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Sierra Unveils The Fellowship of the Ring Console Game
An in-depth look, Ebert & Roeper style
Quickbeam and Ostadan

Greetings, Quickbeam & Ostadan here–

Getting early access to see the new Fellowship of the Ring video game from Sierra On-Line was a treat. Our very own Ostadan (Lore & Letters) and myself made a special trip down to the Electronic Entertainment Expo, aka E3, to peek at the little man behind the curtain. We met a couple of the designers and the producer, who were happy to answer our many fan-centric questions. Here are our collective thoughts....

Quickbeam: This crazy Expo thing is unique to me. I don't own a console game at home but I go to my friend's house regularly to hijack his Playstation. I'm familiar with the adventure game format (Final Fantasy, Legend of Dragoon, etc.) but not oversaturated. You hardcore gamers will forgive my naïveté. We wanted to take a close look at Sierra's Fellowship and share with Tolkien fans all the cool design work and obvious enthusiasm Sierra has for the project. In turn, you fans have the first opportunity to panic and start throwing rocks.... because many of you will not like what you hear (while others will happily want the game right now!). There's the rub–you can't be all things to all people all the time.

Ostadan: This was my third E3 (with much frustration at not having an exhibition pass this year). I think that those of us who primarily use desktop computers (and that probably is a fair number of people who read TORN) may underestimate the console game market. It is huge–billions of dollars–and dwarfs PC/Mac games. And, at least in previous years, a stroll around the exhibition floor shows an incredible lack of imagination in game design. A very large number of games are the same thing over and over–boxing/martial-arts/combat games, first-person "shooters," racing games, and (like Fellowship of the Ring) 3rd-person run-around-and-hit-stuff adventure games. Often, the selling point for the game is nothing more than a familiar name or franchise–even franchises you thought were long since dead (last year there was, of all things, a Dukes of Hazzard driving game being touted by a shapely lady in a Daisy Duke outfit. If you don't know what the heck The Dukes of Hazzard was, please believe that you are better off not knowing). A couple of years ago, some company–I cannot recall if it was Sierra–was demonstrating a Middle-earth work in progress, an "Orcs in the arena"-type combat game that had nothing to do with Tolkien save the name. It never reached the market, which is just as well. So, I suppose that with the film heating up the Tolkien market (and the Sierra people stressed to us they are not related in any way to PJ’s film or film rights, but know that they will benefit from its release), and with the new highly-touted XBox from Microsoft appearing at about the same time, a game like this is well-nigh inevitable.

QB: Sierra On-Line must have known this at the outset when they started designing the game. They knew the high risk of upsetting the books' fans; and it seems to have affected many of their development decisions. It's a game, first and foremost, and NOT an adaptation meant to square with your own private Middle-earth. If you can stomach the fact that many deviations are bound to happen, you'll be fine.

OST: Furthermore, this is a game that follows a particular well-worn formula (the console third-person adventure) for which there are particular expectations from the intended audience, like the ability to "do magic", a fair amount of fighting, etc. What it is not is any sort of "simulation."

QB: We were ushered into a very small conference room on the 3rd Floor above the main Exhibition Hall. Pleasant introductions all around: we met Senior Producer Jeff Pobst (not to be confused with that cheezoid Survivor host), P.R. potentate Adam Kahn, and Tracey Donnelly, an impressive woman who really knew her Tolkien. Two designers were also there, Patrick and Javier, and I understand one of these fellows is co-founder of the development team. Though they must have been tired, they were eager to run the demo for us on their digital widescreen T.V. Small pieces of pre-production artwork and sketches adorned the close walls.

OST: This was really surprisingly good artwork by the way, and I would love to have the big poster with the picture of Gandalf. It is almost a pity that Sierra cannot publish the artwork as a separate portfolio (I can just hear the Tolkien Enterprises lawyer patiently explaining to Sierra that their license is for games....).

QB: Several other journalists and professionals were crowded in as well, all eager to see the action. We watched with a sense of excitement as the demo started. The first impression I had was "This is mighty cool." There was Frodo Baggins, running around in a fully digital 3D Middle-earth, holding Sting in his hand and looking quite tense.

OST: But Frodo wasn't carrying Sting at that point in the story. Uh-oh....

QB: Okay, it just looked like Sting, I could be wrong. This is a 3rd-person game with a point-of-view that moves fluidly as the player walks through a remarkably colorful environment. Frodo is the center of everything here; unfortunately the controlling player cannot choose any other character. Seems the designers are of a mind that the story is about Frodo. Ha! I got into it with Pobst on my long-standing contention that Sam is the true center of the novel (click here to read more). He granted me the point, on literary terms, but told me it's entirely possible that future installments of the game may feature other P.O.V. characters. After all, there are plenty of shifts in The Two Towers as other characters follow different plot threads.

OST: The rendition of the Old Forest was very pretty (though perhaps not forbidding enough, and more wide-open than I imagine it), and of course the XBox handled all the 3-D rendering splendidly. I really liked the graphics in this game. I think using Frodo as a consistent P.O.V. character is sensible for a ‘Fellowship’ game, at any rate. Someone picking up the title is, after all, going to "want to play Frodo". The other Hobbits, we were told, would also be present and visible, but not under the player's direct control.

