Since this is a Warner Bros. game, developer Snowblind Studios has access to not only the book rights but the film rights as well. This allows Snowblind to kind of play between both versions of the story, creating what it hopes is a good union between the two.
"There's a reference that Gandalf makes, where he says that if it wasn't for the efforts of a few brave heroes in the north -- even with Frodo's success in getting the ring into Mount Doom -- everything would've been lost," said Michael De Plater, design director at Snowblind Studios. This game aims to shed the spotlight on that northern conflict, introducing territories aligned with Sauron and a new lieutenant of his who is tasked with organizing these evil territories to march on Middle Earth and conquer it in Sauron's name.
At its heart, Lord of the Rings: War in the North is an action-adventure game with some light RPG mechanics. Each character has a skill tree of abilities they can unlock, exclusive to them. My brief glimpse at these showed the standard arsenal, like a warcry ability for the dwarf allowing him to draw aggro from enemies and make them focus on him, and a shield ability that allows the elf to block enemy's ranged attacks.
Each character also has melee and ranged attacks at their disposal. The dwarf, the slow tank character, has a powerful crossbow, but it's very slow to fire. The human ranger has a more traditional bow and arrow, capable of striking over long distances, and on top of each bow, there are also additional abilities for each character, but these seemed pretty uninspired -- flaming arrows and knockback shots, for example.
When it came to the melee, things felt a bit mindless. Think: Dynasty Warriors, just on less of a grand scale. Snowblind has instituted this "Hero strike" where players who have chained together a certain amount of hits can push a button and initiate an increased damage mode, but it's not particularly flashy or stylish.
The one thing that War in the North really gets right is the loot. During my 20 minutes or so with the game, I found tons of gear with which to customize my character, whether it was dropped from enemies (if their gear survives your encounter with them, it'll drop on the ground, visible only to you -- client-side loot drops are the order of the day here) or hidden inside barrels and chests littered around the environment. Putting gear on changes the look of your character, so you get a feeling of ownership and individuality and the pursuit of that next great sword, bow (or my axe) is going to scratch that itch for you virtual hoarders out there.
The idea of the fellowship is clearly the entire foundation for what Snowblind hopes will be a worthwhile experience, but in my brief time playing Lord of the Rings: War in the North, that dynamic didn't seem fully realized. Each character had skills enough at their disposal and was clearly strong enough to take on all enemies, whether through hanging back and striking from a distance or by getting into the thick of the fray, showing off their melee prowess -- and that's a shame because with some more clearly defined roles and limitations for each class, the game would have felt more like a co-op experience and less like a routine hack-and-slasher.