As one of the most recognizable fantasy-based literary works ever created, the J.R.R. Tolkien books have never really needed a boost in popularity. But the property received a stiff shot in the arm last year when the first feature-length motion picture based upon the books was released to glowing reviews and packed theaters. Electronic Arts quickly scooped up the rights to games based upon the movies, while Universal scored the ability to produce games based upon the books. While Universal produces the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of The Fellowship of the Ring, the publisher has enlisted Sierra to take care of the GameCube interpretation of The Hobbit.
Anytime you're dealing with a property that is as old as The Hobbit, you can bet there will be stringent guidelines that must be followed. Such is the case with Sierra's The Hobbit. The game will follow the story arc of the book with laserlike precision, and you will play as the portly Bilbo Baggins as he adventures through Middle-earth in search of the menacing dragon named Smaug. But video games are generally lengthy affairs, and Sierra isn't convinced that the book by itself is enough to support an entire video game. Therefore, some liberties will be taken with the game's story so that the game remains entertaining throughout. However, any move Sierra makes has to pass through Tolkien scholars who have complete veto power over any ideas, so Tolkien enthusiasts can rest easy. Any additions to the story come in the form of side quests that do not detract from the game's main storyline. But the real test for Sierra is creating a game that stays true to the book while remaining fun to play. The company has taken a step in the right direction by taking inspiration from one of the industry's most eternal properties.
When talking with Ken Embery, a senior producer at Sierra, it becomes obvious that the development team has taken many cues from Nintendo's Zelda series when developing The Hobbit. He admits that the team believes that the GameCube's audience skews a bit younger, and he is making sure that the game will appeal to that age bracket. Much like Zelda, the game will feature third-person platforming action with a slight twist of RPG elements. The game will also include much more combat than the book to keep the action levels at a premium.
When in combat, Bilbo will have a variety of items and weapons to use. The game will employ a lock-on system similar to that of the Zelda franchise that will make selecting particular enemies a breeze. He can use a walking stick as a melee weapon or to pole-vault over high walls, and while attacking one enemy with the stick it's possible to take out other foes standing at Bilbo's sides with wider sweeping motions. Throwing stones is another large part of his arsenal, and you'll be able to collect stones with varying properties such as fire or ice. Bilbo will eventually stumble across The One Ring, which will give him invisibility properties, and Sting, his trusty sword, will also be at his disposal.
But there's more to The Hobbit than simply hacking and slashing through hordes of enemies. The game will also include some light platforming elements that stay true to the book's heritage, so don't expect floating platforms or circus-colored trampolines. Instead, expect organic settings where the scenarios are much more realistic. One section will ask Bilbo to jump across stone platforms while visible puffs of wind attempt to blow him off of them. All the adventure-game basics such as running, jumping, hanging onto ledges, and climbing ropes will be included in The Hobbit as well. The game's puzzles will revolve around finding items, adding them to Bilbo's inventory, and then trying to figure out just where they might be used. In other cases, the puzzles have been described to resemble those from the Zelda franchise where the object is simply to figure out how to get from one area to another in one piece.
Regardless of which weapon or ability Bilbo uses, it must stay within the confines of what is possible for a hobbit. Therefore he will not have the ability to cast magic, though he will be able to use magical items. Another interesting twist to the gameplay is the inclusion of stealth elements. Bilbo will have to tiptoe around some areas of the game for fear of alerting enemies. One particular scenario finds Bilbo sneaking around the elvin guards attempting to rescue those they have imprisoned. If he steps on twigs or knocks over piles of rocks, the guards will come running. Sierra has yet to decide on whether you will be able to take control of other characters throughout the adventure, but it hasn't ruled out the ability to play as Gandalf toward the end of the game.
Off the Beaten Path
As previously mentioned, the game will include a variety of side quests for Bilbo to tackle if you wish to stray from the main plot. To facilitate this, the worlds will be full of nonplayer characters, and each will have something to say. In addition, the game's developer has worked on several minigames depicting particularly memorable scenes from the book such as barrel riding, the flaming pinecone adventure, and eagle flying. However, it's still not confirmed as to whether these minigames will make the final cut, due to time constraints. The RPG elements will be fairly light. While Bilbo will not grow in size throughout the game, Sierra hopes that you will be able to experience his maturation from a young hobbit to an adult as the adventure wears on.
The Hobbit will include 12 to 14 levels of gameplay, with each level roughly representing a chapter from the book. It will include a variety of boss fights with recognizable nemeses such as spiders, trolls, and the wood elves. As another addition to the story, Bilbo will be followed by a small goblin that will terrorize him throughout his adventure until the battle of the five armies where the hobbit will get his chance at revenge.
While very little of the game has been shown thus far, Sierra is confident that the final product will be worthy of the GameCube hardware from a visual perspective. The company showed The Hobbit to Nintendo in May, and the video game giant reportedly told Sierra that it was doing a good job of pushing the hardware. Since that time, Sierra has managed to improve the game's look even further. Because Sierra believes the GameCube audience to be a bit younger than that of the other two consoles, the graphical style will reflect that perception. Instead of the rich, full-bodied, and meticulously ornate graphics found in many PC games, The Hobbit for the GameCube will have a more cartoonish look with slightly exaggerated character models.
Speaking of which, the game's developers have taken some liberties with the property by creating some of its own enemies for the game. This was done to keep the action from becoming stale due to repetitive enemies. Of course, Tolkien scholars must approve all character models, so you can expect them to fall directly in line with what you'd expect from any game bearing the name. Because The Hobbit is such a story-driven game, there will be plenty of cinematics to keep the plot moving. Prerendered FMV will play between levels to fill in any plot holes that may have been uncovered during gameplay, while real-time cinemas complete with facial animation and streaming dialogue will be utilized to move the more simple aspects of the plot forward.
Like most games in this era, The Hobbit will contain a variety of visual trickery. Bilbo will become translucent when using The One Ring, and when he's visible, shadows will chase him around the environments. The animations for both Bilbo and the enemies in the game have been motion captured, and particular enemies will materialize from walls or will come up through the floor.
The sound is apparently the final piece of the puzzle, and the game's developers are still in the initial stages of deciding upon voice talent and music for the game. However, sound will play an important role in the game, particularly in the stealth-oriented stages where Bilbo must remain as quiet as possible to avoid detection. The music for the game has been subcontracted to a firm in Austin, Texas, while voice acting has yet to be recorded.
Already 18 months into development, The Hobbit has presented an interesting challenge to its creators. It's a balancing act to make sure the game stays true to the book's roots while still being exciting to play from beginning to end. But after speaking with Sierra regarding the project, it's obvious that it recognizes the challenge at hand and is willing to take it on. Sierra still has a great deal of work to do before The Hobbit's Q3 2003 release date approaches. But by all initial indications, Sierra has already laid the groundwork for a compelling adventure RPG that will please both fans of the book and of video games in general. We'll have much more on The Hobbit as its development cycle continues.