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Impressions: LOTR War In The North

Shall it pass?

Snowblind's orc-biffer was released in the US yesterday and is cruelly and pointlessly withheld from the UK until November 25th. Nonetheless, a couple of weeks ago I had a crack at a level from late in the game, in addition to more recently trying the demo on OnLive. So here's a quick primer on what to expect from the hacky-slashy fantasy game. I'll try not to spoil the climactic battle against Mecha-Tolkien for you.

There's not too much to it, but then that's the point: it's that sort of the game. It's basically the bits where Legolas, Grumpy and Hidalgo run around having epic mini-fights while the battle of Helm's Deep rages, on repeat. Three hitherto-undocumented (but apparently they're top chums with Aragorn - funny he never mentioned 'em, eh?) fellowship heroes set off on assorted adventures in parallel to the events of the books/films.

These adventures largely entail the frequent stabbing, axing, arrowing and magicking an assortment of orcs, goblins and bad men to death with the help of a gentle combo/finishing system and various powers. The two sections I played are reasonably entertaining, if leaning towards the relentless. There's a pretence at roleplaying just before the action kicks off in the first level, but a few terse conversations with NPCs quickly leads into frantic combat. It's that sort of game.

I've tried the Strider analogue and the Gimli analogue so far, though the lady wizard I've yet to look at. Let's pretend that's out of respect to old man Tolkien's refusal to given female characters anything but the most token of roles in his books, rather than just because I couldn't be bothered to play the same level again for a third time. For both the chaps I controlled, the basic brawling's the same - light attack, heavy attack, block. There's an emphasis on using an extra-heavy attack when enemies are in a fragile state, as revealed by a not at all artificial yellow arrow floating over their heads, at which point you can bust out gory finishing move. Yep, there's an awful lot of severing in TLOTRWITN. It's that sort of game.

It positively revels in the rapid removal of limbs with sharp, non-surgical-grade instruments, awarding varying gobbets of experience points depending on how epic/horrific your severing has been. Aesthetically, TLORTRWITN obviously embraces the bleached-out grim'n'grit of Peter Jackson's hyper-earnest movies, but pops the violence up a notch or two. It's that sort of game.

In many ways, it's not a million miles away from EA's well-received but forgettable LOTR hacker-slashers released in tandem with the films, but on the higher level I played it's significantly more tactical (requiring judicious use of block and dodge if you wanted to avoid a very rapid death), challenging and less arcadey in its special attacks. It's also co-op centric, although I've so far only played it solo.

There's always three of you, with the other two controlled by AI if chums or barely tolerable internet strangers aren't to hand. The main co-operation, which the AI is pretty handy at, is reviving each other if you take too many poleaxes to the stomach, though the magicky character has a neat Sanctum spell that casts of healing demi-hemisphere around her which any sensible player will immediately run and shelter under. Don't worry, you've got a bow and arrow too, so you can keep killing even while you're resting. It's that sort of game.

There's levelling up and skill-choosing in there, in accordance with the Diablolic values it loosely follows (though obviously it's about smaller, more reflexive, closer-camera skirmishes rather than the zoomed-out, tap-tap-tap genocide of Blizzard's games). Each character appeared to have three core skill trees, and the rate of levelling up I experienced suggested you'd be tailoring a build rather than fecklessly grabbing everything, but quite possibly it explodes into omnipotence in the very highest levels.

Oh - there's also a looting system, which adds to the gentle compulsion of the piece as well as being genuinely rather important to going toe-to-toe with increasingly heavily-armoured orcs. It's a little reminiscent of Hunted: The Reckoning in a way, but without the obnoxious acting or blatant, room-based scripting. Also, at one point I rescued a giant, talking bird from being imprisoned or tortured or something, which then helpfully took the heads off some orcs for me before flying away, which was reasonably entertaining.

I must say it's a slightly bland and dated-looking game though, and as such stands at odds with the luxuriousness of the other two current titles in publisher's Warner's hands, Batman: Arkham City and Lego Harry Potter 2. Maybe it's because it's trying to ape the look of the films rather than have a definably videogamey character, but it does seem a tad low-tech too.

To be honest, despite the number of pre-existent LOTR videogames, I do think there's a lot of room for a new, high-action take on a movie trilogy that doesn't seem to be going anywhere soon, but the sense I've got from this is that it's playing things too safe. Still, plenty of severing, a little bit of choice and a genuine need for tactics rather than button-bashing: it's not a mindless cash-in for the casual crowd. Obviously, it's being released at a time of year that's tantamount to commercial suicide, but it might be worth looking up once the sound and fury of the world war between military manshoots has died down.

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