Lord of the Rings: War in the North is the spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and the mature Tolkein game you've been waiting for. GDC impressions inside.
The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is an RPG which takes place in the northern regions of Middle-earth, up near the Misty Mountains. It's based on a line uttered by Gandalf in the main story of JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings: "With his far reaching rich hand Sauron might have done great evil in the North. Yet all that has been averted because a handful of heroes stood in his path.”
From what we were able to play of it at GDC, it's a long overdue entry into the series's vast gaming library.
Over the years, fans of Tolkien's trilogy have been tricked or treated with a large variety of games based on the franchise. We've tried almost all of them, and, in our opinion, one of the last good console games released in the series before Warner took over was Stormfront's The Two Towers in 2002. Not so great.
Snowblind Studios plans to change all that with War in the North, apparently giving long suffering fans the bloody, mature LotR game they have been dreaming of since reading The Hobbit when they were six years old.
The internet groaned “not another Lord of the Rings game” when the title was announced back in March 2010, and with damned good reason. However, one must take into consideration the resume of the folks behind the project: Snowblind is the team who released gems such as Champions of Norrath and Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance on PS2.
As a matter of fact, Snowblind considers War in the North the spiritual successor to Dark Alliance, and while playing the new LotR game at GDC last week, we were truly convinced of this.
Our health we drank a thousand times
In the game, players take control of a hero: a human Dúnedain ranger, Elf loremaster, or Dwarf champion. Each character can be played cooperatively - with the ability to adjust the percentage of experience the co-op partner receives - or can battle it out in single-player with AI.
Split-screen co-op is included for those who want a couch buddy to play along with, and players can drop-in and drop-out of the game at will. Basically, you can play with up to three players at any time, with AI filling any gaps.
Each of the characters' skills are upgradeable and can be customized. Chests are also shareable, so you won't have to roll on a specific drop from it: instead, each player will loot a chest and have different outcomes of treasure or weapons. If you are more into dual-wielding, you can trade over the two-handed axe you looted to the dwarf, and vice-versa.
In our GDC hands-on, we played the Dúnedain Ranger, who, at the beginning of the playthrough, was soaring along with his party over the forest of Mirkwood on the backs of the Great Eagles of Manwë. The Black Númenórean Agandaûr appeared on his pterodactylic wyrm, and we were set down by the eagles and preceded to do battle.
This is when your character's inherent traits come into play. The Ranger can use different bow and sword attacks, while the Champion can use his two-handed attacks and bow, while the loremaster in our group cast a protective bubble shield to protect us from aerial attacks. Each character can perform special attacks by holding down the right bumper and hitting particular console buttons – we played the demo on Xbox 360.
After this battle was over, and we'd given the Orcs and Uruk-hai a good drubbing, we trotted up the mountain to battle it out with a troll. This was a bloody battle, seeing all three of us getting tossed and battered many a time before winning. The game's revive feature came in handy here.
Snowblind considers War in the North the spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance on PS2.
Upon the death of the nasty, smelly troll, the party moved into a cave: the dwarf could see a weak area on the wall, and thus exposed us to some lovely treasure. Humans and elves have special abilities too. The Dúnedain, renowned for their healing, can find herbs, and the elf can see trails which the other two cannot.
Much obliged for such a pleasant stay
There are hints that War in the North could be a sizeable adventure. At the beginning of the game, you'll be in Bree chatting with Aragorn, as he's waiting on the Hobbits to arrive at the Prancing Pony; you'll get to see more of Middle-earth than just the Misty Mountains, the Ettenmoors and Mirkwood. Rivendell plays a part as well, as Lord Elrond and you even get to fight along side of him and his sons, Elladan and Elrohir.
After that, the Ring goes south and you and your party go north. If you think about how much you've seen over the years of Moria, Rohan, Godor and Mordor, it's worth noting how much is shown of the north of Middle-earth in this particular game.
Tolkien created a map that you can sustain and tell epic stories throughout, while allowing its lore to stay intact.
Snowblind understands this, and has created a game that looks to be everything Tolkien fans always wanted: blood, battles, mature themes, and stabbing trolls in the face.
The Lord of the Rings: War in the North ships for PC, 360 and PS3 later this year.