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As longtime die-hard fans of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, we had no idea just how close we came to getting a LOTR video game that to our eyes looks like the one that would've ruled them all.
But thanks to newly-shared footage from the never-made, never-named game, we're pretty gobsmacked at just how faithful to the movies (and surprisingly sophisticated, even by today's gameplay standards) the project was, even as a demo. Jon Burton, co-founder of development studio Traveller's Tales (known mostly for games based on the LEGO and Sonic the Hedgehog franchises), has just shared a tantalizing video that shows off snippets from the game's pitch demo — and based on the footage, it really Stings (ahem) that the project never went further.
Determined to expand Traveller's Tales' development chops beyond LEGO and Sonic spinoffs, Burton took on the idea of a LOTR game as a passion project. Accordingly, the studio dumped a ridiculous amount of resources into working up a highly-polished pitch demo — only to have Warner Bros., according to Burton, pass on the game after both Jackson and Guillermo del Toro (who was also involved in the project) had given it their blessing.
Via Burton's GameHut channel, the gameplay footage starts around the 1:30 mark in the YouTube clip below:
Developed to run on an Xbox 360, this has to be one of the most high-octane demos never to yield a complete game, and it's quickly evident just how film-faithful and almost photorealistic an homage it is to the places, events, and even cast members from Jackson's movie trilogy. Frodo is clearly the Elijah Wood Frodo whom fans know and love, and when Gandalf and Saruman face off, it's unmistakably a battle between the Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee versions.
With Sting firmly in hand, Frodo gets to sneak through the woods in a pair of stealth levels that make head-on fighting the option our hero does best to avoid — but fortunately, Traveller's Tales packed plenty of other sneaky tools into his bag of tricks. "Playing as Frodo, you could sneak, hide, throw rocks to district the Uruk-hai, climb trees, use your senses to focus in on enemies, jump from trees onto enemies, and even try and fight them directly — against the odds," Burton explains, as Frodo skulks his way through the woods.
Getting spotted by the Nazgûl in another stealth level hands Frodo a quandary familiar to anyone who's seen the movies: he has to resist the temptation to just put on the ring (and submit to its power) to get out of a temporary jam. And yet another highly-polished level shows off an epic rendering of the Isengard fight between Gandalf and Saruman. "You could cast spells, deflect attacks, and throw Saruman around the room," says Burton. Gandalf also goes head to head against the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm in another fiery set piece.
The studio also worked up demo footage of Aragorn in close-quarters sword combat against the Uruk-hai, as well as Frodo and Sam evading the Nazgûl (this time with Frodo using the ring, complete with a screen-changing white-out effect), and even a mo-cap cutscene between Sam and Frodo at Rivendell, done to show how the game would "recreate moments from the film."
"We basically went way too far, and spent way too much money making this demo," Burton says in the clip. "But I really wanted to show what we could do just beyond the LEGO games."
We'd say that's mission accomplished — and then some. "Considering this was all running on the Xbox 360, I think it holds up pretty well over a decade later," he adds, and it's hard to argue the point. We don't know what the big-budget gaming future holds for The Lord of the Rings, but if ever someone (maybe Amazon?) wants to move forward with a AAA game that gets the gang back together from the film trilogy, Traveller's Tales' amazing demo has already set the bar high.