What can be said about the LEGO series of video games that hasn’t already been said? Each game takes a beloved franchise and gives gamers the chance to play through their favorite moments, albeit as a LEGO character in a world painstakingly built of blocks. The first few entries had a cute quality about them that made it the perfect series to bring adult gamers together with their children. Gameplay was simple enough for a younger audience to understand, and the references and jokes paid homage to source material that adults loved.
But no amount of desirable franchises could keep the series fresh, as the past few entries have been guilty of rehashing the same quirks that made the original games such a fun surprise. Whether players are running through Hogwarts, playing as Captain Jack Sparrow, or stalking the streets of Gotham, the combat and puzzles never evolve into anything more developed than the forms in which they began.
So now we’re at the newest edition of the series, titled (take a breath) LEGO The Lord of the Rings: The Video Game. To say the source material is a rich base to build off of is face-palmingly obvious, but seeing as it is a property that video games have mined many times before, is Middle Earth worth another visit?
Everybody and their grandmother knows the plot of The Lord of the Rings series by now, but for those two of you who don’t, here’s a quick overview: Young hobbit Frodo Baggins is tasked with destroying the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, and is aided on his quest across Middle Earth by friends of many races, including elves, dwarves and humans alike. Sauron and his army of orcs stand in the way of the Fellowship, and each member embarks on an epic journey as they strive to destroy the evil that threatens to take power.
The film trilogy is a modern cinematic masterpiece, and LEGO The Lord of the Rings: The Video Game takes all of its cues from the films. Voices and voiceovers have been lifted straight into the cutscenes, and fans of the films will hear enough familiar lines to bring a smile to their faces. Despite the serious tone of the series, the LEGO version tones down some of the more violent and thematic moments, continuing to inject cutesy humor into the game. No matter how much you love the trilogy, you’ll still laugh when you see Boromir brought down by having a banana shot into his chest.
One odd feature that Traveller’s Tales integrated this time around is an open world mechanic, which doesn’t fair quite as well as it could have. Rather than featuring a large open world that branches off into different story missions or side objectives, these open areas reside in-between each story mission. They serve as a way to break up the missions, but they don’t feel fully developed. Most of the time in these areas will be spent on whacking everything in sight and collecting bolts to spend on new characters to unlock.
Perhaps most baffling is their inclusion of puzzles within the first stages that can’t be solved until characters unlocked later in the game are usable. I understand that backtracking is necessary, but why leave all of these puzzles strewn about in a way that players forget exactly which character they will need at any time to solve them? A fast travel feature helps to shorten the distance traveled, but these areas just don’t feel organic. I dreaded wandering through these patches of Middle Earth because of the way the game taunted me with puzzles that I would need to remember to solve later.
Side quests are left unexplained, and the poor map system didn’t help things in the slightest. After speaking with an inhabitant of the world about their issues, a symbol would appear on the map, and after choosing to start quest, a translucent path of bolts would lead to the objective. But just like before, chances are you’ll have to haul yourself there and back again just to get the right character with the right item to do some silly, menial task.
Despite the weakness of these sections, they do serve up quite a bevy of extra content to wander through after the main story has been completed. The best way to tackle them is to power through the story without a second thought for these open worlds before heading back and wandering without a care in the world. This serves to stretch out the length of the game noticeably, with extra blocks, characters and object blueprints just dying to be found, but it’s still a shame that these sections couldn’t have been integrated better within the game as a whole.
Story missions, on the other hand, are a blast to play through, as the many memorable scenes from the trilogy have been expanded into enticing and humorous stages. Fighting your way out of the Mines of Moria is insanely fun, and diving after the Balrog as Gandalf is one of the coolest moments of the game. Every epic moment from the trilogy is translated into LEGO form without losing much of their punch, making the story quests the meat of the game.
Combat is relegated to one attack button, making it simple enough for anybody to pick up and play. Larger characters can pick up the shorter members of the Fellowship (Gimli, Sam, Frodo, etc.) and either throw them at distant objects or over obstacles they could not pass on their own. Everyone is given a constantly expanding inventory, leaving them with certain items that make each character important to solving the many puzzles scattered throughout Middle Earth. Sadly, the puzzles rarely require anything other than figuring out which character has the item needed to pass and taking control of them to move on. Obviously, these are fine for the younger demographic, but more hardcore gamers will be frustrated by the lack of challenge.
If there’s one thing that LEGO The Lord of the Rings: The Video Game nails, it’s the artistic side of the experience. The environment is constantly breathtaking throughout the game, and a lot of work was put into making Middle Earth seem as realistic as it was in the films. Tracks ripped straight from the films play through each level, successfully immersing gamers in each locale. The voices ripped from the films have a chopped up feel to them, but it plays into the slapstick of the game well enough to get a pass.
The childish humor integrated into key moments of the game is surprisingly hilarious. On the surface, kids will laugh at the random appearance of chickens or Gandalf’s rage towards a low-hanging light, but the deeper homages to the source films are more than enough to get a chuckle out of adults. This is one of the few holdovers from the original LEGO games that still hasn’t worn out its welcome.
However, the same can’t be said for the simplistic gameplay and puzzles. It’s one thing to be easy enough for children, but it’s another to never even try to stimulate their brains. It would have been nice to see LEGO The Lord of the Rings: The Video Game try something different than a few open worlds and a huge roster of characters, but it seems much more comfortable settling into routine rather than breaking the norm.
Had the piss poor open world areas been removed and more time been put into integrating new and unique features, this could have been the entry that would have validated the continued existence of the LEGO series. Instead, LEGO The Lord of the Rings: The Video Game rests on its simplistic laurels and fails to do anything special with the series and its inexhaustible source material, becoming just another ho-hum entry with nothing new to offer gamers of any age.
Parents and children will still find plenty to love as they play through the classic story together, reliving moments from all three films that forever live in our hearts. But beyond that demographic, it’s hard to recommend that fans of the Fellowship return to Middle Earth when it’s been done better so many times before. Rebuilding one of the most beloved fantasy worlds out of LEGO blocks isn’t a good enough reason to play through the familiar story once again.
This review is based on an XBOX 360 copy of the game that we were provided with.