War in the North earns its M-rating with brutal combat

War is messy, and Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien knew this. People die — and rather violently, might I add — at the business end of axes, swords, and ill-tempered trolls.

So those previous Lord of the Rings games you’ve played — you know the ones where you swipe your axe in a orc’s general direction and then they tumble over like you were playing a game of touch football? They were just a warm-up for what Snowblind Studios has in planned for Lord of the Rings: War in the North, a brutal, action role-playing take on the Tolkien fiction.

Put the kids to sleep for this M-rated adventure, Snowblind isn’t pulling any punches.

At GDC last week, Snowblind had brought out the latest build of the game, with three linked Xbox 360 consoles set up for the game’s three-player co-op. The core tenets of what you can expect from War in the North — action, role-playing-style character progression, loot, and what have you — haven’t changed since I saw the game prior to E3 of last year. (For a more in-depth look at the game’s premise and systems, check out our earlier preview.)

The short story is that War in the North is, in many ways, the spiritual successor to Snowblind’s Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. If that alone doesn’t have your attention (and really, it should), maybe you fancy a bit of the old ultra-violence. This latest trailer might be what you’re looking for.

With War in the North’s combat, Snowblind is rewarding skilled fighting by quenching your bloodlust. The game’s main attacks were mapped to the Xbox 360’s “X” button. A secondary set of skills can be brought up by holding the right bumper and pressing the controller’s face buttons to unleash various attacks, mapped by the player based on unlocked skills. Ranged attacks — my character held a bow and arrow — are also easy to pull off, third-person shooter style by holding the left trigger and then aiming with the right analog stick.

As you tear through bloodthirsty orcs and other baddies, you’ll notice a “Critical Hit” meter building. Once at its max, you’ll go into “Hero Mode,” unleashing a “finishing” attack with the “Y” button for substantial damage. This is where the decapitations, the severing, the impaling, and the excessive blood splattering comes into play. The game’s tight third-person camera — a bit of change from Baldur’s Gate god-from-above view — gets you right in on the action. Every amputated limb is clearly visible, giving combat a visceral, meaty feel.

The game doesn’t reward your combat mastery only with M-rated savagery. “Hero Mode” also remunerates the player with additional experience points, playing into War in the North’s deep character progression. This is, after all, Snowblind’s forté — role-playing character development, along with a ton of a loot, which the developer says the game will have in spades.

After the 20 minutes or so that I spent with War in the North battling gargantuan trolls and squalid Uruk-hai, I walked away craving more. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done (HUD elements were unfinished and in desperate need of polishing), but the important stuff is already firmly in place.

As a fan of the studio’s previous hack-and-slash-and-loot games, this new title seems to fit comfortably between those games and deeper third-person action. Throw in a decapitated orc or 200 and I’m already scheduling time to play with two friends when War in the North ships this May.

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Nick Chester
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