E3 2011 Preview: Lord of the Rings: War in the North
Snowblind Studios had one of the best sleeper games of last generation - Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance delivered solid action, great visuals, and just enough RPG to keep people coming back. Since then, they've struggled to find their stride again, but Lord of the Rings: War in the North could put them back into prominence. This time Snowblind is channeling cooperative action games together with Diablo-style loot hunts in the familiar Lord of the Rings world, and that's certainly a solid-enough foundation. It remains to be seen whether this can go the distance, but right now at least, things are looking good.
My time spent with War in the North was as the mage character; you won't be controlling any Frodos or Gandalfs here, as these are pretty much new characters in a different conflict than what the movies depicted. There's also an elven archer and a dwarven warrior, and all of them have unique sets of loot to collect, separate talent trees, and can do lots of damage on the battlefield. (This is not a game with any kind of MMO-style tank/healer/dps setup.) Combat is generally linear and story-oriented, and while it plays a bit more from the third-person perspective using dual sticks rather than the top-down style of Dark Alliance, the RPG loot and talent systems will still get their hooks into you.
Jumping in with two other gamers, we immediately got to work. The game has a three-player cooperative system - yes, three, not four - and while there was a story and a goal, what I remember most was killing a whole butt-ton of orcs in the process. For some reason, this demo was decidedly low key in scale and ambition compared to the one shown at PAX East earlier this year, as it had little in the way of the large boss characters or ranged/melee enemy combinations that we saw in the previous demo. Instead, this demo seemed to focus on monsters swarming us and getting cut down by our arrow shots, magic bolts, and a very angry axe getting swung around. It's important to point out that this game is much bloodier than previous LOTR games, presumably because even the movie-watching crowd has to have grown up now that it's been a full decade - so Snowblind expects to get an M rating for this one.
One thing I was a little disappointed in is how the mana system works. Unlike, say, Dungeon Siege 3 which has you refilling your "focus" bar by landing normal attacks, you have to slowly wait for it to regenerate or just chug potions in order to keep it full. While that's not a big deal for a dwarven warrior since he's usually swinging his axe anyway, on the mage, it completely changed her game - if I ran out of mana, I had to get in close with my staff in order to do damage, and as you might expect, my effectiveness was rather limited. I'm hoping that as the game nears its release date, we see more ways for each character to gain and use mana.
Beyond that one issue, though, I'm pretty impressed with what I saw from War in the North. The previous demo at PAX East this last March showcased a more interesting level that had players taking on large bosses instead of the piddly waves we saw at E3, but from a technical perspective the game has also made some leaps and bounds - the frame rate is much more stable (around 30fps) and the visuals have gotten a little sharper, too. While this game is still generally pretty ugly, it's not cripplingly bad, and it might be rare, but games sometimes do wind up getting graphical improvements during the last few months of development. As long as the RPG and action fusion makes up for any lack of visual polish that may still be lingering by the time we get to the release date, we should be good. Lord of the Rings: War in the North is set to launch late this summer on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3.