Just in time to capitalize on the nerd furor for "The Hobbit" movie, Warner Bros. has released LEGO The Lord of the Rings. A video game adaptation of the three films, the title strikes just the right balance between the books' majesty and the trademark LEGO slapstick humor. Like LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes, the open world is less blocky than in previous iterations, and the added realism is put to wonderful use in some of the breathtaking panoramas of Middle-earth. Some advancements are made to move the series forward, but unfortunately, they also introduce some glitches. This is certainly the most ambitious LEGO game to date, but it's not the best.
When you start LEGO The Lord of the Rings, you play through the movie trilogy in story mode. The 18 levels are quite long, meriting multiple checkpoints within each level and comprising about nine hours of gameplay. There are some glitches with the checkpoint system because I died after my checkpoint supposedly saved, and I had to restart the level from the very beginning. Despite that and freezing a couple of times (par for the course in LEGO titles, it seems), this portion of the game plays out well, and if you have no interest in the LEGO games beyond the initial playthrough, then you are in for a treat. After you complete each level in story mode, it becomes available in freeplay mode, where you're allowed to switch among available characters.
The game boasts over 80 different characters, and unlike LEGO Harry Potter, there aren't too many different variations of the same character. As in prior games, you can switch characters by holding the Y button and choosing someone with the directional pad. Each character now has inventory, which can be accessed by holding down the B button. Each character has an ability (elves jump higher, hobbits can crawl into small chutes, etc.), and in the case of Aragorn, his sword improves as you progress. Legolas uses daggers for short-range combat and a bow for long-range combat. That's the idea, anyway. In practice, I lost count of the number of times that Legolas stood toe-to-toe with an enemy and tried shooting him in the face with a bow and arrow. Precarious platforming sequences are made with the standard jumper in mind, so it's not a good idea to use Legolas here, either. My default character was Samwise Gamgee, who was deadly accurate with his frying pan and did double duty as a pint-sized hobbit. When I needed to wield a stronger weapon, I chose Aragorn.
It's no surprise that the series is tailor-made for the role-playing game genre (see: The Lord of the Rings Online), so once you're done with the linear story levels, you're dumped into the hub world, where you can complete fetch quests. Fetch quests are everyone's favorite part of RPGs, so rejoice! Oh, wait … they're not? Hmm. Quests yield Mithril bricks, this title's equivalent of the usual gold bricks, in addition to red bricks, which unlock extras such as score multipliers and invincibility.
In the hub world, you can fast-travel between locations by going to a map stone and choosing a destination. You have the choice of going to a location during the day or night, and since different quests and characters are available at different times, you are encouraged to mix it up a little.
If you're a completionist, LEGO The Lord of the Rings will give you a headache. As you unlock quests, they're only displayed on the map. The icon is at the quest-giver's location, and there's an image of what you need to retrieve. What the game really needs is a quest log that records the item, its location, the location of the quest-giver, and the promised reward. I realize that LEGO games are geared toward children who may not be up to reading tomes, but the absence of a log resulted in a lot of backtracking. You can select the quest item from the map and start the quest from there, but if you went with this method, you would need to lather, rinse and repeat for each quest item. If I'm already in Rivendell, I'd like to know what else I can tackle while I'm there. It's a pity that the most efficient method of tracking this information was to keep a log on pen and paper. What a crazy concept!
Adding to the frustration is the waypoint system, which was working beautifully in LEGO Batman 2 but is woefully broken here. After you set a waypoint, light blue LEGO studs ("ghost studs" from LEGO Harry Potter) mark your path. Many times, if you so much as sneeze during your travels, the trail sends you off to a different location. Sometimes, immediately after I'd set a waypoint, the trail led in the opposite direction. If you see another quest along the way and decide to complete that, the trail also goes haywire. After you've reached your destination, the trail doesn't disappear but tries to loop you around a few obstacles to get you back to your current location. The only way to remedy this is to constantly view the map and make sure that you're still on course. (The "back" button on the Xbox 360 controller takes you right to the map.) You reach 100% completion in spite of the waypoint system, as it hinders rather than helps.
Blacksmith designs are scattered throughout the levels and hub world. After you've located them, you take them to the blacksmith in Bree and can have the items crafted, provided you have the necessary number of Mithril bricks. The Mithril items become part of your inventory, and it's impossible to find everything in the game without them.
In terms of graphics, LEGO The Lord of the Rings is gorgeous. The in-game levels are cute, and as previously mentioned, the landscapes aren't as blocky as before. There were a few instances when my LEGO guy (or gal) got stuck in the environments, but that usually sorted itself out after switching characters. In the hub world, whether you're at Minas Tirith or climbing to the top of Barad-dûr (the tower of Sauron), you'll be treated to some stunning views — and some weak-kneed moments when you register just how high you've climbed. The best part of LEGO The Lord of the Rings is the audio, which was lifted from the movie trilogy. It's great and lends authenticity to the rather tongue-in-cheek LEGO presentation.
I'm not a fan of the split-screen co-op mode, though. When we chose the fixed vertical mode, there wasn't nearly enough space. When we chose the dynamic mode, the ... screen stayed in fixed vertical mode. If you're in the hub world in co-op, you need to fast-travel separately and set waypoints separately. I can see the divide-and-conquer logic behind this, but if a menu takes up the entire screen, I'd assume that it applied to both parties. We played the bonus level in co-op mode, and Sauron got stuck in the environment, turning his half of the screen completely gray and unusable. Exiting and restarting solved the glitch, but it was just another item in my long list of grievances.
If you're the type of fan who will play through the LEGO The Lord of the Rings story mode and then return it to the shelf, then you should run out and buy it right now (or order it online and choose priority shipping). If you're a LotR fan who has never played a LEGO game before, you'll likely be pleased at this very faithful — and slightly whimsical — adaptation. If you plan on investing the time to dig into every nook and cranny of this title, the path ahead is a long and arduous one, Frodo.
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