The Hobbit review
The Hobbit: A Mediocre Journey
Before Peter Jackson directed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, there was a game based on the novella simply known as The Hobbit. Leering at you on the game rental shelf while you check out the higher profile games it happens to be shoved right between, it was ready to grouchily plead its case to you, as if you have to rent this game and not, say, Super Mario Sunshine or Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time. Sadly, its pleas went unnoticed as you went ahead and rented a different game, enjoying that instead of this painfully mediocre game. Oh, it begged, it pleaded, it even offered a sexual favor at one point, but all of that was for naught even when you finally rented it and came to the sudden realization that it was really not a good game. Not at all. Perhaps there was potential to be a good game, maybe even be a fine alternative to The Legend Of Zelda: Wind Waker (which, for the most part, was more concerned with being a colorful yet dark take on the Zelda series than being an engaging video game). Instead, it's a platformer that hasn't acknowledged the advancements in the genre that has been seen in the likes of Ratchet And Clank and Super Mario Sunshine.
This game, like the novella, is about Bilbo Baggins, the reluctant hero to end all reluctant heroes, going on a journey to help the dwarves reclaim the Lonely Mountain. Throughout his journey, he'll be going through all sorts of places, acquiring items like a sword and the one ring to rule them all while meeting with some colorful characters like Smeagol/Gollum. At least, that was the plot for the book, but the game decides that it's not alright to have anything resembling detail in their story. No, just have the bare essentials, don't worry about having any of that pesky depth and character because video gamers don't actually care about the story. Really Inevitable Entertainment, we're going to take a book that, while being a children's book, still contains details that can paint pictures into the imaginations of said young readers, and reduce it down to a skeleton lacking in vitamin D? I award this story exactly one middle finger – it follows the story by having the events, but fails to capitalize on them. The Gollum scene, in particular, is bastardized by doing away with the riddles outside of “what's in my pocket”... come on, that was one of the finest parts of literature ever written by man and even the Peter Jackson movie did a damn fine job of putting that on the big screen, but in this video game, it's basically filler. That about sums up the story – it's filler, it's unnecessary, and if you expect anything more than the bare basics, then you should just read the book. Poor storytelling at its finest.
To be fair however, Inevitable Entertainment did manage to create landscapes and characters in the same way you'd imagine them being based on the book's descriptions. Each city, field, mountain and cave contain vibrant colors that manage to give off a whimsical feeling, rather than the dark, brooding feeling given in the Lord Of The Rings movies and games. But don't celebrate so soon – outside of the colors, the environments come across as a bit bland and the character models themselves look like something out of a late Nintendo 64 game with jagged edges and whatnot. Furthermore, I've noticed that Bilbo's head seems to lag behind while he's running. I can't tell if this is poor design or poor processing. Speaking of design, while I understand that we need to go our own separate ways in an effort to differentiate ourselves from the competition, the whole “big head small body” style for Bilbo looks downright silly and the enemies look about as threatening as a bedsheet with eye holes. Understandably, this is geared more towards kids, but given that kids tend to prefer to emulate what teenagers do, and since teenagers would laugh at how bland and silly it looks, it's no doubt that kids who have some semblance of touch with reality will, too, laugh at this game's visual style. Colors seem to be the only good thing going for it, it seems. For the most part, it keeps up a solid framerate, but when Bilbo dons the ring, fog comes out... and the game lags. I... don't even know how that happens, I guess the sudden burst of fog is too much for the Gamecube? Nope, it's just a general lack of polish as demonstrated by 12 second loading times between levels and the occasional 5 second load times at certain sections of each level. This is a rush job for the sake of being a rush job.
Thankfully, the soundtrack is quite good. To go along with the whimsical environments are songs that utilize fiddles and acoustic guitar riffs. Take a hike, 200 piece orchestras, because you became an overused method of portraying an arbitrary sense of epicness for games that take themselves far too seriously (see also: Call Of Duty); we have fiddles! Mind you, there are fights that include cello tracks, but they're used more to draw you into the fight than to make it look like the Lord Of The Rings film series. These are also songs that I find myself listening to on occasion due to their enjoyability factor. It's a feel good kind of soundtrack. The voice acting, unfortunately, doesn't quite match the tone of the game, instead coming across as robotic. The idea was to have cheesy fantasy voices with British accents and whatnot, but nothing about the voices even whispered cheesy; just forced. But given how little story you actually get, this isn't as bad as it could've been if it was more story driven.
