Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

The Hobbit Review

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hobbit_boxConsole: Xbox
Released: October 24, 2003
Developer: Inevitable Entertainment
Publisher: Vivendi Universal
Instruction Manual: Not Necessary
Difficulty: Easy
Played it as a child? Yes
Value: $4-$10 (used), $10.49 (new) (pricecharting.com
Other Releases: Yes – PS2, Gamecube, and PC and a modified version for the Gameboy Advance
Digital Release? No

No, sorry, this is not the ZX Spectrum game from 1983, but rather the more widespread console release from twenty years later, although I’ve never played the original so perhaps it’s garbage and this is the better choice.  Back when the Lord of the Rings film trilogy was nearing its end, a slew of video games hoping to cash in on the wild success of Peter Jackson’s movies released.  After sapping all of the film properties, the books themselves became source material for spin-offs and one of the first was based on Tolkien’s prequel book The Hobbit.  As a mild fan of the series I always felt that The Hobbit was the better book and overall story, which explains the tale of how Bilbo Baggins became the first hobbit to embark on an adventure with 12 dwarves and wizard Gandolf the Grey.  Not only that, but it introduces the ring, odd creature Gollum, and probably one of the only dragons in that universe, the unrivaled greedy dragon Smaug.  Despite the semi-decent cartoon version of the book that I had seen in my youth, I was immediately drawn to the playful cartoon re-imagining of Tolkien’s book and despite some major snags in the gameplay department, I was pleasantly surprised.

hobbit_bilboshire

The Hobbit was touted by Sierra as one of its newest “entertainment experiences” but it was really media company Vivendi publishing it for a developer Inevitable Entertainment (which would the following year be purchased by Midway and become Midway Austin for the Area 51 re-hashes).  As a newer developer – Inevitable’s only other title was Tribes: Aerial Assault, which garnered quite positive reviews – and one that had only done a first-person shooter, The Hobbit was an odd choice as a 3D platforming adventure game.  As a result the strengths and weaknesses learned from developing a title like Aerial Assault come through, like the platforming (a large part of the mobility focus of Aerial Assault), but hand-to-hand combat was weak to say the least.  You can also tell this was a game that was planned first by the license and then adapted into gameplay form based on the developer’s ability to craft levels out of the story.  In this regard, and I stress this as one who has read the book countless times, the decisions were quite odd.  There are several levels where you’re jumping around caves and forests fending off creatures and insects while major plot points like an attack on the dwarven camp or a harrowing escape from Gollum get bypassed in cutscene.  There is also an annoying save system that requires you to check into certain spots within a level and every death results in going back to your last save.  Finally the overall campaign is stripped down in most levels to nothing more than a fetch quest or a killbox for a brunt of the adventure.  Couple that with the fact that it’s clearly a licensed product cashing in on the success of another, there’s no reason this game is supposed to be good but to my surprise I like it.

hobbit_smaugMany of the areas in The Hobbit are set pieces we don’t see in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the overall adventure spans fewer years and area, so it was a first glimpse at many of them.  The focus on areas like the watertown or dwarven caves that are thriving (as opposed to the abandoned ones in Lord of the Rings) was also a welcome addition.  I also like that the game is catered to a completely general audience, so there’s absolutely no fear of letting a child play or watching you play resulting in a devastating conversation or learning something inappropriate (unless you count the swearing that would undoubtably come out of my mouth when I die).  It just has a bright atmosphere and charm that allows me to forget the game design is weak, which is a pass few other games (American McGee’s Alice also comes to mind) can get out of me.  It’s a bit nipicky, but I also like that Gollum is the dark, drab cave-dweller that I always remembered him as in the books and cartoons as opposed to the pathetic faux-hobbit he was transformed to in the movies.  I have ready the books many times and I don’t remember Gollum, even when he converted to Smegal, having such a drastic appearance change between the stories.  My favorite level, the cinematic sneak to and battle with Smaug, is one of the best looking set pieces I’ve seen in a game to date (not necessarily from a tech perspective, but from an art design one).

The Hobbit was not well received back when it released.  Although some would argue that a 5-6/10 is an “average” score, most venues of the time considered a 7 or higher to be as such, and from a critical level on simply the elements of the game and not the combination of all these parts I can see where they were coming from.  It was a dark time for the 3D platformer – all games that weren’t Mario were getting sneered before the package was even opened and even Mario Sunshine couldn’t get through unscathed – so it doesn’t shock me that this licensed knock-off so-so platformer was bashed by review staff.  I’m not suggesting that reviewers had pre-conceived notions and I understand how easy it is to look back and attack words from the past, but I remember even back then thinking that reviews and previews were a bit harsh on the title (there was plenty of Internet video game coverage by this time).  Still, I think it holds up as a lighthearted collect-a-thon from the days of modern 3D platforming and I argue that the graphics competed with most games of the era.  Just to make sure I haven’t been too blinded by memory, I replayed the game in its entirety (as I do with all the games covered here) and even captured it with commentary.  I have included those videos below just in case you’re interested and I do warn that since they are “in the moment” gameplay commentary there’s a bit of swearing, but I keep the bad language somewhat to a minimum.  It may not have been what most gamers wanted, but I feel The Hobbit was a great preparation for this week’s release of the film in theaters.

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