There was a point in time during the PS2/Xbox days when we were getting a new Snowblind game once every 18 hours or so. Starting with Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, it was the go-to model for action-RPGs for a while, with a lot of tie-ins and licensed games using the basic top-down format. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance uses a very basic version of the same model, but the trend's died down.
Lord of the Rings: War in the North, then, is a bit out of fashion as these things go. It reminds me of the deservedly obscure Demon Stone from a few years ago, although that shouldn't be taken as a comment on its quality. It's a three-player action-RPG set "adjacent" to the events of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with three unconnected adventurers heading out on a separate quest while the Fellowship is off doing its thing.
War in the North was shown behind closed doors at Warner Brothers' booth at this year's E3, with long lines to get in and a massive amount of pageantry. It was more of the "Hi, we exist" school of demo design, since it's not coming out until next year, although it's far enough along to look quite solid.
The in-game party of adventurers in the E3 demo consisted of a dwarven warrior, elven archer, and human wizard. At the point in the game that the demo covered, they've come to the forest of Mirkwood via giant eagle in search of Radagast the Brown, one of Gandalf's fellow wizards. The Mirkwood being what it is, however, fighting soon ensues when a Nazgul attacks the group.
War in the North is designed for three-player co-op over online play, with AI bots taking the role of the two other characters during a single-player campaign. The player creates his character(s) at the start of the game and levels them up as they go, earning specific abilities. Unlike most of the roll-your-own heroes in the previous generation's action-RPGs, War in the North's protagonists are fully voiced and have access to BioWare-style dialogue trees when conversing with NPCs, giving them more personality than the blank ciphers that you may be used to.
Each of the three races available for play has a different unique ability. Elves can see traps, humans can harvest herbs that can later be turned into potions, and dwarves can see weaknesses in walls and structures, allowing you to bust open secret chambers and passages. During our demo, we saw that the classes have other options; the dwarf waded into combat with a two-handed weapon, the elf sat back and fired arrows using an interface reminiscent of aiming in Resident Evil 5, and the wizard deflected incoming ranged attacks with a spell called Sanctuary.
The combat is fast-paced and fairly brutal, as befits the new, "grittier" approach to Middle-earth that Stormblind is taking with the game. Bosses are enormous and absorb a huge amount of punishment before going down, dishing out knockdowns and stuns everywhere. In War in the North, co-op plays as big of a role as it does in something like Left 4 Dead; according to Snowblind, "to survive the level, the entire party has to survive."
There's not a great deal more to say about Lord of the Rings: War in the North. The demo was short and covered a small part of a full level inside a large, all-original campaign. Snowblind has considerable action-RPG chops, though, so it's probably a safe bet that this will be quite playable. It's weird, in retrospect, that games like this ever fell out of vogue, and it wouldn't surprise me if this brought them back for another few hundred games.
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