When J. R. R. Tolkien dared to imagine an epic tale of a small, unassuming Hobbit getting roped into a realm wide struggle between the forces of light and darkness, a creature who would become the central figure in an unlikely fellowship charged with a task that would decide the fate of Middle Earth, I wonder if he ever sat back and imagined it all…in the form of Lego bricks.
Ok, probably not. After all, Lego didn’t exist until after the 1930’s, and if it did, our friend Tolkien would have been far to busy constructing scale models of Middle Earth out of Lego pieces to spend much time writing fantasy books. Luckily for his fans, he never got that chance. However, Lego toys are alive and popular today, and over the years we’ve seen more then a few of our beloved books, cartoons and movies transformed into colorful plastic and assimilated into the ever growing Legoverse. In video games alone we’ve witnessed a wave of Lego adaptations, most recently by the talent of Traveller’s Tales, the developers best known for their successful Lego parodies of the Batman, Harry Potter and Star Wars series.
As was inevitable, Tolkien’s widely successful novel The Lord of the Rings got the same Lego treatment, with the entire trilogy remade into building block form; but what concerned me was whether a story with such a serious, dramatic tone would transition well into the often goofy Lego franchise as other games have in the past. Star Wars and Harry Potter, for example, are in many ways naturally light hearted, both intended originally for younger audiences, but the story of Frodo’s perilous sojourn into the heart of Mordor to destroy the one ring inspires a much darker subject matter. Leave it to Traveller’s Tales though to alleviate my worries, as they expertly weave Lego charm and Tolkien literature into a web of fun and nostalgia that hits the right notes in all the right places.
In the fashion of most Lego titles, the environmental design is a mixture of realistic models and Lego pieces, the latter making up most of the characters, usable items and interactive objects, while the former makes up the visual aesthetic. It looks good, the two different styles mesh well together, and the frame rate remains consistent despite all the object and character animations. All of those objects by the way, from crops to barrels, drop studs when broken – studs being the typical Lego currency used to unlock new characters. Be prepared to destroy everything in your path if your aim is to collect all 80 playable figurines, because you’ll have to be “a stud” to catch em ‘all!
After a brief, playable introduction to the gameplay, where Elrond, Elendil and his son battle and defeat Lord Sauron and his army, your adventure begins in the small village of Hobbiton, aka The Shire. The main map of Lego The Lord of the Rings is open world, new areas being added as you complete each story quest. Whether you head for the first story marker or begin your hunt for collectibles and side quests, the way you choose to play is entirely up to you. Either way, there’s a ton of content to explore, and you’ll find map stones in each section that, when activated, will highlight points of interest with banners and question marks on the map for you to discover. Some of these discoveries are tough to get at though, and will require you to solve puzzles using your party member’s individual skills, or to make use of special items you’ve crafted from the blacksmith. These items require recipes to be made, and are fashioned from blocks of Mithril, both of which can be found in the main world and in the story levels respectively.
In fact, each main quest concludes with a completion screen that tracks what you’ve collected, like Mithril and recipes. It also tracks “red bricks”, which when found unlock special options in the menu, like invincibility and stud multipliers. Once a level is finished, you’ll also unlock it’s free play mode, which not only let’s you replay it, but let’s you enjoy it again with the other characters you’ve unlocked and the tools you’ve crafted, revealing secret areas and collectibles you previously couldn’t access.
It’s not surprising that Lego LOTR is pretty darn long, and that’s excluding all the extra stuff you can do. The main storyline itself encompasses the entire three volumes of LOTR all in one game, and does a masterful job of recreating each moment in an accurate yet quirky Lego fashion. Kids will get a kick out of the characters clownish antics like Merry and Pippin wearing mustache glasses during the iconic fellowship dialogue; while us older fans will enjoy reliving the magic through entertaining cut scenes, enjoyable battles against mobs of easy enemies and familiar problem solving gameplay. It helps that for the second time in a Lego video game, the characters actually talk instead of the usual shrugs, smirks and gibberish; and the voice work is pulled directly from the movies, as is the beautiful soundtrack. It’s surprising how similar to the films the game is. I caught myself more then once with the urge to rewatch the movies.
I’m really impressed with how much fun my son and I are having with this title. The drop in and out, split screen multiplayer is up to the usual Lego standards, and completing the game with a companion makes collecting studs a lot more interesting and a lot less tiring. Many of the story quests will actually split missions into two separate events on the same screen, such as the hobbits avoiding a ring wraith while Gandalf battles Sarumon in the tower of Isengard. Each player controls one of the protagonists, and can hop to other party members at any given time to gain use of their unique abilities. Getting killed doesn’t mean game over though, since your Lego mates will respawn immediately; the only penalty being a portion of your studs. A lot of the puzzles mirror actual events in the books and movies, like when the fellowship makes it’s failed attempt to traverse the snowy walls of the Misty Mountains. Your larger characters like Aragorn and Legolas actually have to carry the hobbits and Gimli through the snow, their small stature making solo traversal impossible. These little details are what makes Lego LOTR such a fun experience. All is not perfect in the land of Middle Earth though.
Occasionally during fights or chase scenes, the camera behaved a little screwy, and I have to admit, the speed in which the camera turns is frustratingly slow. Also, the stud trail used to find the next quest or map markers resets itself often for no good reason, and I’ve experienced a quest or two that couldn’t continue due to a bug of some sort, not triggering the event or cut scene needed to advance. In any game, the good points will always be accompanied by some bad ones, but fortunately for Lego LOTR, there isn’t very much to be worried about.
Overall, this is my favorite Lego game to date. Traveller’s Tales never fails to impress with the way they handle these valuable licenses. Not only is Lego The Lord of the Rings an immense and entertaining piece of content with great cooperative play and a boat load of secrets and unlockables, it also makes an excellent first impression to kids and adults alike who have yet to experience this epic literary series.