Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin huddle in a corner, kept safe from the advancing Nazgûl by their hastily lit watch-fires. Emitting a piercing shriek, the Witch-king of Angmar strides forward, dark eyes gleaming as from under the blackness of its cloak it slowly pulls out… a fire extinguisher?
It’s with this and other tongue-in-cheek digs at its own source material—Peter Jackson’s highly successful movie trilogy—that LEGO: The Lord of the Rings manages to succeed in entertaining an all-ages audience. A recent release by Traveller’s Tales, LEGO: LOTR is a pleasant surprise. Our only previous venture into the LEGO universe was a short playthrough of LEGO: Star Wars, so we were unsure what to expect: would the gameplay be too simplistic? Would the concepts and complex plot arcs be removed, changed for a younger audience? But all worries were quickly dispelled the moment we clicked ‘Start New Game’.
After a brief overview of events shown in a beautifully hand-drawn style reminiscent of the films— and narrated by Galadriel—the player is immediately thrust into the action. You find yourself in the shoes of Isilidur’s father, Elendil, as he, Isildur, Elrond, and their army of elves and men fight the Battle of Dagorlad against the might of foul Sauron. The player is tasked with defending the three heroes against orcish attack, and after a brief tutorial, you’ll soon be hacking and slashing with gleeful abandon as wave after wave of orcs pour out around your defensive position. There’s a real sense of scale to LEGO: LOTR. With scores of enemies attacking in both the background and foreground, framed across the well-realized yet desolate land of Mordor, you get a very real sense of the epic gravitas Tolkien was attempting to convey on the page.
And then Sauron takes to the field: he’s huge, and each swing of his battle-mace cuts through your ranks, the camera angle changing to emphasize his bulk. The music swells, and a haunting theme trumpets out over the top of the action: at this and similar points in LEGO: LOTR, you really feel like you’re inside one of the movies. Typical of boss battles everywhere, while your opponent does decent damage up close or with special powers/weapons, if you play keep-away long enough, one or two fatal flaws are revealed for the player to exploit. Sauron, for example, will eventually take an overhead swing at you, driving his mace into the ground long enough for the player to give him a good whacking. Future boss battles heavily involve the usage of the LEGO build mechanic—in the Mines of Moria section, Merry and Pippin have to construct tiny doors so they can sneak up onto a higher ledge and leap down onto the massive cave troll’s back to deal damage.
The game’s main narrative is taken straight from the movies, and all the main scenes of the three films are played through: you’ll escape with Frodo and the hobbits through Farmer Maggot’s fields, evade the Nazgûl as you run for the Buckleberry ferry, meet up with Aragorn in The Prancing Pony in Bree, and move ever onwards to Mount Doom. Clever use of cut-scenes—which, as previously stated, contain cheeky, more playful versions of the original events—definitely lend the game a ‘movie-like’ feel which kids and adults alike will love. Frodo accidentally dropping the One Ring into his tea as Gandalf’s back is turned is an especially hilarious moment.
Traveller’s Tales has lovingly recreated a beautiful, sprawling replica of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The detailed character models (detailed for LEGO people, that is), intricate level design, and simplistic yet beautifully modeled objects—we’re talking birds, flower bushes, skeletons, collectible items, and even the LEGO dirt, whose particle effects look darned amazing—are all unique. Each really adds an extra level of depth that seemed missing from previous LOTR titles. Most of these objects can be destroyed, leaving varying amounts of coins, so you’ll quickly shift between admiring the world around you and bashing it to pieces to collect loot. All character dialogue, narration, and music is lifted directly from the films, adding to the overall Rings feel.
Gameplay in LEGO: LOTR ranges from basic to complex, mainly consisting of switching between the many changing characters in your party and using their weapons or special abilities to navigate through the various set-pieces: this will range from building a LEGO bridge to cross a ravine, to collecting and setting up multiple LEGO objects that combine into one larger complex door mechanism, like when you’re trying to flee the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. The game smacks of RPG-lite, as each character has their own inventory with default items unique to each character, although you’ll find yourself using Sam’s spade more often than not. As you play through each portion of the story, you’ll find save statues that later allow you to transport back to previously visited portions of the map. You can replay these story sections in ‘Story Mode’ with the original movie characters or ‘Freeplay’, which allows other characters you’ve unlocked to also play, which is an important part of accessing special items and areas. Certain characters can only unlock certain areas: Legolas can jump onto higher platforms, Gimli’s mithril axe can break through certain cracked LEGO tiles, and so on.
LEGO: LOTR offers an almost overwhelming amount of content and collectibles for the avid fan. LEGO coins are strewn across each level for you to collect and are also awarded when mini- and major quests are completed. These coins can be used to purchase many unique items or unlockable characters: the inclusion of Tom Bombadil—who’s not even mentioned in the films—was a particular favourite. Mithril blocks can be collected to forge special items at the Blacksmith, and mini-quests are dotted throughout the map, giving you additional rewards. Coveted red bricks, which can only be found via side-quests, are like a LEGO version of cheats and extras. There are also tons of trophies to collect—just walking into Mordor gets you the ‘One does not simply…’ trophy.
Playing on the PC version, the controls felt overwhelming at first. You can jump, attack, use items, and select between characters, while holding down the use button opens your inventory. There are four buttons for camera controls and four for movement, so a slight learning curve on PC means the game is easily ported to console. Character selection is quite intuitive: we really liked being able to face in the direction of a character, tap the character select button, and be swapped immediately to that character. During the more frantic action sequences, this is a much easier way to swap between heroes than navigating the cumbersome selection menu.
As with any game of this magnitude, there are some niggling issues, but to Traveller’s Tales’ credit, they’re few and far between. The controls sometimes feel slow and unresponsive, especially in the platform jumping sections. As this is quite an important part of the gameplay, and a mistimed jump can often mean a quick death-leap into lava or over a cliff, you’ll find yourself frequently frustrated. To the game’s credit, though, you can never really ‘die’ in LEGO: The Lord of the Rings, although you do lose a decent amount of saved coins each time your character is revived.
Another real annoyance is the tiny game manual and the the lack of an in-game tutorial. You’ll be puzzling out what each collectible is for either through long hours of play or by looking online. In brief, mithril bricks can be used to craft weapons, armor, and other items; unique items are usually required to complete quests (the rubber duckie, which your character immediately starts wearing on his head when its picked up, was a favorite); and golden treasure chests contain rewards and loot. For a while, we thought the quest markers—light blue, transparent coins—that appear both on the map and in-game were a future unlockable bonus, as the blue coins are worth a higher value. The penny soon dropped.
Movie-lovers and long-time Rings enthusiasts alike should definitely consider investing in a copy of this game. Traveller’s Tales has gone all out with this epic recreation of Tolkien’s fantasy world, and a lot of love has gone into its crafting. Middle-earth is huge; after 30 hours of playtime, we feel like we’ve just scratched the surface. Available now on all major consoles and handhelds, be sure to get your hands on LEGO: The Lord of the Rings today, my prrrrrrreciousss.
This review is based on a retail copy of the LEGO The Lord of the Rings: The Video Game developed and distributed by Travellers Tales.