Quickbeam previews the exciting Tolkien-related video games recently shown at E3 in Los Angeles.

Greetings — Quickbeam here.

2002 marks the year that the huge, loud, gaudy, highly-charged Electronic Entertainment Expo ran smack into the world of Tolkien fandom.

If you’ve never been to one of these shows, it’s rather like being in Vegas but without the gambling. The main floor of the Los Angeles Convention Center is a high-octane explosion of sight & sound. Great projection screens overhead, vivid digital displays, and even soundstages featuring live rock bands. And don’t forget the “booth babes.” E3 is still a trade show at heart and the core of it is self-promotion for the biggest game companies.

For me, of course, it’s all about the new Lord of the Rings video games soon to hit the market. This is a new twist for the Tolkien “pop culture explosion.” By year-end you will be fighting and spell-casting through marvelous high adventure sitting in front of your X-Box or PlayStation 2 console (or other formats, like Game Boy Advance). Are you ready?

To clear up the confusion: Yes, there are TWO game companies with LOTR games.

Yes, they are both coming out soon.

NO, they are not the same at all! One is based on the movie and the other is based on the original books. Very different flavors here.

The EA Game

First we have Electronic Arts, who are ready to launch their Harry Potter: Chamber of Secrets and The Two Towers games. I went to their impressive booth because I heard the familiar strains of Howard Shore; and there I saw a movie screen showing images from their new titles. It was indeed the film score from Fellowship of the Ring I had heard. They had a faux-rock display with a giant Lurtz figure encased in glass…. and a fantastic array of weapons, helmets, and film props from WETA.

Someone pointed out the life-size Nazgûl and horse statue that was perched atop the rocks. Very cool when you finally saw it. Such a huge thing would have certainly dominated the floor were it placed down at eye-level where people could get near it. But with no sight lines few even looked up to see it.

Their game is based on the New Line Cinema movie property. It is a game adaptation from the movie adaptation, if you take my meaning. Pushing my way through the people, I finally got a close look at the demo. And how finely polished it looks. The artists recreated Viggo, John, and Orlando as the three main characters, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. They rendered the characters spot-on! Having the movie score works really well, too. What must have been “fire from Orthanc” was depicted as great catapulted flaming rocks streaking across the sky, crashing down onto the walls and parapets of Helm’s Deep. The graphic look of the game is very well done, I must say, but the content and mechanics seem rather combat focused.

The EA game seems cut from the fabric of most other hack n’ slash games. As Aragorn, you run around Helm’s Deep in the rain storm, swinging your blade and chopping every Uruk-hai to bits. Choose to play with Legolas and you can zap arrows hither and yon. Every element is carefully drawn from existing things in Peter Jackson’s films — costumes, sets, weaponry, and I’m told even the voice actors will likely be the same actors from the flick. Word has it that only a few key scenes from Fellowship will be included, mostly the game-story focuses on Two Towers events. It’s going to be on PlayStation 2 first, then I’m told it will appear on X-box and Nintendo GameCube eventually.

Now on to the SECOND game that was so prominently shown!

The Universal Interactive Game

Right next door was the spectacular Universal Interactive booth.

The Uni folks built a Hobbit hole right in the middle of the show floor. What a hoot! I felt like I stumbled upon the Disneyland version of Bag-End and this was the newest attraction. Talk about long lines to get in: people were eagerly waiting in a long queue.

The Hobbit hole structure was covered with real grass (with an attendant climbing on top to water it every night) and had a big, round green door. A slow curl of smoke rose up from the chimney. Once inside, I found myself in a digital theatre — a 360-degree surround dome theatre where everyone watched a special preview film about The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring games. This was the most sophisticated presentation at E3.

The Hobbit game for Nintendo GameCube scenes showed Bilbo in fine Crash Bandicoot form; waving Sting in the air and throwing rocks at spiders. HA! what a fun little character. This Bilbo seems altogether too young but he has such a spirited look on his face. Who could resist? I wonder what kind of Smaug they will create?? Hmmm.

Shifting gears, the audience had a worm’s eye view of being inside the Ring while it was forged, then the evil Sauron reached down, seeming to grab the audience in his foul gauntlet. Then we swooped through the gaming environments…. taking in all the colorful lands of the Shire, the Old Forest, the rocky slopes outside the West Gate of Moria, and then inside the great halls of Dwarrowdelf.

Universal’s Fellowship of the Ring for X-box (and evetually will hit the PlayStation 2) is quite different from the competition. Unlike the movie images that EA uses, Uni has a whole new version of Middle-earth, on its own terms. Everything is green and organic and detailed. You know what I mean. The vast columns and Dwarven sculptures inside Moria are very impressive; and I cannot wait to explore new places never seen by Hobbit or Man.

The Uni game is built on a hybrid structure of fighting, magic, puzzle-solving, and different quest objectives. Some serious combat with Orcs…. some layered elements of role-playing too. You get either Gandalf, Frodo, or Aragorn as your character, depending on your location. This appealing game has a different flavor. I learned something about it on the inside because I’ve already worked with Uni lending a bit of Green Bookish advice.

So how do we differentiate these two competing products? What do these companies want you to know about their games; and getting the best Tolkien experience?

The key difference is that EA cannot put anything in their games that does not already come from the Jackson/ Walsh/ Boyens screenplay. They gotta have movie stuff only. If you want the look and feel of the movie, with its recognizable actors, the EA game will let you run amok.

But the EA player does not get to visit with Farmer Maggot or Barrow-wights or Tom Bombadil. The Universal Fellowship game gets all those extra adventures (they call it “additional quests”), because Uni has the original book to draw from…. so you are safe in assuming they will cram in as many juicy bits as they can, limited only by the actual length of the game (they are going for 25 to 30 hours). I guess it depends on how you appreciate the finer details of Tolkien and gaming.

So in the end, the best news is that both of these games will be here end-of-year 2002. For Tolkien fans it’s gonna be a feast for Thanksgiving (and it sure helps that the price of the X-box console has been reduced by $100). Look out: here come the charge cards!

Much too hasty,