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Lord of the Rings: War in the North - A co-op action game worth playing?

One game to pwn them all?

We'll be the first to admit that the omens weren't looking good for War in the North. Between Skyrim, Dragon Age 2 and The Witcher 2 it's not unreasonable to claim 2011's fantasy RPG accolades have already been wrapped up with a neat little bow.

On top of that, with buzz about The Hobbit unlikely to start for at least another twelve months (current estimates have the film down for Christmas 2012), plus the fact that the original trilogy was finished eight years ago, the all-powerful Lord of the Rings brand isn't exactly at the forefront of people's minds.

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All evidence is pointing to War in the North being the right game at the wrong time, so we travelled to Seattle-based developer Snowblind Studios to see how right we were.

"Yeah, it is an odd time for a Lord of the Rings game," admits producer Ruth Tomandl, "but I think it's a great time for co-op action RPGs. There's a real lack of those on consoles right now."

In Snowblind's eyes, War in the North isn't intended to be competition for Skyrim, or any of the others. It's easy to see orcs and elves and immediately stuff it into the same category, but to do so would completely ignore the truth about the project.

"What we're really trying to do is recapture the feel of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and those types of co-op games," Tomandl continues. "There really aren't a lot of co-op action RPGs on the consoles right now and we think there's a real void to fill there." There isn't a developer better placed to try.

Snowblind Studios was the outfit behind Baldur's Gate's Diablo-esque console spin-off Dark Alliance back on the original Xbox. When Warner Brothers bought up the studio in 2009 it was with an eye for a new Lord of the Rings game in the same vein.

The result is a relatively faithful hack-'n'- slasher - War in the North is a classic 'hub and spokes' world (there are safe towns and encampments with a handful of linear levels accessible from each one) with heavy emphasis on loot gathering and searching for rare drops - with a few extra features pinched from slightly more modern RPGs.

THREE'S COMPANY
The key word is co-op. The game is designed from the ground up to be played with friends, to the point where solo gamers will have to complete the game with each character in order to see all that they're missing by going it alone.

War in the North's action kicks off moments after Frodo leaves The Shire for Rivendell. The Nazgul has arrived in the Shire for a quick stabbathon and you find yourself thrown into a ragtag fellowship of three featuring a ranger named Eradan, an elf called Andriel and a dwarf known as Farin. Their goal? To push back the forces of evil, and ultimately to head north and stop Sauron's lieutenant Agandaur from amassing a new army which would allow Mordor to open a northern front against the free races of Middle-Earth.

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Three characters means three-player co-op, a seemingly odd choice but one Tomandl's happy with. "We tried two players and we tried four players, but ultimately we settled on the three.

It's unusual and it's not done very often, but it also stays true to the lore. A lot of the journeys in the books are in threes; the second book is mostly about Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli travelling together, for instance.

There maybe be five free races but as the Ents and Hobbits aren't as interesting to play as, three people made the most sense." While it's possible to customise each fighter (although visual attributes tend to be focused on facial details alone) the three heroes have distinct advantages and disadvantages in the field.

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