I had the opportunity to go to the Penny-Arcade Expo (PAX) over the weekend to take a look at Snowblind’s Lord of the Rings: War in the North. Snowblind has taken a new direction with this game — it’s the first M-rated Lord of the Rings video game — and let me tell you, they’re doing an excellent job of it.
They showed us a gameplay demo, and I also had a chance to ask some questions, so first I’ll go over the demo and then I’ll list the other random tidbits I learned. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get any decent pictures, so I’ll sprinkle in some screenshots from our image gallery to show a little of what I’m talking about.
The demo opened with a trailer much like the one we saw from E3, but a little shorter (it actually had less gore than the E3 trailer). Three Snowblind employees created a coop game to walk us through some of the nifty things they’re doing with the game. One played an Elf archer, one played a Dwarf warrior (who also carries a crossbow), and the third played a Human mage. They loaded up a level in Mirkwood to show off some of the things they’ve been doing.
The level starts with the player(s) riding one of the great Eagles in search of Radagast the Brown; they are attacked by a Fell Beast. The players fall to the forest below, and they have to fight the rider of the Fell Beast. Wolfram has some magic powers, including teleportation, and he takes quite a beating before the three players take him down.
Once Wolfram dies, his Fell Beast tries to get up, but is killed by the Eagle from earlier – one named Beleran.
The conversation system looks pretty much like the standard console RPG conversation wheel – you get several options around a ring (the One Ring, in fact) and you choose which dialog tree you’d like to dive in to. Snowblind has taken care to let us get as much or as little information as possible; if you want to skip all the background information and lore, there’s an option to just move on with the quest.
Beleran says that Radagast can be found deeper in the forest.
At this point, we see on the screen of the Elf player that there are some tracks leading off the trail; neither the Dwarf nor the Human can see them. Players are therefore forced to work together to obtain the greatest benefit. (I got the impression that because each race has a unique racial ability, the fellowship should always be composed of an Elf, a Dwarf, and a Human; otherwise, you might miss some loot!) The Elf leads the trio off to a clearing where they find some loot.
Looting works as you would expect: you see a pile of stuff, you push a button, and you find money and gear. Loot is not auto-shared with your teammates.
The Human’s racial ability is that he can collect various plants (and possibly other things), which he can use to craft various items. For the demo, he crafted a few health potions with some mushroom caps and some herbs. These crafted items can be given to teammates or sold to vendors.
Moving on, the trio moves deeper into the forest. Snowblind has added dynamic dialog that your characters will say while walking around; I watched the demo several times, and noticed that while the text of the dialog was always the same, various lines were often spoken by different characters — sometimes the Elf wonders aloud why Radagast is in Mirkwood, and the Human replies that Mirkwood had not always been so foul; sometimes it is the other way around.
The fellowship is ambushed by some orcs; the Human demonstrates one of the mage powers, called Sancutary. It creates a shield against enemy ranged weapons and grants melee buffs for any allies inside the shield; the Elven archer can take out enemy archers from within the safety of the shield. However, Orc shamans also have this ability; the Elf can use one of her powers that lets her turn invisible for a brief time and sneak into the shaman’s shield to take out the shaman.
A note about the gore in this game. It is certainly a very gory game; Snowblind almost revels in the amount of blood and violence they are depicting. There are even short slow-motion animations when you decapitate an enemy. Snowblind is trying to reflect in this game what Tolkien knew of war, and, well, war is violent.
Enemies drop little health and energy boosts when they die; it reminds me a bit of Champions Online, except in War in the North you don’t have to walk over to the boost to pick it up.
The Dwarven racial ability is that he can see structural weaknesses in stone; he can therefore find alternate paths through an area, or perhaps a hidden cache of loot. The latter was the case in the demo, and the players found some new gear to put on before the upcoming boss fight.
Different weapons grant different abilities for the bearers; the Human mage might find a staff which grants him a fireball attack, or an ice attack, for example. There are other types of gear, as well; helms, shields, gauntlets, rings, and so forth.
On to the boss fight. The fellowship enters a cave, in which they find a cave troll. The cave troll appears to be irritated that they have interrupted his dinner (which looks like a cluster of eggs); this leads him to attack them as soon as they enter.
Snowblind has put a lot of effort into making this a cooperative RPG — if you do not work together, you will die. This is certainly true of this boss fight — troll can grab one of the fellowship in his giant fist, preventing that teammate from doing anything; the other two must distract the troll until he releases his captive. The troll doesn’t just hold his captive, either; he punches the daylights out of you, and if your health is really low (as happened in one demo), the troll bites your head off. (At least, that’s what it looked like. One demo ended there — game over.)
If you run out of health another way — suppose you endured a mere giant mace to the head — then your teammates have to come over and help you up. (Snowblind seems to have taken Left 4 Dead‘s cue here — which is no surprise, since Left 4 Dead is a game that requires good cooperation and teamwork. The incapacitation and rescue mechanics are virtually identical, and to be clear, that’s a good thing.)
Also like Left 4 Dead, there are no health indicators on your enemies; you just have to pummel them until they fall over.
That’s where the demo ended. I’ll just talk about a few other things I picked up during Q&As and conversations.
The most-often-asked question about War in the North seems to be, “Are classes and races locked?” Unfortunately, Snowblind won’t answer that question yet. We will just have to wait and find out.
The game has a single-player mode; the other two characters will be controlled by AI. There is also an offline split-screen mode, where two characters are controlled by people, and the third by AI; split-screen mode is also supported in online play, so two people can play on one box and a third can play on another. Based on what I saw on the game configuration screen when they set up the demos, it looks like the game supports both internet and LAN play. No word on whether they will support cross-platform play (e.g. one player on a PC and another on an XBox or PS3). I doubt they will do that, but I can always dream
Warner Brothers has both the movie rights and the literary rights for Lord of the Rings; this has given them enormous freedom in writing this game. They are showing us a series of events that have never before been depicted on screen. Their writer is working with the Tolkien estate to make sure nothing they do is incorrect, but I’m told he almost knows more than they do; the Lord of the Rings universe is safe in his hands. They are also working with WETA to preserve the visual style of the movies while also creating new things for the areas of the world the game explores.
Well, that’s all I have from the PAX demo. If I’ve missed some burning question, feel free to ask in the comments; I might know the answer, or I might be able to find out for you!
Lord of the Rings: War in the North will be released in 2011 on XBox 360, Playstation 3, and PC.