch to the action onscreen.

Based on this early look at the game, The Lord of the Rings: War in the North looks like a promising use of the LOTR license. The War of the Ring is pretty rich with story possibilities that should please fans. The visuals are suitably shiny and detailed with a generous helping of special effects. The cooperative gameplay looks solid, although we're hoping there will be significant customization options for the three different classes to keep things interesting, and the online play is always a welcome feature. We'll be curious to see how the save system winds up working out, as well as how the AI bots will work when you're playing solo, but what we've seen so far looks good and promising. The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is slated to ship in 2011 for the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Look for more on the game at the Electronic Entertainment Expo and in the coming months.

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