First of all it’s important to note that Lord of The Rings Fans are a scrupulously discerning bunch, and games in the past have had mixed reception. One big Middle Earth fan I used to work with was an addict of the Lord of the rings online MMO and wouldn’t touch any other game with a mithril bargepole, so Travellers Tales have a big weight on their shoulders. Nevertheless, they have struck Morian Gold with this game.
Travellers Tales have a vast tapestry of experience in turning beloved films into legocentric wonderlands and have been successful in tapping into a variety of Hollywood behemoths. It’s a clever way of ‘re-imagining’ IP that has already shown a commercial success with an established fan-base. They have a reputation for being in a very small minority of video game film-spin offs that are actually good and fun. I played the original Lego Star wars on the PSP and adored the humour and charm that oozed from every twinkly, hopping block. It amused me that despite the effort and attention to detail the developers took to reconstruct one of my favourite franchises I still spent a lot of time in the cantina chuckling at my freshly created ‘Princess Chewbacca’ with furry growling head and smoothly tanned hour-glass shaped slave-girl torso.
The game begins by taking you through Hobbiton, fly-on the wall style, with all the hustle and bustle of the flora and fauna and the diminutive people who live therein. The game looks lovely, and the world of Middle Earth lends itself well to the Lego Universe style. Graphics are crisp and colourful, with hints of distant mountains and trails in the background. There did seem to be an overuse of blur for background distant detail and I sometimes found myself wishing I could stop and stare at clearer scenery, Skyrim style. I imagine that this solved frame rate issues, which are excellent by the way, and the simplicity of the character models obviously ups the rendering speed in general, which is fine. Immediately a warm fuzzy feeling came back as I remembered the book and the film and all the adventures that lay before me. I have to admit to being impressed and daunted at the same time. The Lord of the Rings is loooonnng. The skill that Travellers tales have is the ability to distil the important and essential plot points of any story and hone them into a smooth flowing gameplay experience.
After the opening discussion with Gandalf and the discovery of the ring, the game swiftly speeds to your encounter with Samwise as well as bumping into Merry and Pippin out apple scrumping. I was frustrated to find I was unable to invert my Y axis control, despite searching through the settings, which seems a strange oversight that hopefully will be addressed later. I spent some time collecting studs, the central currency of the game, but soon itched to start my adventure. Very soon the game soon takes you out of the green, sparkling comfort of Hobbiton and straight into the darker, gloomier iconic scene with the Black Rider. This is your first taster into how the parts of the story are turned into gameplay. Like many a Lego game, each character has tools and abilities essential to solving puzzles throughout the game, and this first level acts as a tutorial for any newcomers to the Lego concept. It’s an interesting way to introduce you to the controls while trying to stay in keeping with the Tolkien canon. All LOTR fans know how the story goes from here, and I shan’t describe the story in too much detail, but needless to say, Travellers Tales know their audience. From here on it’s a matter of appreciating how the story is played out with the knowledge of each scene playing in your head.
As you navigate round your world you use the lovingly reproduced map of Middle Earth to see how you are progressing, but also to set waypoints for any quests. The world opens up beautifully, with more space to roam and search than you ever had in earlier Lego games and you really feel immersed. This is quite an achievement in what is essentially a fairly whimsical child-centric game. As you work your way through the story there are characters to meet who can give you quests to undertake while you are there. the rewards offered include multiplying your stud count as you collect them, but also designs to various treasures that can be made in the blacksmith’s back in Bree. This is obviously up to you, if you want to charge through the story first and leave the questing to later or do them as you go along. There’s a definite advantage to questing as you go along as it opens up more options to collect goodies and improve your chances of building up studs to buy characters, but it also releases more facets of the story you wouldn’t see by merely playing the campaign alone. There’s a large amount of replayability there, and as always aspects of the environment you cannot interact with at the beginning of the game when you have less characters to hand become useable as you stock up on new characters later on and play in freeplay mode.
The appeal of this game to the younger generation is undoubted. My daughter began to watch me play this, and although never experiencing any of Tolkien’s fiction before, soon became engrossed sitting on my lap and just watching me play. She did this for most of the game, and the obvious comical little quirks that are a trademark of the Lego games made her howl with laughter. It is also a clever technique to cover up the darker, more disturbing parts of the story that would remove the ‘7’ rating. One memorable scene saw a character dying after a particularly brutal attack of various garden vegetables, fish and fruit pierce him instead of arrows. I’m just upset that she isn’t able to use a controller as yet to join me in the co-op multiplayer. Obviously the game is more fun with two people, and makes for a more satisfying experience when solving puzzles. The split screen mechanic is clever, but you do sometimes have to contend with a less experienced player who wanders off and hinders progress.
Some of the game’s other mechanics were more frustrating, especially with certain aspects of platforming. The camera is sometimes fixed, making judging jumps and walking bridges a challenge. Other times the camera is moveable and allows you to rotate, which seems strangely inconsistent; you never know when you can use this or not. One particular character, who is more agile than the rest of the Fellowship was particularly annoying and hard to control despite following all the hints suggested. This could seem like nitpicking, but the Hobbits were much more solid to use and although it’s great to build in individual characteristics for each character, it meant I was less inclined to use him unless I had to. The boss battles at the end of each level (or chapter) also soon became quite repetitive, and it seems a shame when so much attention to detail and imagination had been put into other aspects of the game. I enjoyed the cutscenes, which were never overly long, and with dialogue which initially seemed strange after the quirky sim-like grunting of characters in the earlier games, but I seriously cannot see how they would tell the story without speech. All recorded dialogue is taken from the films by the original actors and does add great gravitas to the story, so fits well here.
In summary this is a near perfect game for both Lego Game enthusiasts and Lord of The Rings fans. It looks beautiful and is an Orc-filled pit of fun, despite a few niggles with the controls and disappointing boss battles. I was still genuinely moved by the narrative, despite it being played out by plastic toys (although this to be fair this is because it is a great story).You will like it, as will younger children and it will certainly meet the needs of a collectibles addict. Ask for it in your stocking this Christmas. Unless you’re a hobbit. Hobbits don’t wear stockings.
Review by Jon ‘Darth Nutclench’ Evans
Preview copy of the Xbox game supplied by Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment
Pictures courtesy of Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment