LEIPZIG, Germany--We'll admit it: Before our first look at The Golden Compass, the upcoming Sega action adventure game based on the upcoming New Line Cinema film, we had never read the original source novel from which both are being drawn: Philip Pullman's outstanding The Golden Compass. Soon after seeing the first game, however, we cleared up that problem and, boy, are we glad we did. Still armed with the experience of having read Pullman's excellent fantasy novel, we've got higher expectations than ever for the game that bears its name. Today, Sega was showing off a slightly expanded look at the training mission that starts off the game. The mission features the star of the story, Lyra Belacqua, and her friend, the mercenary panserbjørne (that's fancy talk for huge, armored, talking polar bear) Iorek Byrnison.
The level shown off was actually an expanded version of the one shown at this year's E3, featuring Lyra riding Iorek through an icy, mountainous land looking to rescue a child from a remote location home to the Samoyeds. Though this is the first mission in the game, it actually comes from a point that's roughly in the middle of Pullman's book (and, presumably the film). As game producers explained, once you've finished this mission, and learned many of Iorek's special moves, the game will move back in time to the opening of the novel and film in order to properly introduce Lyra and the rest of the characters.
Still, it's probably a good idea to start off with the rampaging Iorek as he sprints through the icy wasteland, taking on hordes of nasty-looking wolves as he goes. In addition to taking out foes with a variety of attacks, you'll need to jump chasms by pressing the Y button, and take part in brief minigames such as a strength test, which challenges Iorek to push over a huge slab of ice so that he and Lyra can continue along their path. Because the game is aimed at a slightly younger set, the controls are appropriately simplified; even Iorek's most powerful attacks require little more than a two-button combo.
As Iorek and Lyra continue on, they eventually run into a mysterious ship that holds a clue to the whereabouts of Lyra's missing friend. Once close to the ship, it's time for Lyra to take over. Though she doesn't have Iorek's strength, she's certainly not helpless. For starters, she's agile enough to make skillful jumps between ledges, and she possesses a keen sense of balance (which you can test out as she walks nimbly over thin ledges and narrow ship masts).
Lyra's also got Pan on her side. This is her daemon, who, like all daemons in the magical world of The Golden Compass, assumes animal forms. Because Lyra is a child, Pan is able to switch between different forms--two of which, the ermine and the sloth, we saw on display during today's demo. The ermine can help Lyra balance on narrow paths by moving across her body to help her counterbalance; in addition, the ermine's watchful gaze can help the player out with helpful gameworld clues for how to proceed when stuck. In sloth form, Pan can use his long arms to swing Lyra from one ledge to a next, helping her reach otherwise inaccessible areas.
Now what about that alethiometer, another name for the titular Golden Compass of the series' title? In the book, Lyra "reads" the symbols on the compass to help her divine the truth of any situation she encounters. While we still have yet to see it in action in the game, producers told us that the compass will have a place in the game. It will function mainly as a way of encouraging exploration of the gameworld (picking up symbol meanings as you go), as well as unlocking new content, such as making-of documentaries and interviews with the film cast. Unlike the film and novel, it seems that Lyra's mastery of the alethiometer won't be a requirement to saving the world in the game.
Given that we only got to see an expanded version of the training level, we're still wondering how the rest of The Golden Compass is set to turn out. We do know the developers are creating 11 levels in the game, nine of which come from the film, and two of which come directly from the novel. In addition, the game's story will be propelled by cutscenes lifted directly from the film.
So will The Golden Compass be a good game, or another shoddy movie tie-in? Time will certainly tell, but we can say that there are few licensed games that have richer material to draw from. We'll be keeping a close eye on the game in the coming months as we lead up to its release later this year.