Warner Brothers Interactive aren't sparing any expense to make sure that their latest Lord Of The Rings game sells a fair few copies. Camped out in a luxurious E3 paddock thronging with wine waiters and hog roasts, a full symphony orchestra kept us entertained while showing footage of War In The North on the massive overhead screen. It was a soothing reminder of just how big our industry has become, and WB are to be thoroughly congratulated for adding a touch of class to a convention that was otherwise dominated by fake tits, gaudy explosions and thumping metal.
After enjoying all this free hospitality, however, I was more than a little concerned about having to preview the game itself... but as it turns out, Lord Of The Rings: War In The North is shaping up to be an accessible and visceral yarn that prioritises cooperative fun over grinding exposition.
War In The North is built around the concept of three-player cooperation. A burly dwarf, human wizard and nimble elf all fulfil different (if obvious) combat roles, and pack unique racial skills that are unique to each character. For example, the Elf can turn invisible in combat and reposition behind foes, whereas the Wizard falls back on defensive bubble shields and buffs. In an interesting twist, though, players can choose to spec their characters in any way they want thanks to sprawling intuitive skill trees. Gaining experience from slain foes and completed objectives allows gamers to tailor each class to their own style of play. Fancy mixing it up in close combat with a brawny battle mage? No problem.
The action revolves around third-person combat through linear dungeons and locales that draw upon some of the lesser-known parts of Tolkien lore. It's Dungeon Crawling pure and simple, with a lowered camera view providing a more visceral perspective compared to the likes of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance (Snowblind's previous - and similar - cooperative fantasy outing). Every effort has been taken to ensure that the combat is as responsive and fluid as possible... and playing as the burly dwarf, I was amazed at how surprisingly nimble the beady little gent turned out to be. A dodge roll allowed me to bowl past a group of menacing Uruk Hai- and could be interrupted at any moment with a selection of instant attacks. There's little latency or lag to the commands, and it makes the experience much less clunky than its predecessors.
Cooperation is extremely important, and competent AI controls any party members that aren't assigned a human controller. Larger enemies, such as the famous Cave Trolls, provide a stiff challenge and can literally rip the heads off overconfident players who fail an appropriately-implemented quick time event; and thus need to be surrounded and baited in order to defeat. That is, unless you deploy the "fantasy smart bomb." Each level contains hidden feathers to find, which can be used to summon one of the powerful golden eagles that were sadly under-used in the films. Watching these enormous avians spear down from the sky to brutally dismember and devour your foes is an absolute high point of the game, and frankly, will be worth the price of admission by itself. Sadly these will be the only type of insta-kill allies available in War In The North - and we feel that this is a missed opportunity to add some shameless fan service.
This glorious feathery brutality manages to perfectly illustrate why War In The North has garnered a Mature rating. Heads fly off their stumps, black blood liberally redecorates the surroundings and multiple arrows perforate their foes much like the unfortunate Boromir in The Fellowship Of The Ring. Snowblind studios aren't pulling any punches when it comes to the ultraviolence, and though it's easy to suggest that they're trying to net a few extra sales by appealing to violence junkies, the gore is also more than appropriate for the gritty new storyline and setting.
Carnage is definitely the core focus of the game, but there are a few interesting little concessions to, you know, other stuff. The Wizard can combine items to create powerful artefacts, and interactions with NPCs uses a dialogue wheel that's vaguely reminiscent of the Mass Effect series. Loot fans will be overjoyed at the amount of gear to drape over their persistent characters, which is finely-balanced thanks to each chest providing separate items for each player.
War In The North certainly isn't perfect. The Mage's default magic projectiles feel limp and pathetic, and you'll see a fair few genre tropes rear their ugly heads from time to time. Having to defend NPCs from advancing enemy waves as they work to unlock a door is a lazy way to block player progression, but there's nothing quite as immersion-breaking as seeing a group of Orcs hammer on the duo without soliciting even the smallest flinch or hint of discomfort. It will be interesting to see whether the full campaign manages to switch up the pacing or defaults to the traditional formula of grindy linear exploration without innovation.
But like all good preview builds, I'm genuinely excited to find out. Lord Of The Rings fans, consider this one to watch.