Did I forget to mention co-op? Besides the online multiplayer (and 4-player splitscreen matches) there will also be 2-player co-op, both online and off. We sampled this for a few levels and it was pretty fantastic. On Pelennor Fields my buddy and I took turns aiming at a different advancing Oliphant and quickly took them out. This is going to add a ton of replay value to the campaign.

There are a few different multiplayer modes that all support 16 players (or 8 vs 8 teams). Conquest is the old standby, where you seek to capture control points for as long as you can to rack up a higher score than your opponents. Capture the Ring is a CTF mode of sorts, except there’s only one ring and you have to bring it to your opponent’s side. This is a very hectic mode, and it’s here that teamwork will come into play heavily. Watching a group advance with the ring, with a scout carrying the ring, warriors protecting him, archers picking off anyone that comes close while mages alternately heal and protect the group with their shield- well, it just demonstrates how important it is to have a smart group. During our many multiplayer matches we played with and against some of the developers, and they were invaluable for figuring out smart tactics to assist your teammates and win.

There’s also of course Team Deathmatch, every man for himself deathmatch, and hero deathmatch, which we unfortunately didn’t get to play. This allows you to play as the hero characters, everyone from Aragorn and Gandalf to The Mouth of Sauron and Lurtz. They’re all based on certain classes but are ridiculously overpowered versions of them. They show up in regular deathmatches once in a while when someone’s doing great… as a bonus for being the best on your team. They’re specific to the levels, and also appear in the single player campaigns during certain points.

The other big feature is the creatures you’ll be able to commandeer. Similar to the vehicles in the Battlefront games, you’ll have large creatures sitting idle next to your bases that can be jumped on (or into) and controlled. There’s nothing more fun than using an Ent to grab orcs and throw them across the field. Until, of course, your opponent inevitably sets you on fire. Trolls and Wargs and Oliphants and Horses- you’ll control all manner of beast here. The one thing that you won’t be able to jump on are the dragons (or eagles), who actually do show up to grab soldiers from the battlefield randomly on certain levels.

Even with all of this great content, I have to admit that I wasn’t really enjoying the game when I first tried it. Some of the later levels were difficult to the point of incredible frustration, and I was having to repeat things over and over to pass it. But it wasn’t until later that I realized it wasn’t the game being cheap, it was me being horrible at it. If I had played through all the levels in order it would have been different, because when I started learning all the moves and tactics the game became incredibly fun and challenging (rather than frustrating). You will really have to learn all the nuances of the game and every class, to find out who’s your strongest class, and which is best for each situation. The depth is pretty remarkable, especially since on the surface four classes sure doesn’t seem to offer a lot of variety.

There were a few problems I had with the game, though. The battles are smaller than Battlefront by necessity… a huge map wouldn’t do well for a game with no vehicles. It’d take forever to get across it. This has the side effect of making them feel less epic than they should, especially since it’s only 16 player matches with no other characters on the battlefield.

The characters also seem to get knocked over fairly easily, which gets irritating. Even worse than that is some one-hit kills that will sometimes blindside you. Don’t forget though that we didn’t see a finished version here, and they’re still tweaking how everything plays. I’ve got faith that everything will be fixed up by release.

This bad boy’s hitting early next year for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC, with a DS version on the way as well.Pandemic’s known for making fun, addictive games, and this is no exception. Lord of the Rings fans will be in heaven here, and I can’t believe that I’m excited about yet another LOTR game. Every time I think I’m out they pull me back in again. I’d like to thank everyone at Pandemic for taking their time to talk with (and play against, and drink with) us, and being such gracious hosts… and the man himself, Jon Long, for setting it all up. Can’t wait to see the finished product!

(Got any more questions about the game? Hit us in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.)