Sierra, Lord of the Rings, and the License - A Report from E3


Intro
Before I get started, I'd like to thank the guys at Vivendi Universal Interactive, Sierra, and The Whole Experience for allowing me to get a sneak peak of their up and coming game based on the The Fellowship of the Ring. It was a pleasure to meet with them and talk about their plans for this game and the franchise.

I start this review with a bit a fear and trembling. There is no way to avoid the fact that some of you will be very bitter about these games. That is unavoidable. But for those of you who might get upset please keep an open mind. Also, please be aware that I am being very up front and honest in my review of what I saw. No one is trying to pull the wool over your eyes or trick you with marketing mumbo jumbo.

The last thing that I would have you remember is that the version of the game that I saw might not even be called an alpha Version. Only two of the 8 levels were playable, and these levels were no where near complete. Also keep in mind that a lot can and does change in the development of a game and we are a long way away from release. All the guys at E3 would say is that they are shooting for a 2002 release date, but nothing is set in stone. They didn't even want to give me that date.

The Demo
After getting in touch with my contact at E3 I was ushered past groups of people to a small conference room. The door was opened and there was no room inside. It seemed as if 10 people, a table, a box of posters, an XBox development system, and a rather large HDTV had been packed in a rather small room. I somehow managed to squeeze my body into the rear of the room and turned my attention to the screen.

A rather small humanoid was on the screen in front of me he had a sword drawn and a cape flowed behind him. A squirrel scurried across his path and the leaves were falling from the trees. (A nice touch as this was the Old Forest and it was approaching fall when the Hobbits walked through it in the book, If I remember it right.)

The forest was a lush green with bushes and trees of all sort, large Stones blocked the passage at certain points. The animation was good and the feel felt right. Soon off in the distance I noticed two creatures approaching. The person demonstrating the game said that in order to bring magic to Frodo, they had to implement a rune system of magic which would activate on Frodo's sword. Frodo activated his fire rune and Sting started to leave a fire trail when he swung it.

As Frodo approached the two creatures, it became apparent that they were badgers. Frodo quickly dispatched the giant badgers, but not before having his rune magic ran out.

Up ahead was a rather large log which ran across a stream. Frodo crossed over to the other side where the path was littered with spore puffing mushrooms. Frodo quickly timed his approach and whacked off each of the mushrooms heads.

After a bit of walking Frodo encountered a couple of spiders and he pulled out his sling, armed himself with fire ammunition and proceeded to lob glowing balls of fire at the spiders.

Next came a couple of Orcs and at this point Frodo decided to call out for Aragorn's help. Strider quickly dispatched the Orcs and that was the end of the Old Forest section of the demo.

Next they loaded up Moria, which was no way near complete but the rooms were rather large and ornate. The XBox's graphics were put to good use here as well. The cracks glowed with fire and the bridges hung precariously over the large pits.

Frodo quickly ran into a group of Orcs and one again called upon Aragorn to dispatch the Orcs. At this point it was question and answer time for those who were in the room.

Was it going to be released on other systems: Microsoft was trying to get it as an exclusive XBox Game, but they didn't think it would end up that way.

Some nice nods and the group got up and left. I grabbed a chair and a new guy entered the room. I could tell from all the badges people were wearing that the rest of the people present were employees of different companies which had work to do on the game. I was asked who I was, "I'm Ted from Tolkien Online." "Ahhh!" "Oh!" "I have your site bookmarked" "We are the Largest Tolkien Site on the Internet." I get some smiles and they hand me a stack of business cards. They restart the demo.

It turns out that the only part of the demo I missed was a small part at the beginning where Frodo wades through a stream and a bit of Celtic music.

I watch the whole thing again, this time the games locks up about 50% of the way through (it's not even alpha code). We watch it again and the person demoing the game does things a bit different, but all in all the effect remains is the same.

At the end they tell me that the only thing working with the game right now is combat and movement. But the end product will have puzzles and quests to solve.

How many Levels: Eight, with a couple of stages for each level. Hobbiton, The Old Forest, Bree, Weathertop, Rivendell, Moria, Lothlorien, and the River Anduin. (I think I remeber them correctly)

What is the release date: There is none really, but we are shooting for 2002.

Will you be doing a "Two Towers" and "Return of the King", if this one is successful: Nervous Laughter, Yeah.