But The Hobbit is driven by its gameplay, which consists of a blend of platforming, combat, stealth and the occasional bit of puzzle solving. Unlike something like Ico, whose main draw consists of a blend of the three elements, The Hobbit feels more like each section is just that – sections. You'll have sections where you'll do some platforming. You'll have sections where you'll fight enemies. You'll either have sections with some basic puzzle solving or it'll be blended with platforming sections. There are plenty of puzzles either involving time based chest openings – this is considered lock picking – or collecting items to deliver to specific locations. If any of this gives you a strange sense of deja vu for those who read my reviews, this sounds an awful lot like Ico. However, unlike Ico, The Hobbit does not immerse the player into the adventure; it feels very game-y due to its robotic gameplay structure and level based design. You'll have obviously designed segments where you'll need to jump across gaps and segments where you'll fight monsters not because Middle Earth is naturally designed like that, but because the designer took a class at the learning annex. When you're aware that you're holding the controller, basic puzzles like this need more complex puzzles to offset said basic puzzles. Just basic puzzles... that's boring when it's not clearly all that well integrated into the game. From there, it'd be easy for me to simply sum up the mechanics and conclude the review by saying how mediocre this game is.
Seriously, everything in this game feels so cookie cutter that the license and perhaps the cover is all that draws unsuspecting consumers. The platforming consists of jumping across gaps and swinging across vines. Okay, cool, this sounds like a good building block for a platformer, but sadly, The Hobbit consistently uses this same block and hardly switches it up. “But John, surely, every game repeats elements again and again”, and that's true disembodied internet strawman, but your argument fails when every platforming section consistently uses the same sort of pattern with virtually no differences whatsoever, and it fails even more so when the platforming itself is dull. Seriously, there's no real sense of urgency or difficulty; you can jump across gaps and climb with no problem whatsoever, unless you fall victim to either boredom because these segments often last far too long, frustration due to some stiff character movement and camera controls as well as his inability to swim, or even more frustration due to questionable collision detection. Yes, this game's collision detection, unlike the platforming, is inconsistent. Oftentimes, you'll be able to grab onto ledges, but other times, you won't, even though you know for a fact you should. If you find yourself ever dying in this game's platforming sections, it's because of this.
The inconsistent collision detection extends to the combat, although on top of times where it'll be picky, it'll also be generous. At times, it's clear that neither of us are hitting each other, but seeing that the hit boxes fluctuate between the inside of our bodies and well outside of them, it's a matter of luck. In terms of the combat itself, Bilbo can lock on, flip around side to side and perform a jumping attack either with his long walking stick or the sword known as Sting. It's a combat engine directly lifted out of a Zelda game, but whereas Zelda has impact, The Hobbit doesn't. I'd say it feels like two midgets having a slapfight, but actually, it feels more like a three-on-one handicap match with you on one side and the enemy, the camera and the controls on the other. As I've mentioned, the camera and Bilbo himself move stiffly, which not only puts a damper on platforming, but also on combat. You can lock onto an enemy and your attacks will be drawn to them, so it does at least ameliorate the stiff sense of control. That's if you're fighting a single enemy, which The Hobbit does not usually like you to do. Nope, you'll be fighting groups of enemies. However, said group of enemies range from being smart enough to know to hit you, to complete idiots who'll sit back and let their comrades attack. Guess that contributes to the fact that the combat is mediocre. You'll unlock the ability to do multi hit combos, but other than that, it's like you're just going through the motions. After a while, I just wound up either fighting enemies because I had to or just avoided them because combat became a drag.
I suppose no review of The Hobbit would be complete without talking about the stealth segments. At his heart, Bilbo isn't somebody who likes to engage in combat; only to snooze on the couch or munch on snacks. But as a Hobbit, he has a certain amount of agility that can be used to sneak his way through places he shouldn't be in. The idea is to not be seen, meaning that you'll need to quietly walk your way from point to point, making sure they don't hear you. Eventually, you'll get the ring and be able to turn invisible for short periods of time... although they can still hear you and then they'll spot you once you're visible again. Seriously, why bother turning me invisible when it does nothing!? It is useful when you'll need to stand still where enemies will look, but that's about it. Even then, the stealth segments are basic – lighting and shadows, what are those, give me 31 flavors of generic sneaking where the difficulty comes not from well placed enemies or well designed environments, but from stiff camera and movement controls with seemingly random enemy placement!
That's what it amounts to at the end of the day; generic. The Hobbit's biggest issue is that it does things that other games have done prior to it, only not as well. I don't normally criticize games based on a lack of originality, but only if they execute their elements in a fashion that makes them fun on their own terms. Games like Sleeping Dogs and Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow have nary an original bone in their bodies, but dammit, they make those elements into their own! The Hobbit, on the other hand, only serves to make me want to play Super Mario Sunshine or Ratchet And Clank. It's a tedious platformer, a boring hack and slash and a forgettable stealth game. Some may say that it's a forgotten classic, and while you're certainly entitled to your opinion, it doesn't really do anything that says “underrated” or good; a mediocre game that goes through the motions is a better way to sum this game up.
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