We're a Balrog! A screen-filling demon flaming with rage. And we're in The Shire! Stamping on any hobbit, man or elf that gets in our way. Squish squash. We're playing The Lord of the Rings: Conquest, the Battlefront-alike third-person action game from Pandemic, and it's quite good fun. But then we're currently one of the Hero characters, upgraded because we lead our team on points at the last count. It's not always Balrogs, either, as each map has its own good or evil trophy character. We bumped in to rather a lot of Witch Kings, for instance. Commoners.
This is a multiplayer hands-on, and our starting point is Conquest mode, where the idea is to capture all the circled areas to win outright, or as many as possible to speed an upward-ticking score to 1000. In the same way Battlefield or Battlefront reduced war and fantasy to counter-balanced classes, Conquest summarises the Rings conflict in gamey class-based fashion: Warriors, Mages, Archers and Scouts, all of which you can swap between mid-battle.
Of the quartet, Warriors are the sturdiest, capable of quick, heavy and sweeping violence, and chargeable energy attacks. Left trigger blocks, and right trigger aims and throws an axe, which knocks people over. Otherwise it's standard third-person analogue movement and camera-angling. The Scout, obviously, is the stealthy type, able to cloak himself in magical invisibility. Cloaked Scouts can perform one-hit kills from behind, and this is tricky business, as stealth is only in bursts, and broken easily. Scouts can also throw bombs, but otherwise they're identical to Warriors.
Archers and Mages are different though. Archers can zoom and fire from distance, or opt for melee attacks if they run out of space. Their other face buttons allow them to dip their arrows in poison to slow enemies, or light arrows to set them ablaze. Then there's a triple-shot, registering three hits (usually on us while we're being stealthy).
But Mages are perhaps the most interesting, if a little hard to get to grips with. They've got a fire-wall - a projectile that spills across and burns the ground where it lands - along with a point-blank area-of-effect shockwave that knocks people over, and the right trigger charges a lightning bolt that deals hefty damage but slows the player's movement during charging. They can also heal themselves or others, and the left trigger provides a sustainable bubble that nullifies arrows.
The result of all these distinctions is an attractive, balanced group dynamic, and with eight-versus-eight as the limit, there are a good few tactical possibilities. There's also a moves-list accessible from the menu that displays various button-sequence combos we couldn't use because we panicked like children. But don't go looking for endless depth, because, once mastered, this is your lot; there's no experience points, upgrades or customisation. The Heroes characters we mentioned are bound to respective classes and use the same abilities, albeit flashier versions. Aragorn, for instance, uses the power of that dead army from film three to bolt about the place and generally carve things up.
Heroes aren't the only off-curriculum characters on offer during multiplayer, as Trolls and Ents litter certain playing-fields. Press the right bumper and you become one, stomping on little people until someone gets to you from behind, climbs your back, presses a button at the right time and either kills or greatly harms you. You can ride Wargs and Horses, too, which follow similar rules and, once mounted, offer strong and debilitating attacks. Ballistas also lurk here and there and add a bit more strategic depth to each battleground.
Both of the Conquest maps we saw - The Shire and Minas Tirith - featured Trolls and Ents, but we saw no mounts on the latter. Minas Tirith did slightly alter the playable races to fit the scenario - so Easterlings replace the Orc assassins, and Elven archers take over from stupid hobbits - but there's no change of abilities.