LEGO Lord of the Rings review
*This review contains spoilers for The Lord of the Rings
Over a decade after the film releases of J. R. R. Tolkien’s sprawling fantasy classic, you’d think videogame tie-ins would start drying up. We’ve hacked and slashed, real time strategised, and role-played through countless hours of Lord of the Rings action. Aren’t we a little tired of Middle Earth?
It takes approximately three seconds of the opening menu screen to reignite your interest. From the very beginning LEGO Lord of the Rings brims with enthusiasm for its source material. Whether it’s the sheer charm of seeing your favourite characters rendered in LEGO or the entertaining, addictive gameplay, this is guaranteed to make you fall in love with the franchise all over again.
Here is arguably the finest videogame iteration of Middle Earth yet seen. Its real strength is striking a balance between the necessary sweeping scale and the finer attention to detail. The LEGO aesthetic is less prominent than in previous games, with most landscapes rendered in a naturalistic style that accurately captures the feel of the films. Paired with some of the colour and vibrancy we’ve come to expect from LEGO, it eschews the gloominess seen in many other Rings games in favour of something far more appealing. It’s impossible not to smile as you wander through the cobbled lanes of bucolic Hobbiton, or to stop and admire the sun drawing low behind Edoras. Set to Howard Shore’s evocative score, you’ll find yourself immersed in Middle Earth like never before; an impressive feat for plastic toys.
An Unexpected Party
Although the source material means this is a necessarily darker game than previous LEGO entries, the usual irreverent humour still comes thick and fast. The sheer adherence to the films, such as identical camera shots and voice-acting lifted verbatim, provides gravity and bizarre po-faced humour in equal measure. This means the biggest laughs come from the most unexpected places; you’d never have thought Boromir’s death could be so hilarious.
The game encompasses the entire trilogy, from Fellowship of the Ring’s rousing prologue right through to the final showdown at the Crack of Doom. The scale of this adventure has allowed Traveller’s Tales to incorporate a far greater degree of exploration. Every area is packed with hidden collectibles to be unearthed and side quests to run. While the latter are never more than fetch quests, they’re saved by comical NPC interaction (‘I’m building a house out of bones!’ an Uruk-hai tells you. ‘But I’ve run out of bones.’), and the simple tasks are perfect encouragement to investigate the nooks and crannies of far-reaching plains and perilous cliff faces.
You’ll have to search high and low to find everything; the amount of collectibles on offer is staggering. Coins burst in abundance from every destroyed obstacle; purchasable characters wander through the wilderness; treasure chests hide in darkened caves. The focus here is on replay value. Revisiting areas with different characters allows you to use their unique abilities to reach previously inaccessible parts of the map. There’s also the option to collect Mithril blocks and blacksmith designs, which you take to a smith in the village of Bree to craft new items. These in turn grant abilities, such as strength or camouflage, to whoever equips them, saving the trouble of switching characters. Items range from the humble (Mithril trowel) to the ridiculous (Mithril disco ball). Play straight through the story and it’ll last about as long as a viewing of the films. Try to collect everything, and you might be addicted long into Middle Earth’s fourth age.
It’s fortunate then that the core gameplay is fun and rewarding, even after the one ring is long destroyed. If you’ve played a LEGO game before then you won’t find many surprises. Gameplay is divided between combat and puzzle solving, the latter entailing much switching back and forth between members of the fellowship. With the addition of exploration, there’s a satisfying sense of variety. Individually none of these elements is remarkable, but the game switches them up enough that it never feels tedious. Some ideas are reused a little too often, such as throwing rocks to distract patrolling foes, which can make some sequences feel a little padded. Thankfully you’re never far from the next bravura set piece, like battling the Balrog as you plummet into the abyss of Moria or leading the last ditch charge on the enemy at Helms Deep. While these usually amount to little more than quick time events, they capture the excitement of the moment so effectively you’re unlikely to care.
You might be more bothered by a number of small frustrations with the control system. The inventory and character selection are handled via pinwheel, which in turn is accessed by holding a face button. It’s a clunky system, particularly in the heat of battle, sometimes leaving you to take unnecessary damage. With so many buttons on the controller unused, a simpler method could surely be devised. The camera can throw up issues too, sometimes hiding key items just off-screen which occasionally acts to cheapen the otherwise well-designed puzzles. Party AI can be erratic, with companions becoming stuck on scenery and offering little resistance in a fight. You might be part of a fellowship, but it’s up to you to do the heavy lifting.
Some of these issues can be avoided by playing the game with a friend. The game is even more entertaining in co op, and there’s less need to fiddle around switching characters so that puzzle-solving and combat become smoother experiences. The only let-down is that online co op remains absent. The LEGO series has been crying out for online adventuring, and this would have been the perfect title to implement it.
Lord of the Rings is the biggest challenge yet faced by Traveler’s Tales games and their LEGO adaptations, and for the most part they’ve pulled it off wonderfully. While the core gameplay remains somewhat unchanged, its incorporation into Middle Earth has resulted in a gloriously entertaining, addictive adventure with any number of standout moments that compensate for some occasionally awkward controls. Perhaps most importantly, it’s clear that the developers are just as big Rings fans as they expect you to be, injecting detail and humour that goes far beyond mere novelty value.
Tolkien might never have expected his masterwork to be played out like this, but you can be sure that even he would have a smile on his face for the duration.