Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 | Wii | PS Vita | 3DS
Developers: Traveller's Tales
Publishers: Warner Bros. Interactive
It's a testament to the development skill of Traveller's Tales and a measure of their clear adoration for the source material that forms the focus of their games, that the reduction of modern epics such as Star Wars and Harry Potter, not to mention the plethora of rich lore in the DC universe, to games involving cutesy plastic characters in worlds made from colourful bricks is an absolute joy to behold. The in-jokes, the slapstick humour, the whimsical atmosphere that permeates every single one of these games, these are the tools with which many an afternoon has been whiled away in co-operative bliss. We laugh, we forage, we collect.
Of course, bizarrely perhaps, the richer the world, the better the game, it has seemed. LEGO Star Wars and LEGO Batman (especially the second title) offered superlatively crafted homages to their cultural namesakes, serving up banquets of fun, frivolity, and detailed fan service. Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean, though amusing and enjoyable for the most part, arguably didn't really have the rich, dense depth to match the others in the series.
That's not a problem that Lord of the Rings has.
In fact, as well as lifting the plotline from Peter Jackson's interpretation of Tolkien's classic, LEGO Lord of the Rings has gone even further than usual, nabbing Howard Shore's majestic score, and an abundance of dialogue from the acclaimed film trilogy too. It makes for a frequently stirring, often hilarious ride. We could listen to the rich dramatic intonations of Sir Ian McKellen all day long, but coupled with an extraordinarily expressive plastic figurine of Gandalf, some of his speeches become rib-ticklingly irresistible. There are moments of real gravitas recreated from the films, punctured by trademark LEGO humour as TT use their licensed material liberally to create situations of heroic mirth. Wait until you get to Boromir's last stand, and then you'll see what I mean.
Much like its predecessor, LEGO Lord of the Rings sets you down in a fairly large open world, from which you can access a host of story missions and alternative areas. The entirety of Middle Earth has been recreated here, though done so in the fashion of those little national dioramas you might see at Legoland that retain essential landmarks and both geographical and cultural identity whilst greatly reducing the size and scale of the landscape. As such, it doesn't take a huge amount of time to make the trek from Hobbiton to Mordor, though even in this summarised form, TT have ensured the game still feels sufficiently epic.
The faithful recreation of Tolkien's world and Jackson's vision means that this is possibly one of the first LEGO games to be based on a preceding narrative that you can learn accurately simply by playing the game. Following the story missions will actually give you a good grounding in the tale of the magical piece of jewellery that a bunch of halflings, men, dwarves, and elves need to destroy by chucking it into a volcano to defeat the evil machinations of the Dark Lord Sauron. Obviously, over the course of distilling an enormous trilogy into the space of a single game, some plot points are missing, but even those characters given a short shrift such as Denethor, Galadriel, and Elrond pop up as briefly playable MiniFigs. Better yet, the vast array of unlockable characters includes figures outside of the immediate lore of Jackson's films, giving cameos to the likes of Gil Galad and, brilliantly, Tom Bombadil.
The missions on offer, and the tasks you'll have to complete, will be readily familiar to anyone who's played a LEGO game before. Exploration is king, and once again goes hand in hand with bashing the hell out of everything you can find to yield up precious LEGO studs, and rooting out all sorts of items. This time around, though, each character can carry up to eight items, with a shared inventory of 84 additional artefacts that can be uncovered or crafted by combining various base items. Moreover, Mithril blocks litter the map, and can be taken to the blacksmith in Bree for the forging of new weapons and equipment. Should you craft or forge an item once, it'll unlock forever in that shared inventory, allowing you to make use of your sparkling new fishing rod or a shiny bow that fires multiple arrows all at once any time you choose. There are less practical rewards on offer too, for example a gift from Galadriel turns your little patch of Middle Earth into a funky disco with some suitably silly lighting.
Traveller's Tales have upped the bar when it comes to setpieces too. The large battles and epic showdowns that feature in the trilogy have really given the developers the chance to create some magnificent larger puzzles and a few hugely enjoyable boss battles. Combat remains as relatively simple as is always was in these games, but the unique talents of each playable character allow for some semblance of variety, and there are a number of sections that require real co-operative play, or some very fast switching between characters. The AI is as unhelpful as ever, but at least your companions rarely get snagged on a piece of scenery or find themselves unable to jump over or circumvent a rock.
Following the main story will probably take around ten to twelve hours, and that'll prove more than fine for the little ones, but the game really explodes into life after the campaign is finished and the entirety of Middle Earth is opened up unto you. Plonked back down and left to your own devices, the game transforms into a completionist's idea of heaven as the systems underpinning everything begin to intertwine. The red brick score multipliers often require multiple tiers of questing and foraging, but this is made far less painstaking thanks to the inclusion of a statue in each of the game's main areas that not only allow for fast travelling one you discover it, but also unlocks a local map to aid in treasure hunting. Mithril blocks will occasionally require players to perform little feats of prowess such as a small checkpoint race or a combat-oriented time trial before they can be handed over and then forged into items or traded for cheats.
There are a few little minor gripes - one or two bugs, a new camera perspective that can occasionally prove a little fiddly for precision jumping - but they're easy to forgive simply because this is a game that spends so much time working to put a smile on your face. A staunch bastion of couch co-op, it's still a shame to see that online multiplayer has been omitted again. It's not a case of one being better than the other, but rather that, for a game that really only reaches its fullest potential with a friend playing alongside you, both options should be available. A long term complaint, it's also too easy, and probably too repetitive as well, but it's so very damn charming that even the hardest of hearts would have a tricky time remaining faithfully cynical with controller in hand. It's difficult to imagine that LEGO Batman 2 only came out a few months ago, and players would have been right to view such a short gap in time between releases with a certain amount of scepticism. But those fears should also be assuaged: this is no knockoff or cheap movie tie-in, but rather an improvement on a tried and tested formula to create what is probably the best LEGO game yet.
- Immensely accessible...
- ...and yet enormous in scale, content, and depth
- Excellent use of the source material
- Superb co-op
- Can get a little repetitive, especially on your own
- Occasional bugs can be annoying
- Precise platforming requires a better camera
The Short Version: LEGO Lord of the Rings is charming and delightful, as all of Traveller's Tales' LEGO games have been. But it's also phenomenally authentic, with a humourous irreverence that is simultaneously both utterly LEGO and absolutely LOTR. Even though it might prove a little too easy for older fans, the simple joy of seeing all that there is to see will keep you engaged, especially if you've brought a friend along for the ride.