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 exploration (with a side order of vandalism) still forms the bedrock of the game, and it’s a formula that flourishes once the core campaign has ended. Lego Lord of the Rings borrows the accomplished free-roaming aspect from DC Heroes and Middle-earth provides 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 genuine ‘gotta catch ’em all’ vibe to things. This is a game that clocks in at around the 10-hour mark until you realise 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 found. 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 allowed for a compelling divide between the traditional platforming and vestigial combat and scenes unique to The Lord of the Rings; taking charge of an Ent during the assault on Isengard or sneaking by the Ringwraiths beyond Hobbiton to name but a couple. There are even on-rails horse riding sections during some of the more sweeping battles and get this, they’re pretty damn good.
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 dramatic 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 charming cutscenes that do a decent job of channelling the excitement of the films. Like DC Heroes, Lord of the Rings includes voiceover work but here it’s been surgically removed from the films. Not that the animation department has any trouble wrenching a surprising amount 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 find his chef hat so that he can open a restaurant, a hobbit having lost his lucky umbrella in the Dead Marshes.
It’s during the open-world stints as well that the puzzles and platforming take centre stage and the savvy interplay between characters is put to best use. You can switch between the 80-odd characters on the fly and they each have their own perks and gadgets. Legolas, for example, can use his bow and arrow to fashion makeshift swinging bars that only he can master. Elsewhere, Gollum can scale certain walls, crawl through tunnels and cough up his name like a dry-heaving cat. Together the unlikely pair can clamber to the top of Saruman’s tower, but alone they get nowhere.
It’s this synergy between characters, coupled with the ludicrously deep treasure trove of unlockables, that provide 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.) 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 that make enough of a dent to warrant a couple of grumbly paragraphs at the end here. The camera has a knack for misbehaving in tight areas, the controls can be clumsy when you’re jumping across small platforms and the friendly AI is often 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 reasonably 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 on the dancefloors of war.
But there are so many lovely little touches that win you back. 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. It’s the combination of all these little things that breath life into Lego Middle-earth.
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 adventures 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; a delightfully arch yet faithful coming-together of Traveller’s Tales storied formula and one of the most treasured western tales penned over the last century. But it’s also Traveller Tale’s crowning glory – the result of seven years spent tweaking and refining – and the veteran developer will struggle to find another franchise as fitting as The Lord of the Rings to upstage it.