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Guilty Pleasures: The Hobbit

On 12/22/2011 at 06:20 PM by Michael117

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2003 was a pretty good year for gaming. It saw the releases of games like Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire, Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, GTA Vice City, Silent Hill 3, Beyond Good & Evil, and Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic. There were however a couple odd smaller titles that became permanant parts of my collection. Games that you might look at, or play for yourself, and wonder why I enjoyed playing them then, and still enjoy playing them now. Over the next couple blog entries I'd like to give some love to two games while attempting to explain why they were memorable. The first of these is Sierra's stealth-action-adventure-platformer The Hobbit.

The Hobbit came out at a time when I was reading J.R.R. Tolkien's LOTR prequel novel The Hobbit for the first time. So before the game came out I was already enjoying the story, characters, and was familiar with the material. The video game was an interactive extension and interpretation of the experience I was already getting reading the novel. Also, around the time the game released, the LOTR film franchise was in its hayday and about to see the release of The Return of the King and I myself was happy to find any excuse to escape into Middle Earth and endulge my fanboyisms. I'm sure that a big reason why I overlooked the game's flaws was due to this fanboyism, and one of the reasons I enjoy the game to this day is because of nostalgia. However, nostalgia alone doesn't make a mediocre game playable, there have to be some tangible design elements that fit into the equation. For me those elements were the soundtrack, mechanics, and level design.

The soundtrack made me smile from the moments the game booted. I was already enjoying the orchestral melody at the title screen before I even used a single controller input. It only got better when the first level began. As the player you control Bilbo Baggins, the uncle of Frodo Baggins, during his younger days as he embarks on a journey with Gandalf and 13 Dwarves. In the first level you start out momentarily inside Bilbo's house but quickly get the chance to go out and explore the Shire. The second you go through the front door of Bilbo's house and get the first glimpse of the Shire, a little song starts up and continues to loop. If you'd like to take a quick listen, you most certainly should. If it doesn't give you reason to live, go choke on a bag of dicks.

I would avoid advancing the plot just so I could wander around the Shire and hear this song a few more times


A example of the art direction used in the Shire. I love the Weeping Willow trees


It might not be as timeless as Wind Waker's visuals, but I still find The Hobbit's visuals quite attractive

The game's exploration and combat mechanics are slow paced and I might be giving the game more credit than it's worth, but the slower mechanics more often than not seem to strike a workable balance with the level design. The player moves very slow as Bilbo's hairy feet patter around, but the levels, puzzles, and enemy encounters are built so that the player isn't slowly pattering around for very long. The levels aren't designed with open world exploration in mind. The way the levels play out, there's always something to do right in front of you, and there's not much wasted space in any of the environments. You will be attacking an enemy, solving a puzzle, platforming, completing a quest, side quest, finding loot, potions, or upgrades.

You have various platforming and exploration skills including running, jumping, climbing ladders, hanging onto various types of vines, jumping between vines with solid timing like a diminutive Tarzan, and using your walking stick (doubles as a combat staff) to propel you further during a jump (like a pole-vault). The combat mechanics are limited at the beginning of the game as you only have the ability to throw rocks at targets using a zoomed in 3rd person view and aiming reticle, as well as hit targets with your walking stick in melee combat. You can jump and attack to perform a powerful arcing swing, but it will deplete a corresponding gauge at the bottom of the HUD, luckily the gauge only takes a moment to fill back up. As the game progresses you come across Chain-Attack scrolls that will allow you to incrementally add attack animations, which eventually will allow you to chain together up to three melee attacks. You will also be able to aquire Bilbo's Elven sword Sting that is far more powerful than the walking stick, and also glows when enemies are near.


