For some people the big news will be that the Lord of the Rings is making a video game comeback for kids; for others it will be that the developers responsible have a strong pedigree.
J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy epic is getting another video game re-telling this fall in the form of The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest, a Wii, PS2 and portable game drawing from the design influences of Zelda and Super Mario Galaxy, courtesy of Headstrong Games, makers of the slickly-produced House of the Dead Overkill on Wii and the graphically-impressive — especially for the Wii — Battalion Wars 2.
A couple of weeks ago in New York, a Warner Brothers representative pulled me into a "secret game" demonstration for the Wii version of Aragorn's Quest. Hands-off, I watched in surprise. This would be the first Lord of the Rings game published by Warner Brothers, following several years' of Tolkien movie-based games from EA. This one skews younger.
The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest covers the events of the series' three main books, breaking them into missions that exist as a story being re-told by an older Samwise Gamge. The game's hub is the Shire of just after Tolkien's saga. Samwise is mayor. Aragorn, elsewhere, is king. The player controls a young hobbit, Frodo Gamge in this hubworld, running through it in the style of a young Link from Zelda, learning basic mechanics and talking to townspeople. Sitting down with the other kids to be told a story of exciting adventure by Mayor Samwise initiates the game's core levels. In each of those, the player assumes the role of Aragorn (think older Link).
Sam is re-telling the legend of the rings as something of a fairy tale, the game's producer told me. That's a smart way to explain away any variations from the source fiction and to amplify the spirit of the game's more cartoonish look, which varies with the dark and fantastic realism rendered in Peter Jackson's films.
Control with the Wii is two-fisted, with the remote controlling sword swipes and the nunchuck handling movement and shield. No MotionPlus support is planned, but swipes and jerks of the Wii controls are required to expose enemies' distinct weak spots. Some may require a stab; others a shield-bash. Also reminiscent of Zelda was the level shown that put Aragon on horseback for some mounted combat. Another showed Aragon making good use of a bow — though Aragon's bow can tag multiple targets, a la Link's modern boomerang.
A second player can join the story missions in Aragon's Quest at any time in a manner similar to Super Mario Galaxy's co-star mode. That second player wields just the Wii remote and can issue magical attacks like lighting, frostbite and healing spells. That player is ostensibly controlling Gandalf, who, during co-op, appears at Aragorn's side. (Not realising during the demo that there would be a PS2 version, I did not find out if or how this system will work on that console).
Most of what was shown of the game was solid, but what was spectacular were the graphics. Saying they were good for a Wii game is to damn with faint praise, but the visual hallmarks of Headstrong's Battalion Wars titles were there: broad traversable vistas, smartly stylised architecture and characters that compensate for somewhat simple geometry, and diverse use of colour.
You can anticipate or dismiss this game as The Lord of the Rings being re-done for kids. Regardless, if the solid structure demonstrated in New York and the quality of the studio on the Wii part of the project is anything to go by, this game bears watching.
The Lord of the Rings: Aragon's Quest is set for a fall release on the Wii, PS2, DS and PSP. We have not seen any versions except for the Wii one. While the console games are being made by Headstrong, the portables are in development by TT Fusion, which previously handled Lego titles for the DS.