I’m a big fan of Snowblind Studios and their particular brand of Diablo-style loot-fests, as seen last generation in the forms of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath. My biggest concern when I heard about their latest project, Lord of the Rings: War in the North, was whether or not slicing through legions of monsters and gathering piles of armor and weapons could work with the rather serious tone of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings lore. Today I got my first look at the game during E3, and I’m still not entirely sure about that concern.

Snowblind says it’s trying to create a “darker, grittier” version of Middle Earth, something even more dire than the tone that I was already worried about. The demo begins with a group of heroes flying to the entrance of Mirkwood to search for the Brown Wizard, Radagast, a counter-point to Gandalf who has not been terribly fleshed out in existing Lord of the Rings media.

Once on the ground, the party of heroes is almost immediately engaged in combat. War in the North focuses heavily on co-op, and it’s immediately evident that teamwork will be required to survive. Magic-users can pull up a huge shield that protects party members from incoming projectiles. Once it’s up, they’ll need to move to within melee range so the beefier melee fighters can take bad guys out. The shield only lasts for a limited time and has a cooldown before it can be used again, so when it drops, party members will need to keep their distance from the enemies and pick them off with crossbows.

The combat is definitely more up-close and intense than Snowblind’s previous games, and the enemies come in smaller but much deadlier packs. The conversation between the three developers playing reminded me of an intense raid in an MMO. Surely that was staged to some degree, but from the gameplay alone it seems like you’ll need to be communicating with teammates fairly constantly to succeed.

The need for working together was driven home one more time in the demo’s final encounter, a giant ogre-like creature. In Lord of the Rings, huge enemies like this simply can’t be taken down by a single hero. At one point, he grabs one of the heroes and raises him in the air menacingly. When this happens, your partners must immediately start bashing away at the creature, trying to get him to slacken his grip. If he isn’t worn down quick enough, it appears that he can essentially auto-kill one of the heroes.

Still, not everything in War in the North is foreign to fans of Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath. Enemies still drop progressively better loot, and you still can (and will need to) down potions with a simple button press at any point during battles. This time around, though, potions are created by human characters who can find and harvest herbs in the world, one of several unique racial abilities thatwill be put to use to help the party out.

At this point, I can say that War in the North definitely looks nice and has a lot of potential to be a great return to form for a developer that crafts excellent hack-and-slash dungeon crawls. My main concern has shifted from the tone to the focus on co-op. I love a good co-op game as much as anyone else, but I’m worried that the level of teamwork necessary to survive won’t likely exist in solo play, where computer-controlled bots take over as your allies. That said, if sticking strong to a cooperative structure allows them to make an exciting adventure while staying true to the source material, I’m sure there are plenty of Lord of the Rings fans out there who will not be disappointed.