In terms of pure output, Traveller’s Tales is to be admired. In 2011 they pumped out four LEGO titles and last year managed to prove they can evolve the series with Batman 2: DC Super Heroes. LEGO LotR is a logical advancement of Batman 2, taking on board a more open world approach to the hub area and focusing far less on the busy building that took up so much time in previous offerings. The map of Middle Earth, from The Shire to Mount Doom, is now an open area for you to explore, with secrets and side quests to unlock and complete, as well as an almost endless supply of LEGO studs to collect.
One can be forgiven for feeling burnt out on these titles. After all, they rarely change their core formula, relying on the systematic pace of smashing things apart, collecting studs, building bridges, ladders and all manner of other things, and the utilisation of character-specific skills within levels. Nothing has changed here, but everything is operating under fully focused direction. Character swapping is smooth, as is the AI of your companions who will often move into place before you realise that you need them there to complete a specific puzzle.
The characters themselves are provided added depth with the inclusion of official speech captures from key movie scenes. In fact, as you play through LEGO LotR, with Howard Shore’s excellent score as a constant companion, it feels less like a LEGO game and more like a fully-fledged Lord of the Rings game. That the characters just happen to be made of LEGO, with Traveller’s Tales’ characteristically humorous take on serious situations (Boromir’s death scene pushes this a bit far) does little to lessen the quality of the design.
Gameplay situations follow the films extremely closely, to the point where, upon rewatching The Fellowship of the Ring after playing the first third of the game, I realised that many of the story scenes align shot for shot with the movies. As expected with LEGO games, completion of the story is just the beginning. You’ll sit at around 30% completion as you watch the credits for The Return of the King roll, with Free Play of each level then required if you wish to find every collectible, buy every character, complete every quest and unlock every cheat. Doing quests within the hub world unlocks extra perks, such as being able to build faster, gaining stud collection multipliers or unlocking invulnerability, which in turn makes your grind through the story levels much easier. All to the constant, addictive patter of collected LEGO studs.
Graphically, things look really impressive, with the LEGO aspects of the world standing out just enough to be discerned, but not so much that they don’t meld extremely well with the realistic graphics of the broader surrounds. There are some impressive vistas to enjoy as you wander through a condensed version of Middle Earth, although this comes at the cost of object pop in and distance blurring. Mechanically, these games are starting to feel old.
Combat is almost always limited to mashing X, no matter how much it is dressed up. Boss battles are horribly repetitive and far too easy. It’s not really clear if these games are meant for a young audience or adults who enjoy a more simple approach. Future LEGO titles would benefit from putting more power in the hands of players, perhaps removing the stringent puzzle pacing and allow for broader solutions with a specific set of skills.
For this fantasy lover, LEGO The Lord of the Rings ticks all the right boxes. In fact, after a very average gaming year (or, to be fair, a year full of disappointments and very middle of the road narratives), it has reignited my appreciation of relaxing with a fun game. To be fair, the world given to Traveller’s Tales is deep enough that their job was three quarters done for them, but the scale and depth of the game itself is nevertheless impressive. If you’re on the lookout for a holiday/new year title to while away a good few hours with, this is a perfect fit.