Hobbit, The Download (2003 Arcade action Game)

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J.R.R. Tolkien's first published novel is the subject of this home computer release, which follows the adventures of Bilbo Baggins as he stumbles upon The One Ring. The action takes place from a third-person perspective as players guide Baggins around a 3D-modeled Middle Earth. The Hobbit is Texas-based developer Inevitable Entertainment's second announced game, with the first being Tribes 2 on the PlayStation 2.


As a game, The Hobbit is just as likely to disappoint big-time Tolkien fans as its troubled gameplay is likely to disappoint the average gamer, and it's not exactly clear who it's intended for.

The game's look is the first problem: The graphics are fine, but they have the same garish, cartoon-like style you'll find in a few dozen other generic 3D action games. Bilbo is depicted with the gigantic eyes and the physical proportions of a child. He looks and moves like a four-year-old human, not a 50-year-old hobbit. The trolls look more like Shrek than man-eating monsters, and ... they dance. Even the wolves look more like cubs. It's as if the game were based on an imaginary Saturday morning cartoon -- call it "Tolkien Babies" -- rather than the classic prelude to the Lord of the Rings.

With this in mind, you could hardly be blamed for thinking the game was intended for children, but other than the "E" rating (which doesn't tell you much since even games like Madden NFL carry that rating), there's no indication of that on the box or on Sierra's website. In fact, some elements of the game -- like a shot of Bilbo gulping water as he drowns in a whirlpool -- don't seem like they're suited for young children.

In terms of its action, The Hobbit seems more inspired by games like the Sonic Adventure series than the novel it's named for -- unless I missed the part where Bilbo runs around the Shire collecting coins and colorful jewels that magically jump into his pockets. It's definitely not an adventure game or RPG by any stretch of the imagination.

There are, however, a couple of elements inspired by the novel that keep The Hobbit from being an utterly generic platform game. In the book, the reason Gandalf and the dwarves shanghai Bilbo into their quest is the fact that, respectable hobbit that he is, he has burglar's blood in his veins. In the game, this translates into the occasional locked chest that Bilbo has to pick, and into levels where Bilbo uses stealth to sneak past enemies he couldn't hope to defeat in battle.

The lock-picking sequences work pretty well; you're presented with a series of moving gears and dials, and you simply have to watch them closely and hit the action button at the right time. Chests in later levels are more complex and can be trapped, but the difficulty is carefully balanced so that the task always feels exciting and challenging without being too tough.

The same can't be said for the stealth scenarios, which lead to The Hobbit's most nerve-wracking, hair-tearing moments. The game's 3D camera angles and interface simply aren't conducive to this style of gameplay. It's often very difficult to tell exactly where an enemy is and where he's looking, so getting through these levels involves trial and error. A lot of trial and error. You may find yourself playing the same section several times over just to figure out when and where it's safe to move -- then several more times before you finally get it right.

Awkward control is another problem: When you want to change direction, Bilbo doesn't turn in place; he runs or walks in a little circle. That can make it tough when the challenge is to jump from one small platform or hanging rope to the next, but it's truly maddening in the stealth sections, where stepping a tiny bit off the correct path can mean failure.

This frustration is compounded by the fact that, like so many other quickie console ports to the PC, The Hobbit only lets you save the game at certain specific places. So every time you wander into the eye-line of a bad guy you didn't think was looking your way, or tiptoe within a pixel of a dry leaf, you're going all the way back to the beginning to try again.

The Hobbit is a game that doesn't know what audience it's going for. Its look and feel is too juvenile for adults, and some of its challenges are too difficult and frustrating for kids. Even rabid Tolkien fans won't care for the game, thanks to its translation of the classic novel into a lightweight, cartoonish platformer. It has a few redeeming qualities, but it's a sad waste of great source material.

 

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