Throughout the Tolkien mythos, there are references to other battles fought; off-piste areas affected by the War of the Ring. It's from one such perspective that Snowblind Studios are presenting their addition to Tolkien's narrative landscape.
While Frodo, Sam and the Fellowship are gallivanting around Mordor, archeyeball Sauron has sent raiding parties to attack the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth from the north. One of the few forces standing in their path is a new fellowship, consisting of an elven wizardess called Andreil, Erudyn, a Dunedain ranger and a dwarven warrior by the name of Seryn. This is the party you'll lead through paths less-trodden in this co-op action RPG.
And the emphasis is very much on the action, as my brief hands-on session in the Barrows Downs region demonstrated. The site of an ancient settlement of the Dunedain until their numbers were savaged by a great plague, the Barrows Down is now infested by boney old barrow-wights sent by the Witch King, and no small number of orc skirmishers. It was a place skirted by the hobbits on their journey to Bree and, in the books if not in the films, near to where cantering poetry-ponce Tom Bombadil rescued them from the wraith-like clutches of a barrow-wight.
Out of the blocks, it's immediately evident that this is a proper third-person hack-and-slasher. The first scene sees our fellowship enter a low valley in the Barrow Downs, and there's a pervasive, ghoulish air hanging over the place. Almost immediately, a cluster of orcs screams into view, and the fight is on.
I'm in charge of Erudyn, the ranger, while one player controls our tanky little dwarf and another plays as our elven caster. Each character has light and heavy melee attacks, a dodge move, two ranged attacks, and a hot-keyed special ability. As the ranger, my abilities seem equally balanced between ranged and melee, so I spend a little time aiming down my bow and picking away at the orcs who are making a beeline for the dwarf. A powered-up version of the ranger's standard shot is capable of taking down a standard enemy with a single shot, but a cooldown timer ticks away before it can be used again.
Melee is a punchy and enjoyable ruckus, and the Seattle-based Snowblind have quite rightly focussed on what's ultimately rewarding about this sort of game: chain attacks. String together a number of blows and your character enters a focussed critical-strike state. His blows become considerably deadlier, and if you keep the chain going, he then enters a new attackchain in which he performs more outlandish and impressive moves. It's a fine, telescoping mechanic that prompts you to work hard at keeping the chains rolling between your foes in order to chase the crits. It's impressive to watch and quite satisfying to play.
The elf player hangs back to rely on his support spells, throwing us the occasional heal and flinging energy bolts at the enemy. Every now and again, he sees one of us struggling with a thick knot of orcs, and darts in to cast a magic bubble around us. This deflects arrows from ranged enemies and reduces the melee damage we take. Meanwhile, the dwarf is working his way through the orcs like a tiny, bearded combine harvester.
Party play is about more than simply reprising your roles for short, medium and long-range combat. When a player enters his critical state, another player can muscle in on the fight and benefit from the combat bonuses he's generating. In fact, this is downright necessary for some of the bosses, a couple of which we encounter here. One of these is a colossal troll, of the kind seen in Peter Jackson's epics. He's slow and ponderous, but strikes in a huge, sweeping arc which requires some nifty dodging. We slipped into a pleasing routine whereby the dwarf would dart in to get his attention and I'd batter at his big troll-botty with sword-swipes. We soon had him staggering as we riffed off each other's chain-bred crit-states. When you're not playing co-op, the AI controls your two fellowship members. It'll be interesting to see how intelligently they support your actions.
A simple RPG mechanic rounds the experience into something more progressive. Mobs beget XP, XP begets levels, levels beget skill points, and the skill tree grows at your behest. I levelled once in our hands-on session, unlocking Erudyn's dual-wield ability. I'd been collecting all sorts of weapon-drops as I hacked my way through the orc hordes, and after a root through the backpack, found I had a meaty pair of orc swords. Equipping these altered the feedback loop of combat considerably, from meaty, twohanded swipes to rapid flurries of blows.
We'll have more on War in the North for you next month, when we'll be talking directly with Snowblind about what they're hoping to achieve.