QB: We were in the Old Forest for most of the demo. Frodo walks along through forest paths, the sun setting brilliantly in the sky, soft leaves falling from the trees around him. The river was properly identified as the Withywindle, giving it a true sense of place (which is good) and when the console is switched to 1st person view, the screen showed the water flowing under our feet as we walked across a log-as-makeshift-bridge. Then the evil spiders came. And the Orc soldiers. And there were also wicked pod mushrooms that blew clouds of spores. Now many of you are screaming. I can hear you in the distance. "There ain't no giant spiders in the Old Forest! Aaaack! What are they doing to Tolkien's masterpiece!?" Well, as we said before, these are extrapolations that depart from the Professor and move us firmly into the world of video game. It so happens there could be wandering Orcs in the Old Forest.... at some point in history the Shire really was invaded by these creatures. But it only serves the purpose of the game here. Combat and fighting are a big part of it.

OST: This is, in a nutshell, the dilemma the designers faced. A console game follows a certain formula of play, and run-and-fight is a big part of that formula (and, in fairness, was the only part that they actually demonstrated, which can skew one's perspective). I am not sure that fitting Lord of the Rings into that procrustean genre is a good idea in the first place. Perhaps The Old Forest, as an episode (why must computer games continue to use this term "level"?), would work better if it were a maze-running type of game? That was what the hobbits pretty much experienced as the Old Forest seemed to shift around them.

QB: The player can use the dagger, and there's also a distance weapon (a sling that will pitch fiery pine cones). If you look at the gauge on the far right, your HEALTH and/or SPIRIT points go down every time you suffer damage. If it were Nazgûl attacking you, the peril would certainly be much greater. We were told there would be greater functionality with this fighting mechanism as Frodo gains experience and better weapons (as in an RPG format). I enjoyed the fact that Sierra remembered hobbits are good with stones. Pegging a nasty spider with a rock and watching it keel over is great fun.

OST: Yes, actually, as such games go, it seemed pretty entertaining.... the fact that Frodo just isn't much good as a fighter, at least in close combat, is appreciated (and gives him good reason for avoiding a fight, which is appropriate). They also mentioned that they were striving to avoid the D&D-esque "Level 3 Paladin" syndrome with quantum improvements in ability.

QB: But there are moments in the action where Frodo is quickly overtaken by Orcs too big to fend off. In a bit of deus-ex-machina, the player calls on Aragorn to come swooping in and save Frodo from certain death. The intent was to keep Aragorn out of the game until the hobbits meet him in Bree.... but the designers thought it needful to give Frodo a "last ditch rescue option" when there is no other way to win. This seems odd and will perhaps be modified later as the game develops.

OST: I got the impression that the presence of Aragorn at this point was for demonstration purposes only; they certainly said that the ability to call upon the other members of the company applied to all the other members.

QB: Of course. Throughout active play, Frodo will have conversations with key characters as he encounters them. Maggot is on his farm, Barliman is found in Bree, Gandalf won't be available until you get to Rivendell. This makes sense to me, but also makes me further question why Aragorn would be available as a "rescue" button. Hmmmm.... Special places will trigger animations and cinematic playback so the player can get clues.

OST: These are usually called "cutscenes". In some games, they are the best part....

QB: Other members of the Fellowship may be off-screen during real time play, but Frodo can call on them to interact with. And the good news: Tom Bombadil is IN! At last we have someone with enough sense to keep him around.

OST: Perhaps one can "call on" one of the other hobbits at this juncture (who then go running around shouting for help, resulting in a rescue by Bombadil. Or something.). We were definitely told that Bombadil is in the game–he is "too good a character to leave out. We like Bombadil" (approximate quote). They didn't have any pictures of him, alas. I would have liked to have seen what their artists came up with. Have I mentioned that I liked the artwork?

QB: There will be the main quest of taking the Ring to its destruction, but there will also be many opportunities for mini-quests and puzzle solving. Sierra wanted to put in as much detail as they could. I asked if they will give the game enough detail so that someone could just leave the Main Quest and wander off to explore. The answer was: you could go reasonably far but, realistically, the Nazgûl are right on your tail, and you would be unwisely pushing your luck to go tripping off to Fornost when there are already "evils encroaching" on the Shire. So there is a definite script to follow, as with all games of this type. I look forward to seeing how much leeway a player will be given to adventure on his/her own (Sea of Rhûn, here I come!).

OST: One very big question mark, indeed, is how much of the game will be a standard console 3rd-person action game, and how much of it will be role-playing-like activities. They did mention that moral decisions, so important in the books, were important to them (shall Frodo steal the mushrooms or not?). How much of this will actually be present in the game is difficult to tell; indeed, I am not sure that they have decided this themselves. Incidentally, they did mention that the game would offer about 35 hours of play from start to finish, so the simple demonstration they gave may be a little bit misleading.

