GDC 11 – War in the North Hands-on
Action RPG’s on consoles have a checkered past, but there have been a few unequivocal success. Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance was one of these, and its developers Snowblind Studios are at it again with Lord of the Rings: War in the North. We sat down during the frenzy of GDC 11 to talk Tolkien and play a very early build.
War in the North is set far from the main events of the Lord of the Rings saga, deep in snow-covered mountains, where a second front has developed, pitting the forces of good against the tides of evil emanating from Mordor. Thanks to Warner Brothers, their powerful patron, Snowblind was able to secure the license to the wildly popular films, which drives the game‘s recognizable design sensibilities, and also to the books, which provided inspiration and source material. Thanks to the richness of Tolkein’s universe, the developers were able to take brief, throwaway lines and expand them into story and gameplay elements. The Fellowship of the Ring makes brief reference to the Nazgul passing a place called Sarn Ford on their way to the Shire — Sarn Ford appears in the game as a key area. Even more importantly, the game’s entire concept is derived from a speech of Gandalf’s, in which he points out that the efforts of the Fellowship on the war’s southern front would be fruitless if not for the contributions of “a few heroes in the North.”
I took control of one of these heroes, a doughty dwarf, and guided him through a snow-covered pass, dispatching orcs along the way. There are three classes available in the game, each rooted firmly in Tolkein’s fiction, which the developers claim was largely responsible for creating RPG archetypes in the first place. Alongside me was the Human Ranger, a traditional archer/rogue, and the Elf Mage, who provided buffs, support, and some direct damage. Armed with a two-handed axe and a crossbow, my dwarf was tank-style warrior, preferring his combat up-close and personal. Face buttons controlled light and heavy attacks, as well as a dodge roll. The crossbow could be fired using familiar third-person shooter mechanics. Holding one shoulder button brought up a number of traditional warrior spells, like War Cry, which were mapped to the face buttons and thus easily deployed.
Most of the smaller adversaries were easily dispatched, but larger foes like trolls and hulking Olog-hai required a combined effort. Snowblind’s game is built around co-op from the ground up, either local or online, and you’ll be accompanied by two companions wherever you go. The developers are keen to encourage players to work together, balancing the game around various mutually-reinforcing abilities that make cooperation its own reward. Even in singleplayer, you’ll be able to switch between the trio of characters at quest hubs. When all three adventurers beat on a troll (or some other durable enemy), they build up a combo chain, represented by a small, growing globe above the troll’s head. When this chain gets long enough, a player can enter “Hero Mode,” which will result in an epic, bloody execution animation. War in the North is the first “M”-rated Lord of the Rings game, after all.
The game’s graphics and UI were still in the very early stages, but the visuals showed promise, particularly a texture effect that covered the players’ armor in a thickening rime of snow after doing a dodge roll. Combat was meaty and appropriately brutal — my axe felt like a heavy object that really made an impact into what it struck, a seemingly obvious feature that gets overlooked in far too many RPG’s. The balance was a little wonky, probably due to the game’s unfinished state and the fact that the developers didn’t want journalists to spend their time waiting to be revived. One expects it to be harder in the retail version, and harder still in the games unlockable “Nightmare”-style modes, which enable you to replay the game from the beginning while keeping your skills and gear, in classic Action RPG fashion.
Though the design emphasis was clearly on fun, collaborative combat, the game does have significant RPG trappings. Dialogue with NPC’s will usually present three options: a “just the facts, ma’am” choice for impatient and returning players, an option that will lead to potential sidequests, and an option that will develop the game’s original lore. Players will gain experience, and develop skill trees, choosing from 20 abilities with 5 ranks each. Most important to the Action RPG genre, of course, is the loot. Thankfully, it was plentiful, stashed in chests and available from downed enemies. By generating all drops client-side, the Snowblind team ensured that there will be no squabbling over drops. Indeed, there is even a collaborative aspect to the process: each race has a unique ability that enables them to suss out secret areas — while exploring a cave, my dwarf was able to identify a hidden passage in the rock that led to a hidden treasure trove. As we reveled in new gear and began to equip it, the game’s diversity of items was apparent, along with the pleasing visual effect equipping them has on your character.
The War in the North is still a long ways away, but the developers seem to be making the right moves so far. Between their distinguished pedigree and the bloody fantasy combat, Snowblind have people ready to be convinced. If they can deliver compelling story and characters and polish their still-nebulous design ideas to a high sheen, Sauron and his lieutenant, the Black Numenorean (the game’s main antagonist) will be in trouble.