Are you guys also doing The Hobbit: No that is another development team.

Is this game based upon the movies or upon the books: The books, you will not see Elijah Wood's face on this game; Sorry Girls.

The production artwork which was stuck up around the room is amazing, and different than the look and feel of the movie. Just for all you out there, I don't recall if Legolas had pointed ears, but the Balrog has wings, and he is rather large. It will be amazing to see him in the game. Gollum looks pathetic. Gandalf looks like, well see the picture above. The Nazgul, ditto.

At this point they ask me if I have seen the video on the E3 floor. I had seen it. I will not spoil that for you, they said that there is a good chance they will be releasing it on the Internet in some form or another.

At this point they ask me what I thought about the game. I said that I thought it was good, and that I feared a bit what people would say about what I saw, as we are known as a rather purist crowd. I told them that I always loved seeing other visions of Middle-earth. The Middle-earth source material is so strong that it lends itself to some rather amazing transformations in the way the story can be communicated, be it movies, games, artwork, or whatever. I said that it was obvious that many of the people working on the project were extremely talented and that the final product would be pretty amazing.

At this point I left the conference room and spoke with the Sierra Rep.

What are the plans you have for the license: This game, The Hobbit, a Massive Multiplayer Game, and just about anything else you can think of that makes sense. Of course Tolkien-Enterprises has to sign off on it, but expect to see things from Cell Phone Games to Hand-held games to everything else you can think of.

Is there any plans to resurrect any of the past products which have been shelved: No, what is dead will stay dead.

At this point I told them I was excited about what I saw and that I looked forward to seeing everything else they had plans for.

Analysis
The game is centered on Frodo, and you never get a change to control any of the other people in the fellowship. Even when Aragorn joins the battle, he only dispatches one enemy before taking off again. I have no idea what the quests and puzzles will be. They hinted that as Frodo goes along he will learn new maneuvers with the sword. The fellowship will join Frodo when he makes camp between each level or between each stage of each level offering him advice and help with the puzzles.

The graphics are rather amazing looking and the team has developed a look and feel which definitely captures the innocence and purity that would be Middle-earth. The production artwork is of the highest quality, and is rather amazing. I wish I could get it added to our image gallery. I like the fact that the direction they are taking with many things is a lot different than the movies. I think that is important to tell people that there are visions of Middle-earth that are different than the vision Peter Jackson has.

The game feels a lot like a newer version of Zelda (The latest version). This is not totally fair, but that is my only point of reference. The graphics are leaps and bounds ahead of Zelda and they are not cartoonish. I've never played Final Fantasy or any of the other games that would fall into the category that this game falls into, but it was definitely a console RPG. The game was not a full RPG like say Balders Gate, Fall Out, or Planescape.

In the end, the game looks very promising, and it looks like it will have mass appeal. Will the Tolkien purist like it, maybe it all depends on how open minded he is. Will the average person like it? Yeah, if people enjoy the movie, this game will do well.

Afterthought
After much though, I am left with one question: "What would I do if I was in the shoes of the people at Sierra?" The answer is that I think I would do something similar to what they are doing right now. They obviously paid a lot for the rights to make these games, and they plan on making that money back and then some. That is the nature of a for profit company. I would try to make a Lord of the Rings game for each platform that is out there. I would try to use each development engine that I had at my disposal. I would also try to develop games for all the new platforms which will be hitting the market while I controlled the license. This means that every big trend in the computer gaming industry over the next 8 years will see a Lord of the Rings computer game released on it. If I was the company that owns Sierra I would also leverage the gaming engines that my other companies controlled. In the end, this would include just about every type of game from RTS's to FPS's to Adventure Games to Online games to RPG's . It would also include just about every platform that you can think of from PC's to Consoles to Hand-Helds to Cell Phones to whatever the industry dreams up next.

Is Tolkien's work in good hands? Yes, from a gaming perspective Vivendi Universal Interactive Publishing has quite an impressive track record. They own Sierra and Blizzard, both companies are known for their quality games. From the perspective of the average fan, Tolkien's works are in good hands. For the purist, there might be a couple of issues, if they do not like the reinterpretations that must go on when you translate a book into a computer game. For the rest of you, the next 8 years will be filled with many different Tolkien related computer products; I expect the games to be high quality entertainment and I wouldn't be surprised if a couple win some awards.

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