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E3: Here be dragons. And movie tie-ins.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

These days, Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without an epic blockbuster based on some rubbish old books about wizards turning up in cinemas. It was much better when we were growing up; children's films had proper themes, like space and time travel and robots and mermaids. Okay, so The Never Ending Story had magic and dragons and all that, but a horse drowns in it. DROWNS [you've ruined it for me - Ed].

Anyway, this Christmas will see the arrival of Eragon, an epic blockbuster based on the first in a new trilogy of books about wizards. So new, in fact, that the third book hasn't even been written yet - but apparently the first one is so brilliant that Fox just couldn't wait to start making a movie based on it.

The story goes a little something like this. The Eragon of the title is a young farm boy (played in both the film and the game by non-famous British actor Edward Speelers) who spends his days mucking about on the farm, probably grooming his faithful old horse and flirting with the milkmaid and that sort of thing. Until one day, whilst walking in the woods, he stumbles across a mysterious stone. Only it turns out the stone is in fact a dragon egg, and when the egg hatches, Eragon learns that he is in fact a Dragon Rider.

There used to be loads of Dragon Riders round Eragon's way, but one of them betrayed the others, and now their kind has all but disappeared. All but for Eragon, obviously, who finds himself caught up in a world of magical powers and evil tyranny and discovers that it is his destiny to sort it all out.

At last, the battle for the Adventure Playground of Abarganarzarethar had begun.

So that's what you can expect from the movie - and wouldn't you know it, as sure as dragon eggs is dragon eggs, you can also expect a videogame tie-in for PC, PS2, PSP, Xbox, Xbox 360, DS and GBA. But according to senior producer Tim Ramage, you needn't expect it to be as completely rubbish as most movie-based games are.

"We've had the opportunity to make not just a movie game, but a great game based on a movie," Ramage says.

"We hooked up with Fox about two years ago and we got a lot of access to movie personnel, so we could develop the game in conjunction with their vision - which is not always the case. Usually the movie's ahead of the game, and you're making do with assets, but you don't really get that opportunity to get a true idea of what the vision of the movie is.

"With Eragon, we were able to meet with key creative personnel early on - the director, the producers and so on. We flew out to Budapest last August when they were shooting; we visited all the sets, we took photos, we met with the second unit director who gave us an insight into fighting styles and that kind of thing."

Hammer time

That last point is an important one, because you'll be doing a lot of fighting in Eragon, at least as far as the PC and console versions are concerned - it's a hack and slasher at heart. But as Ramage is keen to emphasise, that doesn't mean you can make it through the game simply by hammering away at a single button.

As a new day dawned on the Valley of Pithiriririrlil, only one responded to the lone cry: 'Has anyone got a light?’

"It's straightforward combat in terms of the basic attacks, and the really intuitive combos which you can start pulling off right away. However, as the game progresses, you won't be able to just continue pressing the combat button - you'll find the enemies will be able to counter that, and you're going have to use a combination of defence and offence as well as other abilities as in your arsenal."

The more you play, the stronger Eragon will become, and the better he will be at melee fighting. He'll also learn how to switch smoothly from a defensive to an offensive move, and how to use a bow and arrow. And then there are his magical powers, which enable him to do useful things like set enemies on fire, push them away or pull them towards him, and magically enhance arrows so they do even more damage.

"I think the cool thing about the gameplay experience, overall, is that you have these different tools at your disposal you need to make it through the game," Ramage says.

"It kind of becomes this organic, impromptu combat system where you're finding ways to use certain magic to link into a melee move, or link into using the arrows, or using magic to knock enemies off a cliff... You can't just continue using the same strategy over and over, which takes it out of the hack and slash and makes it a very intelligent combat system where the player's challenged."

'See, Eragon, how this man is consumed by the flames of his own evil. And my new zippo.’

Ally pally

But despite all his fighting skills and magical abilities, Eragon will still need a helping hand from time to time, which is where his allies come in. His bestest friend is Saphira the dragon - if she sees our hero being overwhelmed by too many opponents, she'll swoop in to pick up a few, then fly them off and most likely smash their brains against the nearest rock.

For the most part this happens at random, but there are certain points in the game where you can call on Saphira for help. There are also some levels where you play as Saphira, swooping through the air and unleashing fiery destruction upon the land and evil doers beneath you - which looks like it could be quite a lot of fun.

Your other allies include Brom, Eragon's obligatory old buffer of a mentor who's responsible for telling our hero all about his destiny and teaching him how to fight. Then half way through the game you'll meet Murtagh - a Han Solo-type with a secret past.

In the single player game, you'll only get to play as Eragon, but a second player can drop in at any time for a bit of co-op action, taking on the role of Brom or Murtagh depending on which point you're at in the story. But whichever one your chum is playing as, they'll need to master a whole new set of fighting techniques, as Ramage explains.

'Here is where your hero’s tale must end, Eragon. For no one calls me a gay and gets away with it.’

"We wanted to give the second player a different experience. In the fiction, neither of the allies has the ability to use magic, so what you'll see is unique moves and swordfighting that reflects that character.

"Brom is a bit more of a straightforward brawler, so his moves are much more powerful and very sword-based. Murtagh is better his bow than he is with his sword, so he has a different style of swordplay and some of his finishing moves involve pulling out the bow and firing an arrow. So that's how we expose the player to different abilities."

If you're playing alone, you'll need to rely on AI when it comes to your ally, but Ramage reckons they've done a bang-up job of ensuring the other character will help you out when necessary and stay out of your way at crucial moments. Together you can collect special orbs which fill up your Fury meter - when it's full, you can activate Fury mode, which means both characters' health will replenish and they'll be invincible for a short time. You can team up to take out enemies together, and if you're losing health at a rapid rate, your ally will start targeting the opponents surrounding you. You'll also need to make sure your ally doesn't die, since if they do, it's game over.

Platform jumping

So that's what you can expect from the PC and current-gen console versions of Eragon. The Xbox 360 version, Ramage says, will make the most of the hardware's capabilities, and will feature two extra levels - including one set in the Hadarac desert, which doesn't appear in the movie.

'Look, I just want to stop and take ONE PICTURE.’ 'It’s never just one though, is it? I’ve seen your flickr page.’

But what of the handheld games? Well, the PSP version is based around aerial combat. The single player game will see you taking on the role of Saphira, and up to four players can compete in seven different arenas.

The DS game is billed as an epic action RPG. You'll be able to cast spells using the touch screen, experiment with all manner of weapon, spell and combo upgrades, and play a couple of mini-games, too.

And finally, the GBA version is a traditional turn-based RPG. There are nine playable characters, and you can expect a traditional levelling up system along with a bit of weapon forging and potion crafting.

Almost all the games will follow the plot of the film, but there will be a few surprises, too. "We actually followed the movie's storyline closely, but at the same time we were able to pull source from the book as well. As a result, we were able to bridge that gap between the movie and the book for the fans," Ramage says.

He reckons this'll help to raise the game above the standard of most movie tie-ins, as will the development studio's previous experience and the high standard of the visuals.

"Stormfront Studios [who you might remember from its Lord of the Rings games - Ed] is probably the leader in the genre of fantasy and movie games. It brought in a lot of key art personnel from the movie, including academy award nominees and Disney animators, and brought cinematic storytelling to the game.

"What it has done with the lighting, textures, the use of colours and so on really, I think, creates a game that stands out from many other movie games."

Here's hoping that "stands out from" translates as "isn't as rubbish as". And that one of these days they'll get round to developing games based on D.A.R.Y.L., Back to the Future, Short Circuit and Splash...

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