The good old-fashioned action-RPG loot-em-up has been a bit thin on the ground of late. No recent examples spring to mind that hearken back to the good times provided by the likes of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance or more recently, Champions of Norrath.
It comes as both a surprise and delight then to hear that Snowblind Studios, who worked on both of those games, are at it again. Not only that, but they're bringing their expert ARPG talent to the Lord of the Rings license, with the impending (well... some time in 2011, probably in the Christmas window) release of Lord of the Rings: War in the North.
We got to sit down and experience a chunk of (hands-off) gameplay last week, with Snowblind Studios' own Ruth Tomandi showing us the ropes. Despite being a relatively recent addition to the Snowblind team, Ruth is no stranger to the genre, having previously worked on Dungeon Siege I & II and Space Siege (as well as Supreme Commander). We've got an interview with her coming up soon, so keep an eye out for it - she was spectacularly nice.
The level we saw has since been unveiled to the public in the form of the following video - check it out for yourself below:
Our gameplay demo continued on much further through the level shown, and also included information about the loot system and many of the fight mechanics, which both definitely have a ring of the Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance games about them.
Each character has their own strengths and weaknesses, too, which ensure that there is some value in bringing one over another in certain situations (such as the dwarf's ability to locate weaknesses in rock, which can lead to hidden treasure which would be otherwise unobtainable).
This is also the first mature-rated game based on the Tolkien universe, which allows the blood and the violence to flow in a way that is much more in-line with that which we've otherwise only seen in Peter Jackson's movies. Wailing away on a cave troll gives a satisfying splatter of gore, without crossing that fine line into the grotesque or comical.
The story, too, is new - instead of retreading the familiar or replicating any of Tolkien's work verbatim, War in the North heads (as you may have guessed) into the north. Only hinted at in the books, the War in the North was a significant affair and a place where only heroes dared to tread - heroes such as you, the player.
The action we saw suggested that the gameplay is weighted more towards melee action than ranged, although ranged is still available and (situationally) a useful component. The actual control is less spammy than previous ARPG games, with some thought required as to which abilities are used when, for example using a character to "tank" while others build up their critical ability or attack together for greater effect. It also looks like a title that will reward smart play that comes from learning, or by playing in a team of similarly skilled players.
The Good: Loot! LotR! Snowblind!
The Bad: Has WoW destroyed this genre?
The Ugly: Cave trolls. Seriously. Look at them! Ewww...