It's no Master Sword, but it'll do


Expressive and satisfying combat animations are essential to any game because there are only so many inputs on a controller and only so many attacks you can implement before your design becomes unusable. In games you require players to use a limited number of attacks thousands of times during the game. If you have great animation the player won't see this prolific repitition as a hinderance but rather as fun. The Hobbit doesn't give Zelda a run for its money, but The Hobbit is still fun


Platforming across the lillies will get you to a cliff that must be platformed as well


Most environments in the game are designed with transport. In this mine level the mechanism of choice is a mine cart system in which you fly along the track and can lean to one side or the other to lead Bilbo onto different sets of tracks accessing different areas of the level


The game is fairly difficult in some sections but overall it's pretty easy fun. Studying this game is like studying Platforming Design 101

Another mechanic I love from the game is the stealth elements. During the story you will come across the One Ring that was made by Sauron and, at the time of The Hobbit, rests with Gollum in his cave. When you aquire the One Ring it will allow you to press a button, put the ring on, and instantly activate the temporary stealth mode in which Bilbo will turn invisible to enemies and be able to sneak around for several moments until the stealth gauge runs out. You can sneak up on enemies and attack them, sneak past them, or use the invisibility to get you out of a dangerous encounter. Luckily just like the melee-jump-attack gauge I mentioned earlier, the stealth gauge also refills quickly which is great because you will use stealth a lot in levels. I love stealth with a passion and will even attempt to use it in games without the mechanics built in, but I don't love stealth for the sake of stealth. In The Hobbit, the stealth mechanics are simple, consistent, and used well. They will challenge you slightly but never fatigue your brain and make you want to quit after a couple of encounter spaces.

During the 10th chapter of the game you have the quest of infiltrating a dragons den, finding lots of loot and side quest items, while having the main mission of snatching the dragon's golden cup from right underneath him as he lies on his giant piles of gold. The levels that come before and after are great, but the dragon's den is one of my favorite levels in the game because you use every mechanic and explore the expansive den horizontally and vertically, all while trying not to wake the dragon by making too much noise. If you think the idea of wandering quietly around a giant encounter space with a fire breathing dragon present sounds boring, don't worry because eventually the dragon wakes and the second half of the level is spent trying not to get burned to a crisp.


How can you go wrong with fire breathing dragons?

I sometimes play my games as a stress reliever every bit as much as I play them for escapism. Escapism sometimes equals stress relief for me you might say. I'm a big child, and in its soundtrack, art direction, voice acting, and narrative, The Hobbit provides some light hearted child friendly escapism while mechanically providing an interactive experience that requires me to use my brain but not stress it. It's never been a game that I could easily show to my friends and explain why it's "good". One time my best friend came into my room and asked what I was playing. When I showed him a couple moments of The Hobbit, he laughed at me and told me to put in Halo lol. And so we did.

When it comes to this old chestnut of a game, nostalgia can only account for so much of my love. In its design, this is actually a pretty solid, consistent, fun game. I still enjoy the soundtrack, mechanics, and level designs. It's not an amazing game by any means and it doesn't need to have a place in anybodies "best of all time" lists, but this game does have a place in my collection as well as in my heart. And that's good enough for me.


P.S. remember back when I told you all to choke on a bag of dicks and you all giggled childishly and said "No, I don't want to" and I said "Haha"? That was funny wasn't it, but I wasn't sincere. In fact, choking on bags of dicks is hazardous to your respiratory function. Please avoid bags of dicks at all costs. Merry Christmas my friends :)



Travis Hawks Senior Editor

12/23/2011 at 08:58 AM

I never gave this game a chance. It always looked like The Hobbit : Wind Waker :: Willow : Legend of Zelda. (Like my SAT call-back?) Think I got an XBOX around this time so wasn't so desperate to get games for my Gamecube any more and skipped it. Seems like a decent enough game - no shame in liking that.


12/23/2011 at 03:15 PM

I love your SAT call-back Travis lol. I can understand why most people never gave it a chance. There were so many games out at the time that were greater in every sense. It's not ambicious, but although it reaches low, it manages to execute those low standards very well. It's a bit of a conundrum, it's like creating a painting that isn't very nice to look at, yet using great technique to do it. I always say that the most important part of a game's development cycle is right at the beginning before you're even in front of the computer, during the "reach for the stars" conceptual stages of the game. This game is playable, enjoyable in some ways, but it wreaks of not dreaming big.

Julian Titus Senior Editor

12/23/2011 at 09:14 PM

I remember when this game came out. I didn't play it more than a cursory try-out for product knowledge, but I happily suggested it to people looking for adventure games beyond Zelda.

It's certainly better than The Fellowship of the Ring game.

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