It's unfortunate that Lord of the Rings: War in the North is being released during a year when the fantasy RPG void has already been filled with AAA-fare from established game franchises. Even with the Tolkien-approved branding, the game is stuck in the shadows of the enormous fantasy worlds of Dragon Age 2, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and The Witcher 2.
But LOTR's aim is to touch on that thing that's been a glaring omission on the others' back-of-the-box features. A single-player campaign is available in War in the North, but the game is built for co-op. For anyone who spent their teen years half-imagining a friendship with Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn, War in the North takes the group quest-fantasy and gives you up to three-player co-op to fulfil the wish.
Snowblind Studios is the little Seattle outfit whose CV includes, most notably, the Baldur's Gate console spin-off Dark Alliance. War in the North is interpreted similarly; a hack and slash title which - in this case - features a three-character collective for you to group alongside and traditional RPG elements of loot gathering and skill tree compulsion. You play as the ranger Eradan, the elf Andriel, or the dwarf Farin, who are working to stop the lieutenant of lead baddy Sauron from cultivating an army who would leave Middle-Earth open for attack from a northern front.
Co-op play is encouraged from the ground up in the way the game has designed its races. Each race has unique abilities that allow them to access areas of the map that would otherwise be left hidden, meaning solo players will only glimpse a portion of the game when playing alone.
The dwarf character is able to find soft pockets in rock walls and knock them down to reveal entirely new chambers full of loot. Similarly, your Ranger character can detect enemy tracks and cut through walls to follow the trail to loot piles, while the Elf is given the bulk responsibility in terms of alchemy and can pick up wild vegetation to churn into potions.
Together, the co-op combat is a fairly conventional combination of regular and heavy attacks, woven into a selection of ranged and defensive abilities. All characters have access to a ranged weapon specific to their race. Elves make use of bolt-shooting staves, while Dwarves and Rangers are given a crossbow and bow and arrow, respectively.
In fact many of the abilities are shared by each race. All characters can trigger execution moves mid-fight if they can avoid being hit by the targeted enemy. Block and evade rolls become necessary tools for triggering these kill moves, two other moves available to all. Similarly, attacking together opens up the possibility for team co-op kills, while perfectly timed blocks can prompt further execution moves.
War in the North does its best to tip its hat to hack and slash behemoths of the genre with its emphasis on occasionally brutal deaths, whether that's through head-severing imagery or with the summoning of Great Eagles who will swoop into the centre of a fight and carry off a targeted baddy.
But each of the three characters have combat abilities specific to them that are necessary to master in combat. With no healing abilities available beyond health potions, the elf is the substitute medic thanks to her ability to cast a healing dome that boosts the health of those inside. Eradan, on the other hand, has a stealth ability that lets him cloak himself for a period and opens up the possibility for more strategic and planned gameplay.
Encampments will rear their head as you continue your journey, and function as safe zones and trading areas. Similarly sandwiched between the combat scenarios is a simplified Mass Effect-styled dialogue system, although whether they affect the storyline has yet to be seen. But the game's heart is stuck in the multiplayer co-op battles. And while it risks being forgotten alongside some of the shinier fantasy cousins, that's exactly where it needs to be to stick out in the RPG swarm.
Lords of the Rings: War in the North will be released for Xbox 360 and PS3 on November 25.