QB: Alas, the strangest pill to swallow was how they implemented magic use. On the page, Tolkien went to great effort to keep magic a rare and mysterious event (he had a concrete philosophy behind this). But from a designer's perspective this proves to be impractical for a fantasy game. Indeed, MAGIC is the greatest common denominator of such a game system. So they gave Frodo the means–in wild contrast to how Tolkien wrote of it. The purists will probably recoil at this but here you go: There is a rune system that allows Frodo to "spend" a rune's power to produce a magical effect for defense/offense. You have to pick the appropriate rune out of your inventory and voila! Your sturdy hobbit is surrounded by a flowing spiral of blue light that protects him.... or heals his waning health points.... or what have you.

OST: This is indeed a big disappointment. Not only because it is so wildly at odds with Tolkien's world, but because it represents such conservative, in-the-box, follow-the-formula thinking.

QB: On the bright side, I learned that the Ring itself can be used! I pressed specifically on this point, because it's thematically important to not play fast and loose with this kind of artifact. And I have to say I was very satisfied with the answer. Use of the Ring will provide you with a quick escape from immediate threats, but when Frodo puts it on the colors around him will change, a strange mist will gather close around his field of vision, his spirit points will drop dramatically, and the Nazgûl will immediately get a lock on his location. They are even considering an iconic Red Eye that may appear in the sky above him if the Ring's use is prolonged. Now that definitely works for my taste.

OST: Yes; they seem to have gotten this right.

QB: The Mines of Moria were next.... and the environment was delicious. I really liked the look of it: vast halls of carved stone, columns standing in the distance, underlit by strange red pits that resembled molten lava fissures on each side. Really good stuff.

OST: They said to us that getting the scenery "right" was easier than getting the characters, and Moria was really a nice piece of work. Have I mentioned that I really liked the artwork?

QB: Anyway, Pobst was explicit about one thing: he and his team have worked very closely with Tolkien Enterprises on all elements of the game. Costuming, colors, music, and especially character design, has all been worked out carefully to meet a larger consensus. Sierra has even hired outside Tolkien professionals to consult on textual accuracies. So you see there is some effort here to keep close to the source.

OST: And professional voice actors too; they may even use Elvish from the book as needed. Frustrating, isn't it? I got a clear impression that these were people who genuinely admired Tolkien's work, understood what it was about (thematically, as well as knowing plot details), and who wanted to somehow convey the sense of playing in Tolkien's world. But they are so bound to the conventions of a third-person console adventure game that they seem to be ending up with a Generic Game with Middle-earth pictures painted on, metaphorically speaking–sometimes tortuously changed to fit the formula. Sierra is going for the mass market here, and not trying to break any new ground. A pity. Perhaps I am being over-critical–it is, after all, ‘Just A Console Game,’ and taking it to task for being consolegamelike may be a little like blaming limericks for always having the same meter and rhyme pattern. But would you want to read Lord of the Rings told entirely in limerick form? [NO! THAT IS NOT A CHALLENGE!]

QB: Don’t tempt the fans like that, Ost. My biggest concern was not about how far they would depart from the books. I have a good comfort level with the way this is headed. BUT I'm really unhappy that Fellowship of the Ring is only being developed for the XBox. If you want to play Fellowship on the Playstation you already own–tough! I know how it will be for me.... I'm gonna be forced to shell out $300 (that I wouldn't otherwise spend) on a new console that I'm not likely to use for other titles. You know how it is; new consoles are terrible when first introduced because there are so few games to go around the first year or so. There is not much promise that Sierra will offer the game on other formats.

OST: If it is a hugely successful title, I expect that Sierra or some other company will port it to other platforms, as so often happens. I do not know what the XBox programming APIs are like, but suspect (given the Microsoft connection and the Intel processor) that porting a game from XBox to Windows is not a terribly expensive proposition.

QB: All things being equal, I was given just enough of a taste to tantalize my expectations, and I liked it very much. The feel of it was not too cartoonish (á la Zelda) and these folks have a pretty clear direction they want to go in. The artwork, environments, and fun visual rendering deserves praise, and that's what matters to me. If you can inject the game with enough of Tolkien's spirit–if you can pull of the difficult task of visually bringing Middle-earth to a tangible level, then my hat's off to you. Anything is better than that fluffy Interplay CD-ROM game I've had since 1993. But honestly, I just bought a brand new DVD player and having to buy an XBox really cuts into my meager entertainment budget. Oh, well.

OST: I was rather less impressed, I think (though I liked the artwork. Did I mention that?). This game does not seem innovative enough to be a huge classic seller, and I do not know whether the Tolkien cachet will bring in a lot of players on its own. But then, I am not an action-game player myself, and Eru knows that there are plenty of teens who buy every title that appears, so perhaps I am no judge. Still, when you compare this game to other XBox items like Bungie's "Halo", one wonders whether Sierra is in for a big disappointment. This Fellowship of the Ring seems so.... y'know.... 1990s!

Much too hasty,

Quickbeam & Ostadan

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