The Fellowship of the Ring Preview
Universal fills us in on its upcoming Xbox game based on Tolkien's work.
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It would be hard to argue that there was a more definitive body of fantasy than J.R.R. Tolkien's most notable work, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King have been read and reread by countless millions of fans over the years, yet only until the recent motion pictures have the stories contained within these books been at the forefront of mainstream media. While Electronic Arts will be developing games based on the motion picture license, Vivendi Universal will be publishing a handful of games based on the literary license obtained from Tolkien Enterprises. Set in the fantasy realm of Middle-earth, these tales describe a world inhabited by diminutive hobbit heroes, mysterious wizards, and malevolent forces of evil--all vying for control over The One Ring. In fact, the entire development process behind Universal's Lord of The Rings games has tried to adhere to Tolkien lore. Thus, The Fellowship of The Ring game will include characters and situations that weren't touched on in the film, such as Tom Bombadil and the fight with Old Man Willow.
The Xbox version of The Fellowship of the Ring, developed by Seattle-based WXP, is an action adventure game, wherein you will proceed through all of the major events of the first book in the trilogy. The focus in this particular game is on the adventure half of the action-adventure combination, with large explorable areas and a huge array of different quests and missions to undertake during this first adventure. While there will be plenty of opportunities for conflict, the emphasis isn't on combat in this first game--The Fellowship of the Ring can be described as a travelogue of sorts, in which the characters from the series are whisked across different environments and thrown into various situations. You can expect the game to begin faithfully with the escape from the dark riders in the Shire, leading to the formation of the Fellowship in Rivendell, the trek through the mines of Moria, and beyond.
Not only have the landscapes and battles of Tolkien's epic been kept intact, but the game's dialogue and characters have also been re-created in such a way as to adhere to the original works quite closely. Voice actors will be relaying the nearly 5000 lines of dialogue (in five different languages), immersing you in the storyline through frequent in-game cutscene conversations. During these sequences, which often take place at a campsite or other resting point, you can choose to proceed with the active portion of your journey, or you can take the time to become familiar with each of the characters through conversation.
When characters aren't chatting about their impending doom, they will be quite busy dealing with the physical threats that will be encountered throughout the game. All of the notable mythical creatures from the trilogy are well represented, from the orcs and wargs to the ringwraiths themselves--the nine human kings who were corrupted by the nine rings of power. To defend yourself, you will be able to lock onto enemies as you move about in the third-person perspective, from which you can launch attacks. You can also shift to a first-person perspective for ranged attacks, which allows for greater accuracy. While locked on to an enemy, characters can sidestep and strafe, remaining quite mobile while still keeping the enemy onscreen. A target indicator underneath the current character's health bar tells you whether or not the enemy is at full health or near death. Finishing off an enemy will likely be as simple as pulling off a chain combination, although special attacks vary from character to character.
When not engaged in battles, you will be able to take in the sights of Middle-earth firsthand. There will be eight major areas and regions to explore in Fellowship, with the levels laid out in the same sequence as the chapters in the novels. The preview version of the game we saw had all of the major areas intact, including the Shire, the Old Forest, the Barrow Downs, Bree, and Weathertop. Some of the areas will have a small number of sublevels, while other environments will be much more involved. Moria alone, for example, with its entrance, labyrinth, and Balin's tomb, accounts for approximately 40 percent of the entire game.
Each of the environments has its own distinct visual style and is easily distinguished from the rest. The Shire was a colorful-looking area, marked by rolling hills, orchards of fruit-bearing trees, and all the trappings of a peaceful rustic community. There was plenty to explore, with trees to climb, wild dogs to avoid, and fireworks to set off. The Mines of Moria were created with particular attention to detail--since Tolkien made a point of mentioning that the characters counted 200 steps at the entrance, the developers saw fit to actually model all 200 of them. Each of the areas was made visually enticing, thanks to plenty of realistic real-time shadows and multiple-source lighting effects.
The Fellowship of the Ring will let you step into the boots of three of the main characters: Aragorn, ranger and protector; Gandalf, thoughtful wizard; and Frodo, the ring bearer. Each of the three characters is defined by different abilities and their corresponding type of gameplay. While each character makes use of the same basic system, with a default attack and two slots for usable items, their contrasting styles make for considerably different experiences.
Aragorn, introduced at first as Strider, is the noble future king who takes up a leadership position within the Fellowship, as well as a predominantly combat-oriented role during the game. Aragorn makes use of his bow for missile attacks. At first he fires standard arrows, but later in the game he will be able to acquire flame arrows and other useful types of ammunition. His sword, Anduril, is the most effective melee weapon in the game and is exceedingly useful from another perspective--it shines with an inner light when enemies are near. Aragorn will be the hardiest and most mobile of the three main characters and will take the lead during the most combat-oriented sequences.
