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.
Then it was off to Minas Morgul, the home of the Witch King, for a spot of Capture the Ring. This is a capture-the-flag mode with the One Ring, but, as Frodo found out, carrying it makes you a bit slow and effeminate, and the gold band (extra-large backpack-sized) slows down the bearer as they make for base and a point. We went on to do a similar round in Mount Doom, as you do, but one rather oiled, overseas developer knew exactly where to go, the spoilsport, so we lost a lot, although the mini-map and on-screen pointers would have been helpful if we hadn't been so cack-footed.
The other round was the outrageous Hero Team Deathmatch, where you're no ordinary rank-and-file fighter but one of five stars of the jumbled tale. On the evil side there's the Witch King, the Mouth of Sauron, Wormtongue, Saruman and Lurtz (the Uruk-hai who kills Boromir), then for good there's Gandalf, Aragorn, Agent Smith, Éowyn and Will Turner from Pirates of the Caribbean. The first team to 50 points wins, and our encounter outside The Black Gate was almost neck and neck, although good ultimately prevailed. There's regular Team Deathmatch, too, but why you would want that over Heroes is beyond our comprehension.
It's also worth pointing out that the Ring Bearer mode once talked about has disappeared, at least as far as we could see or were told. This would have put Frodo, adorned with Sting blade and invisibility ring, against a pack of Ringwraiths, who fight amongst themselves to return the ring to their master. Frodo could become invisible, but doing so would mark his location on the mini-map. If this was still in the game, anyway.
And 'talked about back at announcement' brings us to our main concern: we first heard about Conquest back in May, just seven months ago, and yet the game is ready for launch next month, and this is the first time anyone's been allowed to play it. Developer Pandemic has a decorated history, what with Battlefront and Mercenaries, so why not shout about Conquest?
Maybe it's because technologically Conquest appears dated. The visuals are messy and drab, and it's actually quite hard to tell the evil side apart, which is rescued only by the protruding gut of the chunky Orc Mage, or the weapons each class carries. And this is all but final code. Perhaps Pandemic has been chopping detail in favour of epic battles, but there's nothing of the sort in multiplayer. The crowds we did see, as background for the single-player tutorial, looked as if they could have been whipped out of a racing game stadium.
We're also curious as to why the single-player game wasn't on show. It's a hefty bulk of the concept, with key battles from the books, and campaigns as first good and then evil. We could have been wowed by Gandalf tackling a Balrog, or the scope of Helm's Deep, Pelennor Fields, or the Evil forces sacking The Shire. And, lest we forget, these are co-operative missions for two people, so we could have tag-teamed our way through the likes of Mines of Moria.
It's hard not to conclude that Pandemic has re-clothed Battlefront II in Tolkein's wardrobe because EA wants to do something with the Lord of the Rings licence, and sadly none of the developers were around to answer our questions about that, which slightly frustrating, because Conquest may be silly, but licensed games sometimes hit their peak when the IP goes native. Instead, we'll have to wait until mid-January to find out whether Conquest manages this trick, or whether it belongs in the graveyard slot to which EA's schedulers seem to have quietly and perhaps tellingly confined it.
The Lord of the Rings: Conquest is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 16th January.