Last weekend I really wanted to revisit Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In anticipation of the upcoming film, I’ve been reading The Hobbit to my toddler (from the same 50th anniversary edition book my father once read to me), and I've desired to get swept up in the epic story once again, to hear that stirring soundtrack, to watch strong characters give up everything in order to do what was right. But instead of grabbing the Extended Blu-ray editions that have been sitting neglected in my apartment for months I booted up Lego Lord of the Rings instead... and nearly got the same experience.
But I see you there, rolling your eyes. Another year, another Lego game, or more precisely two more Lego games, since it was just a few months ago that Lego Batman 2 was released. Traveller’s Tales is cranking them out at a rate that puts Activision’s finest to shame, but they remarkably improve and hone the formula with each one. There are simply no other games out there that are as enjoyable for everyone from the youngest kids to the hardcore gamers. Yes, the cutesy style might be too much for some, but there’s no denying that as far as sheer unbridled fun the series still impresses, even with so many damn film licenses in their library, now. (Seven!)
Yet the last few installments have been stellar. The last Lego Harry Potter offered up the most in terms of sheer interactivity and its manipulation of the environment fit perfectly with the magical theme, and then Lego Batman 2 was perhaps the finest in the series yet, offering up a massive open-world environment in which you could drive, fly or just speed around at superhuman speeds. The story mode offers the same stud-collecting gameplay (that’s Lego studs, perv) in every game but they’ve done a great job of making the style fit the world.
So what could Lord of the Rings offer that’s new? How about all of Middle Earth? While the map is quite condensed, it’s all here. You’ll start out at Hobbiton and head down the river to Bree on your way to Mordor. This might be the first time in a Lord of the Rings game that you’ve really felt the scope of the story, the full impact of the journey, without its ever getting tiring or overwhelming. Rather than constant focus on combat, long seen as one of the series’ shortcomings, it’s more about exploration, although there are plenty of great action sequences. You can’t feature Return of the King without the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, of course. It's amazing how many little moments are featured in this game - you'll find that even the smallest moments are at least referenced.
As per usual in the series each character comes with unique skills and you’ll need to switch between them to advance, but you’ve never controlled this many characters at once. I’m talking about the entire Fellowship, and when it forms you’ll have full control over all nine characters. Gandalf can manipulate objects with magic and shield the party, Gimli can break through tough bricks with his axe, Legolas can jump high and shoot targets with his arrows, and Sam comes off as one of the handiest characters, with a tinderbox to start fires and cook and a shovel to put his horticultural skills to good use. (That useless fool of a Took has a bucket that he can fill with water.) You’ll frequently have to switch between all the characters and the many items in their individual possession, but it’s as intuitive as you’d expect from the series, and you just hold down a button and choose from a wheel that pops up. The Lego minifigs do all look very similar which can lead to some confusion while selecting them, but issues like this are all forgiven once you find out that any large character can pick up Gimli and use him as a projectile weapon. (There’s even an achievement called “Don’t Tell the Elf...” for chucking him 30 times.)
The one thing this game begs is more players at once. Two player co-op is great but four would have been even better, especially since there’s hardly a moment when you don’t have a whole mass of characters or aren’t switching between two groups. Controlling nine different characters at once can be a bit much, although an in-game tutorial can helpfully point out whenever a certain ability is needed.
Lego Batman 2 broke the trend of characters pantomiming and mumbling in the series and it continues here, really taking advantage of that license. Howard Shore’s tunes put you right in the mood, characters yell and grunt with their actor’s voices during combat, and cutscenes are sometimes almost word-for-word from the film.
Lego recreations of the films' most dramatic moments might sound excruciating, but they’re full of that goofy Lego humor. You’ll know right from the beginning, when Frodo accidentally drops the one ring in his tea to reveal the Elvish writing. Boromir is constantly being glared at and giving “Who, me?” expressions when traitors are mentioned and Gimli keeps weeping every other cutscene. When Boromir's corpse gets floated down the waterfall it teeters for a second on the edge before falling and careening off every rock on the way down with pachinko sound effects. After the Ents flood Isengard they’re seen surfing around in the background. You might wonder how it deals with the tougher material from the films but nothing has been toned down - death and loss and challenges still face the fellowship - it just has a wickedly dark (yet still light-hearted!) sense of humor now.
The game will last you perhaps as long as watching the films themselves, but you won’t be nearly done. There are quests all over and a staggering amount of goodies just waiting to be found, mythril items to be forged, and all kinds of hidden areas, easter eggs and characters. Tolkien devotees will be happy to find that Tom Bombadil is a playable character, and quick travel is available to get across the massive world rapidly, although you can always jump on a passing horse (or warg. or goat. or pig.) for a ride.
What we’ve got here is the single best Lord of the Rings game yet made and more proof that the Lego license still has some blocky, silly life left. Now, to wait for the inevitable Lego: The Hobbit...