LEGO Lord Of The Rings is full of bits that don’t work – obtuse, silly puzzles and sticking points that have you wandering around a tiny enclosed area for ages trying to find the trigger to make the game progress. It might be a certain number of collectables, it might be a minimum number of fires to light with Sam, it might be to just walk to a specific location. But when it’s seldom obvious what you’re doing and you’re moments away just literally banging away at everything in desperate hope that something will trigger, something’s not quite right.
And then, with a twist of Gandalf’s staff, Traveller’s Tales switch all that negativity completely around with a wide open, free roaming section with more relaxed mission structures, masses of places to traverse and explore, and more fan service than any of their previous LEGO titles. When they do this – like in the quickly revealed Hobbiton or the leisurely Rivendell – LEGO LotR is a sudden joy, bringing a massive smile that’s hard to keep down, each stumbling block before it forgotten.[drop]Until the next one, of course. And that’s really the issue with LEGO LotR and – to an extent – the other LEGO games before it: puzzles break up the flow but they’re rarely actually puzzles in the sense that they’ll require brainpower and cunning, but when the flow is there it’s a totally different experience.
It’s as if there was this wonderful, organic explore-em-up featuring everything a Rings fan could wish for about six months ago, and then building blocks of tasks and challenges were shoehorned in at the last minute, artificial padding and wild diversions from the story already somewhat streamlined by the film makers – the game is based on Jackson’s interpretation of the original, but still manages to do its own thing and mix around dialog and exposition with almost reckless abandon.
And yet, in spite of a loose structure and poor pacing, LEGO LotR is enthusiastic, constantly rewarding and frequently beautiful, the visuals smooth, rich and detailed, and – as you might hope – packed with variety and scenery as gorgeous as that in the film. Of course, it’s for the fans, and those hoping to get as much out of it without prior knowledge of the movies will find the threadbare interpretation of events confusingly edited together, the whistle-stop speed at which new areas are brought in and out handy for moving things along, but not always enjoyably so. You’ll need to branch off the path if you want to take your time and see the game’s less visited areas without being rushed around.
When you do, it’s a blissful experience. I’ve personally longed for a proper, open LotR title since I was a child, and this very nearly scratches that itch completely. Wandering around certain areas ignites youthful memories, checks off decades-old wishlists and brings rushes of emotive recollections of a heavy six-part tome passed down by my father, well before any of Tolkien’s words could be so literally expressed on a TV screen. Traveller’s Tales seem to have got Lord of the Rings better than I’d hoped they would, and at least 50% of the game is nigh on perfect.
It’s just the other half that falters. An early meeting with the Nazgûl sees the Hobbit quartet having to distract his attention as they creep amidst the forest – any sighting will see them moved back to the last checkpoint. It’s fine, in principle, but it’s dashed entirely by a later event on Weathertop which sees everyone chasing each other around with no such restriction, a frying pan as deadly a weapon in combating the Black Riders as Strider’s sword until Sam manages to get the required number of fires lit. The two sections simply don’t work together as a whole, coherent experience, something that’s echoed elsewhere, frequently in the game.
Naturally, the game plays much better with a co-op friend – it’s offline only, but the same intelligent screen splitting is present and correct, and despite a lower frame rate in two player LEGO LotR is much more enjoyable. Freed from dumb, wandering AI and a console that often blankly refuses to help make any progress, with a friend familiar with the events this is almost an entirely different experience. It’s obviously fully playable alone, but it’s just nowhere as much fun and you’ll need oodles of patience as you wrestle with a partner that simply refuses to stay put or assist.[drop2]Exploration is the key, here, then – and you’ll only really get that once the main story is done and dusted. After that, in Free Play and with a wider gamut of playable characters, things are more easily unlocked, missions are delivered with less hurdles to leap and the sheer scale of the game truly opens up and it’s often dazzling in scope and production. It’s not overstating things to say that the joy of just walking around Middle Earth, picking up tasks at leisure, is unrivalled.
Where Traveller’s Tales get things right – like the Mithril blocks inventory and crafting meta game that sees you forging new items as you go along – LEGO LotR is a real gem of a game, and threatens to be the best they’ve done for years. But when they resort to old tropes and aged gameplay mechanics that desperately need to evolve – like wooden combat and poor signposting – it’s frustrating because these things could easily have been smoothed out, leaving nothing but the good stuff. Given the sheer amount of pleasure certain areas give, those that don’t work as well only manage to stick out even more.
- Wonderful open world roaming
- Some great fan service
- Gorgeous graphics, although the cut-scenes are rather ugly
- Great use of the original voice actors
- Some clumsy sub missions
- Pacing can be a bit iffy
- Online multiplayer would be a bonus
- There’s still no Y-invert option for the camera, amazingly
The quandary here is that LEGO LotR couldn’t really be nothing but a free-roaming adventure because it doesn’t have the bones in place to build a structure around anything but the sub missions. This isn’t Skyrim, it’s Skyrim-lite with loads of required sections that are played through in order, the overworld padding around them unless you take the time to explore at your leisure.
Loading times break the illusion too, although this is clearly a competitive developer taking on one hell of a license. With that in mind, this is an solid purchase for Rings fans, but one that should be approached with just a dash of caution. Previous LEGO game owners will know exactly what to expect, but it’s a shame that Traveller’s Tales aren’t willing to tweak gameplay niggles that have been there since Star Wars.
A copy of the game was provided for review by the publisher. Version tested: Xbox 360. Note that the PS Vita and 3DS versions don’t have the free-roaming sections.