More of a Peck than a Hobbit.
If EA's The Return of the King was a revelation in quality movie-to-video-game translation, then Vivendi's The Hobbit is a brain fart. Playing The Hobbit is like talking to someone and realizing, in the midst of the conversation, that they have been passing gas the whole time you've been talking to them. You try to stay focused on the conversation - something about barking spiders from Mars, maybe? - but you simply can't continue. You nod politely, say something about dropping some kids off at the pool, and turn off your console, never to breathe another whiff of The Hobbit again.
Yes, The Hobbit stinks. And while there are some great smelly things in the world (my dog, for example), The Hobbit isn't charming enough to be considered one of them.
I spent a lot of time trying to like this game and stuck with it. But when the entire episode involving Gollum was simply a short, narrated, un-playable segment, I was awestruck. Even if the rest of The Hobbit had been outstanding, the fact that you never interact with Gollum, that the entire Gollum episode is less than a minute long, would still be driving me crazy. To pass up on the opportunity to interactively realize one of the coolest moments in literature (Riddles in the Dark), and instead opt for a drab little cut-scene is unforgivable.
The only instance of pure creativity and senseless artistry to be found in The Hobbit occurs right in the beginning of the game, outside of Bilbo's House. Amongst the flowers, nestled into the hillside is a willow - the most beautiful tree I have ever seen in a video game. Its branches sway lightly in the wind, the colors are fine and green and nuanced, and then these huge, tacky butterflies swoop in, just to make sure you know that what you're looking at is beautiful. The developer's tree guy is brilliant; everyone else should look for new employment.
The Hobbit's plot follows the novel closely enough that I'm almost certain the game's Creative Director, Chuck Lupher, knows someone who has read The Hobbit, and perhaps even The Lord of the Rings trilogy. From what must have been detailed interviews with that person over a couple beers at a noisy bar, Chuck got the general plot and must have decided that what he'd heard was good enough for a crappy platform/adventure game. So, while the general "There And Back Again" plot is included, it's barely noticable.
Apparently, of greater importance are fighting and platforming. Combat in The Hobbit is actually pretty cool. Bilbo gets Sting early on (it glows all the time, not just when enemies are nearby) and fights like Link does in Zelda. He can target a single enemy, leap towards, away from, or side-to-side, and auto-blocks if he is backing away from his targeted adversary. However, Bilbo rarely fights just one adversary, not to mention the fact that his movement speed is halved when locked on to an opponent. So Bilbo is much better off chucking rocks at enemies from a safe height (truly Hobbit-like, if you ask me) and running around wildly with Sting ablaze.
Combat in The Hobbit is at its finest when Bilbo is fighting the tiny little frogmen. The frogmen are desperate and savage, yet small and impotent. In spite of their great fury they can't significantly harm you, while with one lazy swing you can end several of their little lives. My favorite thing to do is to turn my back on them, as though I don't notice the tiny, hopping men with frog heads. And so the bravest members of their clan rush forward to slay me, but right before they reach striking distance I whip around, lashing out with my blade and reducing them to... jewels?
Once the jewels have bounced happily into my pocket, nothing remains of what was seconds before an entire tribe of frog men. Grandfathers, braves out for their first hunt, proud, amphibian warriors - all gone. Their family jewels jangle happily in my hobbit-sized pocket. Some people complain that games like Manhunt are violent, but somehow I found this sort of toned-down "kiddy" violence much more disturbing.
However, the excitement of combat in The Hobbit wanes quickly, and after a while I just wound up running around and past enemies. Several portions of The Hobbit are what would be considered 'Stealth Oriented' - orcs too powerful to vanquish roam around, and Bilbo must get from here to there without being seen. Fortunately he has his ring, and can quickly don it to slip from sight just before an enemy orc turns and sees him. However, Bilbo can only wear the ring for a short time, and must sneak when wearing it or the enemy will hear him. While such limits on the power of the ring aren't very Tolkienian, they are very common for stealth-sequences in video games. Unfortunately, The Hobbit has nothing new to offer the stealth scene, but then, if the developers had done anything new, it wouldn't be so mediocre.
Graphically, The Hobbit begins wonderfully. Hobbiton is lush, bright, and beautiful. There are scores of wonderful trees, bright flowers, and an epic horizon that seems to promise an epic game to come. However, Hobbiton and it's tree prove to be the high point of the game and the visuals quickly get darker and more repetitive. Bilbo looks terrible; his head sort of lags back when he runs and is much too big for his body. He's just as hairless, blocky and polygonal as a Virtua Fighter 1 character.
The music, though, is wonderful. The guitar tracks recorded for Hobbiton are terrific. And then, in some marshes thick with spiders a wicked cello track (which is somehow highly suggestive of spiders) kicks in. Same goes for the general sound effects; when Bilbo climbs chains it sounds perfect. Unfortunately, the voice acting is bad.
Finally (because I almost forgot about them) there is the matter of The Hobbit's puzzles. Most of these involve treasure chests with timing-based mini-games instead of locks. Screw up and you might get burned or poisoned (and reeeally frustrated). There are also some wonderful puzzles where you have to find all the gears and bolts needed to repair a gate. I think at one point there are three of these in a row, and they're identical. Sweeet.
Oddly, I can't think of any reason to recommend The Hobbit to anybody. It straddles the line between little kid game and hard platformer in such a way that I don't think anyone will like it. I guess The Hobbit makes these strange concessions to gameplay to make it a friendlier game, but it's still frustrating as hell. And the game screws around with important literary details enough to turn off Tolkien fans (like myself). So, I guess if slaughtering scores of poor innocent frogmen sounds fun, The Hobbit might be the game for you, for an hour or two.