E3 2011: Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn Gameplay Demo

Tintin may not be the oldest source material ever adapted into a video game (that honor must go to Dante’s Inferno, among others), but it’s still quite venerable — the first installments of Georges “Herge” Remi’s immortal, globally popular comic strip first appeared in 1929. Since then, the boy reporter with the strange haircut has survived all sorts of scrapes, and he and his beloved dog Snowy are still going strong.

So strong, in fact, that they’re about to be the subject of a big-budget movie adaptation, helmed by none other than Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. The two legendary directors appeared on camera to welcome us to the demo presentation of the The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, the tie-in game that Ubisoft has produced to accompany the pair’s summer blockbuster.

Herge’s art typified stylized realism, but Jackson and Spielberg have created their own vision of the Belgian’s work, blending motion-capture and animation to create characters that capture his distinctive look without copying it. Ubisoft Montpellier have opted to follow the directors’ example, and the demo evinced clean, painterly lines with a hint of cel shading — as a fan of the original comics, I was quite pleased.

More surprising was the gameplay, which centered around platforming and fisticuffs, though from a distinctly retro, Prince of Persia-style side-scrolling perspective. In the hold of the Karaboudjan (nerd alert: spelled that from memory), a lumbering cargo ship, Tintin (accompanied, as ever, by Snowy) leapt nimbly from causeway to causeway, picking up objects and chucking them at swarthy deckhands with the help of a dotted line that will allow players to plan their missiles’ trajectories. The tone of the combat was pitch perfect; Tintin is neither a bruiser nor a killer, so he K.O.’d his adversaries in a mostly slapstick manner.

Moving on to a boss fight, the demonstrators showed off the engine’s versatility. The boss, Alan (another recognizable name), was in the foreground, shooting at Tintin, who had to dodge from side to side at the back of the screen. Having found gunplay unsuccessful, Alan decided to brawl, and the game reverted to its Prince of Persia view until Alan was down for the count. “Tintin is a gentleman,” our host pointed out. “He won’t be dispatching Alan with a gun.”

Next up was a platforming sequence, which featured Tintin and his trusty sidekick Captain Haddock escaping the sinking Karaboudjan, clambering up ladders and over obstacles as they were chased by lushly-animated water pouring into the ship. Also amusing was the following action section, which found the pair in a motorcycle, pursued by enemies. At first, Tintin drove while Haddock returned fire from the sidecar, peppering the air with his trademark invective. Eventually, the two switched places, giving players a chance to try out both roles.

For the final demonstration, the Ubisoft team showed off one of the game’s co-op-focused levels, which take place inside Captain Haddock’s whiskey-soaked dreams. This was a surrealist departure from the Tintin canon, but the gorgeous art and amusing, low-impact mechanics more than made up for it. A section in which Tintin and Haddock were temporarily turned into dogs (Snowy, of course, in the former case, and an unnamed black fox terrier in the latter) was particularly touching.

I’d imagine it’d be a thrill for any French-born game designer to try his or her hand at a Tintin game, and Ubisoft’s Montpellier studio have certainly risen to the challenge. As a die-hard fan, I’m more worried about the damage the movie might wreak on my childhood. It is a credit to the game, therefore, that it’s helped ease my trepidation.

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