Comic-Con 2011: Hands on with War in the North

J.R. Tolkien created one of the richest and most immersive fantasy worlds ever when he imagined Middle-earth. Now, Snowblind Studios are telling a new tale within the Tolkien universe with War in the North. It’s a new Action/RPG set during the same timeframe as Lord of the Rings, but in a different location. Snowblind made a demo of the Xbox 360 game available at Comic-Con and we got a chance to maim some Orcs.

Dave’s Take.

War in the North will leave Frodo and his companions behind as they choose between one of three new characters, the human Eradan, Farin the dwarf, or Andriel, a female elf. Being a fan of Gimli, and a vertically challenged person myself, I chose the dwarf. Two other Comic-Con attendees selected the other characters and we were all set to split some skulls.

War in the North relies very heavily on cooperation between teammates. If I didn’t have two humans playing with me, the other characters would have been AI controlled. I learned quickly that striking out on my own was a big mistake. After taking out a few Goblins, I tried to break away from the pack and move toward the next objective when I was bombarded by a heavy crossbow position. I tried combating it with arrows from my own crossbow, but I was very clearly outmatched. Luckily, my Elven teammate showed up and encompassed us with a magical shield in time to save my life.

My favorite feature in the demo was the ability to call in a giant eagle for backup when things got hairy. Nothing stops a heavily armored troll in its tracks like having its eyes clawed out by a pair of razor sharp talons. There were also many of the standard moves that action RPG gamers are used to. There’s an overhand smash, a spin attack and a magical shield that stops ranged attacks. Action/RPG fans will find themselves right at home with the game’s assortment of weapons and special abilities.

The controls were intuitive and I got the hang of things pretty quickly. Interestingly enough, the game has a teammate revival system similar to that of Gears of War. If a teammate gets knocked down they can crawl around until someone shows up and drags them back to their feet. Unlike the Locust Drones in Gears of War, the Orcs won’t stomp curb stomp a downed player’s head into strawberry jam. However, there were still some tense moments where I raced to save a downed teammate from the forces of evil, and I think this feature is a great addition to the game.

Overall I really enjoyed the experience. The gameplay is solid, if not groundbreaking. The graphics are decent. But the main draw is the story. I’m a huge Tolkien fan and War in the North offers me a way to explore part of Middle-Earth that wasn’t really fleshed out in the books. I could tell that the creators care about the source material and were focused on being faithful to Tolkien’s vision. I look forward to jumping back into my favorite fictional universe when this game hits the shelves.

Ross’ Take

What Dave says here is correct. War in The North has the potential to be a lot of fun, even if the game play and combat won’t change the world. I especially liked the way the game absolutely nails the aesthetic of Peter Jackson’s films while drawing heavily from the literature at the same time. It’s a really astounding how epic it feels. The scale is particularly good, suitably awe inspiring with enormous, ancient buildings that seem more like environmental landmarks than architecture.

However, though I enjoyed playing, we barely got a taste of the game itself and saw nothing of any RPG elements supposedly included in what Snowblind is insisting is an action RPG. During our interview with a Snowblind rep, it was confirmed there wouldn’t be an open world aspect to the game. What he meant by that we can’t know – he could mean a Mass Effect/Dragon Age situation where, while there’s not GTA style sandbox play, you can wander around interacting with characters as you see fit. But it could also be more like the disappointing Dungeon Siege III. As much as I love co-op, as much as I enjoy epic settings, I fear the game is going to be a lot of hack n slash + magic, traversing mostly linear environment. And without any real interaction beyond who you choose to bring into your co-op game.

That has the potential to take what could be an original take on the Tolkien universe and turn it into supplemental side quests that otherwise feel like a movie tie-in game. That would be disappointing, especially because the game’s premise – Events and regions referred to in passing during the literary LOTR given full expansion so players actually get to see what the war against Sauron was like in other parts of Middle Earth – is excellent. If players are trapped in a mostly static, repetitive game, that story will end up feeling like an afterthought.

Even so, I’m cautiously optimistic. Talking to that rep, he confirmed that the development team are full on Tolkien nerds, drawing from both the films and the books. That, combined with the fun I had playing the relatively short demo, gives me a reason to look forward to it.

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