Gandalf the Grey, benign wizard and advisor to the ring bearer, focuses on the magical side of the game and is capable of a wide array of magical effects. Gandalf's staff can be slammed into the ground for an area-effect concussive attack, which has the added ability of knocking open crates and barrels. For less-resistant enemies, Gandalf can cast a sleeping spell, which results in immobilized victims. He can also cast self-healing magic, trading off magical energy for health. He also has the requisite fireball attack, when direct damage is called for. Gandalf's confusion spell causes enemies to act in a befuddled manner, even attacking themselves. Rounding out his magical attacks are a chain-lightning spell, which creates a bolt that bounces from enemy to enemy, and a powerful ray-of-light attack. Gandalf isn't limited to magical attacks, however, as he still has use of the enchanted blade Glamdring.
Frodo is the true central character in The Lord of The Rings and as such plays a significant role in The Fellowship of the Ring. While Aragorn and Gandalf embody strength and magic, Frodo is left with his own area of expertise: stealth. When Frodo walks, he moves stealthily, in such a way as to not make noise, and he can often remain unnoticed. Enemies in the game observe their surroundings in two ways, with a line-of-sight arc and with a circular listening range. If Frodo can keep out of each enemy's line of sight, then his silent footsteps will allow him to either slip by enemies unnoticed or come from behind and launch a quick hand-to-hand attack with his sword. Frodo, like other hobbits, has an excellent sense of aim and can hurl rocks and other small objects, such as fruit, with ease.
While he may be able to sneak, climb, and throw with great skill, Frodo's greatest ability in the game is the use of The One Ring. The ring of power that the dreaded Sauron seeks is capable of assisting Frodo in two specific ways. First, the ring affects Frodo's instincts, giving him a sense of which areas need to be explored. This is reflected onscreen by the ring's rotation, which speeds up when secret areas are nearby. This subtle hint, if paid attention to, will lead you to hidden side areas where valuable items can be retrieved.
The One Ring's true power, however, is revealed when it is worn. When the ring is placed on his finger, Frodo can become invisible, during which time the screen becomes shrouded in flames and everything becomes noticeably bleak. While invisible, Frodo can stroll past enemies and avoid certain death. This ability doesn't come without a price, however, as Frodo can become corrupted by the ring, and its use alerts the ringwraiths to his position. When Frodo wears the ring, a purity meter replaces his health bar and slowly begins to decline. Once all of Frodo's purity is gone, the ringwraiths converge on his position, spelling "game over" for you. Purity can be regained throughout the adventure, however, through the acquisition of restorative items, as well as after the accomplishment of quests.
What may attract many fans of the Tolkien books to The Fellowship of the Ring is how it translates elements of the storyline into unique gameplay experiences. For example, Gandalf's encounter with the Balrog on the bridge in Moria is particularly exciting, with multiple attacks to avoid and a satisfying full-motion video conclusion. Other, smaller sequences thrown into the mix serve to break the monotony of the adventure, such as when Aragorn needs to chase after a fleeing Gollum. The Fellowship of the Ring also does away with the conventions of RPGs, such as levels, experience, and skill acquisition. Instead, the characters in Fellowship will become more powerful after acquiring items, such as when Frodo inherits his uncle's mithril shirt and elvish sword. You are encouraged to explore each environment thoroughly, as many useful items are tucked away.
Other sequences from the book have been translated to the game for the sake of keeping in line with the original flow of the story. Of particular note is when Frodo, Merry, and Pippin encounter Tom Bombadil and Goldberry between the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs. Here, you can watch both of these characters break into song and dance, with song lyrics brought over directly from the novels. Music will play a large role in your experience with The Fellowship of the Ring--the distinctive fantasy ambiance of the game owes a lot to the accompanying music, which has been provided by two separate composers.
While games based on The Fellowship of the Ring are in development for other consoles or by other publishers, Universal Interactive's Xbox version of the game more than holds its own from a visual standpoint. Each of the characters has been painstakingly modeled to accurately represent what was envisioned during the trilogy's writing. The hobbits appear well proportioned and not so much like short humans, while the orcs look quite noticeably like Tolkien's orcs and not like those that have been popularized over the years by Dungeons & Dragons. The magical aspect of Middle-earth also appears to have been re-created faithfully--besides Gandalf's personal abilities, the magic of the elves is also represented, such as the summoned frothing water horses at the ford at the River Bruinen. The landscapes and environments in the game are lush or downright spooky, and the game gave us a feeling of thorough exploration in this familiar fantasy world.
The version of The Fellowship of the Ring we played was near final and gave us a good indication of what we can look forward to when the game reaches the end of its development. You may be amused when noting the differences between the developers' vision of Tolkien's stories and Peter Jackson's film version. It's easy enough to see that Universal has taken great steps to ensure that its version of Tolkien's epic is incredibly accurate and will likely fill a role that has long been missing--that of an enthralling 3D re-creation of Middle-earth and its greatest adventure. It doesn't hurt that, literary license aside, it's also shaping up to be an entertaining game. Best of all, Xbox owners can look forward to a completely original take on The Fellowship of the Ring, as WXP is working on this game independently of the PlayStation 2 and Game Boy Advance versions.
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