Preview: The Hobbit: A Thief in the Shadows

Oculus VR are taking things slowly at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), San Francisco, this year. A handful of speaker sessions and a couple of announcements that have rippled out from Mobile World Congress (MWC), Barcelona, but by-and-large the company is somewhat subdued. One new reveal that is certainly worth talking about however, is Weta Digitals’ The Hobbit: A Thief in the Shadows.

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A brand new virtual reality (VR) experience developed exclusively for Oculus VR’s latest PC-based prototype, Crescent Bay, The Hobbit: A Thief the Shadows appears at the end of the now familiar demo reel for the head-mounted display (HMD). Beginning with a simple 3D version of The Hobbit logo, which benefits from real-time lighting as you scan its curves and edges, the user soon arrives in Smaug’s own lair atop the Lonely Mountain. Filled with gold coins and surrounded by towering statues of Dwarf heroes, the user is given a few moments to survey the area and acclimatise to the surroundings, but soon something begins to stir.

It begins with a slow trickle, a few coins split from their resting place and trying to find somewhere new to rest. A sound like rain becomes louder and louder as more coins begin moving; a small wave, a crashing tide and then a flood as the best himself appears. Smaug is angry. He’s angry with you.

He cannot see you immediately, despite passing by inches from your face. An obvious stall to allow the user to take in the magnitude of the beast in front of them and the wonderful visual quality with which it’s presented, it’s clear why Epic Games were keen to have the reveal of The Hobbit: A Thief in the Shadows as part of their ‘State of Unreal’ talk for GDC 2015. There are a few small issues – many of the coins which move from the piles visibly disappear into the non-animated piles, for example – but the quality of the experience elsewhere allows you to forgive these small blemishes.

Smaug’s monologue begins and he finally finds you. Coming face-to-face with the beast is no laughing matter and only serves to infuriate him further. In a moment he moves from frustrated to anger to apathy to murderous rage. He begins toying with you, suggesting that he may actually just let you go. He may even let you take his treasure. But these are nothing more than games, and as he asks ‘how you would like to die?’ you know the end is near.

The Hobbit: A Thief in the Shadows is a very high quality experience. It’s built as a showcase for the Crescent Bay and Unreal Engine 4 in a similar fashion to the fantastic Showdown from Epic Games. It’s unlikely that a full videogame will ever be made from the demo, but as this represents the second experience based on The Hobbit motion-picture franchise to make its way to VR – following Jaunt’s The Hobbit VR Experience there’s clear interest in the medium from the rights holders. Could we see more further down the line? Given the quality seen thus far, VRFocus most certainly hopes so.

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