Franchise fatigue has no doubt held a few veterans at bay, but if ever there were cause to sit up and take note of the Traveller’s Tales series this would surely be it. Is Lego The Lord of the Rings the game they were built for, then, or one Lego-adventure too many?
I am a man of simple pleasures. Cupholders in the cinema. Reclining armchairs in the living room. Resealable tabs on my snacks. The quaint charm of thumping Lego Uruk Hai soldiers is certainly not wasted on me, then. Nor am I immune to the wild burst of joy that comes from cresting a Rohan hill and being lovingly punched by an unfurling view of Middle-earth that reaches from Isengard to Minas Tirith. This may be the twelfth game in a franchise that stretches back seven years now, but there’s been no greater digital coming-together of Lego and a well-liked film franchise than here in Lego The Lord of the Rings.
Still, while it would take a crueller man than I to dub this just another game in a series that has evolved at a humble rate of knots over the years, you could certainly make a strong case for it. Lego Lord of the Rings plucks the best bits from the previous Lego games and weaves Tolkien’s timeless lore in with a deft hand, but you can’t escape the fact it’s the same old machine grafting away beneath a shiny new Gandalf the Grey mask.
The rudimentary ragbag of platforming, puzzling and combat (with a side order of vandalism) still forms the bedrock of the game, and it’s a formula that flourishes once the campaign wagon has rolled to a stop. Lego Lord of the Rings borrows the accomplished free-roaming aspect of DC Heroes and Middle-earth proves to be the perfect playground for it. Just being able to strike out from Weathertop and ten-minutes later be scrambling to the crown of Minis Tirith without a single loading screen to splinter the journey is a special kind of brilliant.
You’ll notice too, while adventuring through TT’s potted rendition of Middle-earth foraging for the countless collectibles, that there’s a veritable ‘gotta catch ’em all’ vibe to things. This is a game that clocks in at around the 10-hour mark until you realise, ten hours in, that you’ve only just plodded through the 25% completion checkpoint. With the story out-of-the-way there’s still upward of 150 unlockable characters, quests and items to be snatched up. Not to mention drop-in/drop-out co-op play. The first run of the campaign is, really, just foreplay.
It’s a big old game, then, and in gameplay terms the films have given rise to a compelling blend of traditional platforming and vestigial combat as well as scenes unique to The Lord of the Rings; taking charge of an Ent during the siege of Isengard or stealing past the Ringwraiths outside of Hobbiton, to name two. There are even on-rails horse riding stints during some of the more sweeping battle scenes and get this, they’re pretty damn great.
Traveller’s Tales do a first-rate job of abridging twelve hours of film and goodness-knows how many pages of novel into a 10-hour core romp, too. And the good news, if the idea of roaming unchecked around Middle-earth doesn’t appeal to you, is the core campaign is probably the best one yet. (The bad news is you’ve gone completely mad.) From the high-drama of the Bucklebury crossing to the solemn events of Helms Deep, the sullen passageways of Moria and the heroic last march of the Ents, TT has packed its shortened tale full of highlights and spectacle, cutting a swathe through all the chatty bits from the films without betraying the story-at-large.
Most of that story is relayed through cutscenes that do a decent job of channelling the excitement and scale of the films. Like DC Heroes, Lord of the Rings includes voiceover work but here it’s been surgically removed from the films to splendid efffect. Not that the animation department has any trouble wrenching a surprising degree of emotion from every gurning face, furrowed brow and irreverent smirk. The slapstick shenanigans have been dialled back to mirror the tone of the source material, but even with a fistful of cheeky irrelevancies viewed through a lens built from Lego bricks, this is still a remarkably touching tale of gallantry and camaraderie.
Lego veterans need not reach for their plastic pitchforks and torches, though. The hallmark comedy finds a natural outlet during the open-world sections, chiefly through a series of humdrum fetch quests wrapped up in a blanket of devil-may-care charm; an Uruk Hai warrior asking you to retrieve his chef’s hat so that he can open a restaurant, a hobbit having lost his lucky umbrella on a trip through the Dead Marshes.
It’s during the open-world tours that the puzzles and platforming take centre stage and the savvy interplay between characters is put to best use too. You can switch between some 80 characters on the fly and they each come packaged with their own perks and gadgets. Legolas, for example, can use his bow to fashion makeshift swinging bars that only he can master while Gollum can scale certain walls, crawl through tunnels and cough his name like a dry-heaving cat. Together this unlikely pair can clamber to the top of Saruman’s tower, but alone they get nowhere.
It’s this synergy between the characters, coupled with the ludicrously deep treasure trove of unlockables, that provides reason to revisit levels and adventure through Middle-earth long after the story ends. But Traveller’s Tales masterstroke here is marrying the open-world antics of DC Heroes with Howard Shore’s rousing and wistful film score. Shore’s tender refrains and swelling battle anthems could make an across-the-road lunchtime trip to Costcutter a stentorian tale of derring-do that spells out in bold capital letters the true meaning of friendship and sacrifice (just imagine, for a moment, what they can do to a man sat in his pants writing about Lego videogames. Wait, don’t.) Simply put, the score is as important to free-roaming around Middle-earth on horseback as Grand Theft Auto’s radio stations are to whoosing around Liberty City in a shiny new sports car.
There are enough niggles to warrant a couple of grumbly paragraphs at the end here. The camera has a knack for misbehaving in cramped areas, the controls are clumsy whenever you’re jumping across small platforms and the friendly AI is sometimes cool with following you but not actually joining in the fight. I’m not cool with that. This is the fellowship of the ring, dammit.
It’s also a shame that there’s a miserable blur effect marring anything more than a few feet away. It’s particularly odd because elsewhere the engine manages to replicate the scale of the larger battles rather well. The gloomy struggle at Helms Deep is particularly admirable, with hundreds of characters wrestling in the periphery while trolls bearing battering rams clatter about the dancefloors of war.
But there are so many lovely little touches that win you back over. That the king of Rohan rattles the spears of his trembling horseman before they cannonball down into the abyss is a delightful exemplification of the love and respect Telltale demonstrate time and again for Tolkien’s epic. Exploring Bag End is another joy, as is scaling Sauruman’s tower to find the silly sod stranded up there looking glum. Gollum’s the highlight, though. They owe a huge debt to Andy Serkis, but Traveller’s Tales have nailed the mannerisms and behaviour of Lord of the Rings’ most dazzling character and it’s the coming-together of all these little aspects and loving touches that bring Lego Middle-earth to life.
That it has taken the developer seven years and twelve games to saddle The Lord of the Rings to its fail-safe mould might come as a surprise, but you need only dedicate a few hours to the company of Frodo Baggins and co. to appreciate just how crucial that seven-year wait has been. The voice work, the score, the open-world nature of the game; would any of that have been possible four years ago? Unlikely. This is a Lego game with all the trappings, sure, but it’s also Traveller Tale’s crowning glory, and the veteran developer will struggle to find another franchise as fitting as The Lord of the Rings to upstage it.
This review was originally published on BeefJack.