Lord of the Rings: War in the North hands-on preview

The blood finally flows freely in this action RPG series

J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy tale of epic struggle across the war-torn Middle Earth landscape has always been full of death and destruction, but previous games haven’t quite captured the sheer brutality of war at its grisliest. That’s about to change. The next Lord of the Rings installment takes off the kid gloves and ramps-up the violence. Dismembered limbs, beheadings, splattering gore: War in the North has it all. After getting an up-close and personal taste of the mayhem during a recent hands-on session, it’s clear this cooperative hack-and-slash fest certainly doesn’t skimp on the bloodshed.

Venturing beyond the bounds of the series’ core canon, Lord of the Rings: War in the North features an original story that revolves around three playable heroes (a dwarf brawler, a human ranger, and an elf mage) who head northward to investigate and confront a massing army led by one of Sauron’s generals. Our demo kicked off with a flock of giant eagles dumping the trio of heroes onto a snowy mountaintop draped in fog and howling wind. Taking up arms as the burly dwarf, we led the charge into several chaotic battles that showcased the game’s new Mature-oriented combat.

Each of War in the North’s playable characters has unique strengths, abilities, and weaknesses that come into play in critical ways. The gameplay emphasizes interdependent co-op and careful teamwork, since the party is stronger as a focused unit. Breaking off from the group or failing to capitalize on each character’s role tends to lead to a quick death all around. In battle, our dwarf could soak up solid damage and deal out punishment far more readily than the other two classes, though his special powers were more limited in scope. In contrast, the elf mage wielded powerful magic, including a spell that temporarily shielded the group from incoming arrows, and the human ranger specialized in stealth attacks yielding critical hits. Gaining experience in battle also lets you upgrade skills, unlock new powers, and specialize in different areas of combat.

Theoretically, all the potential ability options at your disposal and the dynamic nature of having a well-balanced group should provide a broad range of tactics to wield. But once we were hurled into the fray against groups of meaty orcs and hulking troll brutes, the intense action devolved into chaos almost immediately. At first, battle proved to be far from smooth – encounters against larger foes had us getting frequently wet-ragged to the ground, taking a long time to recover and sometimes even glitching our dwarf into the environment itself. Eventually we got a feel for the combos and dodge maneuvers, and being able to stay upright for more than a few seconds at a time gave us a chance to cleave some skulls. Chaining successful attacks in rapid succession lets you enter into a temporary “heroic” mode where you’ll dish out serious damage on foes, making it possible to take down larger adversaries quickly.

The emphasis on brutal combat yields intense encounters that are bloody and satisfying, even if battle is still buggy in the game’s current state. There were moments where combat turned into a total frenzied mess, but the action really came together when each team member was on-point and working together. The game’s cooperative element extends well beyond carving the limbs off of smelly orcs, too. Each character has other special race abilities that prove useful outside of the fray. Our dwarf, for example, was able to detect a secret tunnel entrance inside a cave that other players weren’t able to see. You can also trade and gift items to other players, which is helpful considering the large amount of loot you’ll find.

Despite some general bugginess and loosy-goosy moments on the battlefield, our time with Lord of the Rings: War in the North had its notable high points. The sudden shift toward the blatantly bloody kicks up the realism of battle nicely, and the cooperative elements have a lot of potential to shine once the rest of the game is fine-tuned. We’re cautiously optimistic that this new direction for the series could pan out in exciting ways.

Apr 12, 2011

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