One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them. One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them. There are few things, whether in the world of film or books, as epic as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Practically defining the fantasy genre for decades to come, the Lord of the Rings was as groundbreaking as it was complex, with dozens, if not hundreds of characters, factions, sub-plots, and lands crammed into an already massive tome. The latest in a long series of franchises to receive a thorough brickification, LEGO Lord of the Rings attempts to take everything Tolkien, and cram it onto one, small, plasticy disc. And that's no mean feat. With high standards to live up to - every past LEGO game had been almost unbelievably brilliant (with the slight blip of LEGO Indiana Jones 2), it's safe to say LEGO Lord of the Rings was developer Traveller's Tales biggest challenge yet. After all, the films themselves were nigh on three hour opuses, so how could they possibly hope to fit all the plot, characters, and world onto a disc, and still have a game anyone, regardless of their experience with the game can appreciate. The answer, it seems, is by creating the best LEGO game yet.
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At its heart, LEGO Lord of the Rings will be comfortably familiar to anyone who's played one of the games in the past. With levels that are an equal mix of platforming, character-switching puzzle solving, and smashing/rebuilding, the basics of the game remain as entertaining, and universally appealing as they ever were. Better still, everything's fully playable in split-screen co-op, so you can take a friend along with you for the ride - something that comes in especially handy when solving the puzzles, as you'll usually have to make use of several character's special abilities. However, it's where the changes have been made that makes LEGO Lord of the Rings so special.
As mentioned earlier, Tolkien's epics were sprawling, and often confusing tomes, which could easily be expected to cause problems in a game like this. After all, this is a LEGO game - most of your time will be spent smashing things up in the levels, or riding pigs around the Shire - you don't have that much time for plot development, even though it's an essential part of Lord of the Rings. Somehow, though, everything comes together in a practically perfect way, to create a stripped down version of the Lord of the Rings story that even someone who's never heard of the series should be able to follow.
The story's conveyed through the usual medium of a slapstick cutscene - but where LEGO characters used to simply mime and hum their way through essential scenes from films, in LEGO Lord of the Rings, the cutscenes are fully voiced - using voice acting taken directly from the films, no less. Trimmed, chopped, and rearranged to within an inch of its life to keep things short, the cutscenes, for the first time in a LEGO game, do a great job of conveying the story to anyone. It helps that there are the usual daft touches - whether Gollum dropping the ring, which clonks poor Bilbo on the head, Gandalf smacking his head on everything as he attempts to make his way through a hobbit house, a horse collapsing in exhaustion in the background after racing Gandalf to Saruman's tower, or Sam taking on the dark rider hordes armed only with a frying pan (and some bacon). Even the deaths are handled in a funny way, which is great for a younger audience, as it makes a potentially difficult scene almost funny - [SPOILERS] such as when Boromir meets his doom at the hands of an ork who fires an arrow (which he pops out), a broom (which he pops out), and almost a chicken, before eventually succumbing to a banana.
Not that it can't be serious when it wants to be. One of LEGO Lord of the Rings many strengths is that, thanks in part to the voices taken from the films, the amazing soundtrack, and the story itself, it has that epic feel in spades. It's a tale of friendship, of betrayal, of good versus evil, and one that works so incredibly well in LEGO form, with humour breaking up the otherwise rather serious plot.
While you still have traditional levels to play through, almost from the very beginning, you'll have the entirety of Middle Earth to explore at will. While the path you're supposed to take (in order to get to the next level) is highlighted by a trail of studs, you're free to venture off at any time, to take in the sights and sounds of Middle Earth, from the Misty Mountains, to the Mines of Moria - and in traditional LEGO style, there are dozens of collectables waiting to be unearthed. From Mithril, which you can take to a blacksmith to forge new weapons, blacksmith designs, that let you use the Mithril to create new items, and treasure chests, which scatter both the levels, and Middle Earth itself, there's dozens of items to find. To help you in your quest, you'll occasionally come across map stones, which mark all nearby items on your map - access your map, and at the press of a button, you'll be able to set your stud trail to lead to a nearby item rather than the next level. The only problem is, it's more than a little bit hit and miss. On several occasions, our brick trail randomly reset itself, and ended up taking us to the next level again, rather than the Mithril brick we were searching for. Still, with no trail to guide you, you're forced to rely on your adventuring skills even more, so it's not necessarily that much of an issue.
Also roaming the land of Middle Earth are various non player characters, who'll offer you hints and tips, or, if you're particularly lucky, a quest. Whether they want some Mithril gloves from the blacksmith, or have mysteriously forgotten something, and left it in one of the levels, most of the quests are no more than "go here, fetch this" affairs, but they add even more replayability to a game that's already bursting at the seams with things to see and do.
The levels themselves, meanwhile, have also had an upgrade in scope, and are much, much larger than you usually find in LEGO games. Often split into two or three sections, each stage follows a familiar routine for anyone who's played a LEGO game before, with a familiar mix of smashing LEGO things up, collecting studs (the game's currency), and occasionally rebuilding the pieces to make something new. Rudimentary puzzles also litter the levels, which often require two players to work together. With over 70 playable characters to unlock, the figures on offer are divided up into "classes" as such, each of which has its own special ability - Hobbits can crawl through small spaces and access secret areas, Gimli can smash his way through cracked LEGO slabs, while Gandalf can use magic. For LEGO Lord of the Rings, this has been taken even further, with each character having their own inventory of items they can put to good use - like Frodo's glowing phial, and Sam's fishing rod/tinder box. Luckily for those playing with younger players, the puzzles are all fairly straightforward, with areas you need to use something highlighted, and a picture of the person you need to use appearing if you haven't got the right person. Familiar yet fun, the new, lengthier levels are every bit as enjoyable as those that have gone before - and you can now save mid-level at fairly regular save points, too.
However, LEGO Lord of the Rings isn't without a few problems. The split-screen is occasionally dodgy, especially when you're trying to aim a bow. Holding a button will bring up a targeting reticule, but should your partner venture away, the screen will split, and you may not be able to target what you were trying to aim at. Luckily, along with the standard dynamic split-screen (which only splits when the players stray away from each other, and is angled so that you can just run towards the centre line to find the other player, you've also got the option for fixing the split-screen in the middle, which should solve any aiming problems. The stud trail problem mentioned earlier can be a bit of a faff, too, especially when you've ventured miles from the next level, only for it to suddenly decide it wants you to walk all the way back.
But any problems with LEGO Lord of the Rings are few and far between. With so much more freedom, and the same co-op we've come to know and love, you'll become involved in the living, breathing, LEGO Middle Earth like no LEGO game before. From Gandalf's fight with the Balrog, to the befriending of Gollum, it's an adventure full of twists and turns that anyone - even those unfamiliar with the Lord of the Rings will be able to follow for the first time, thanks to the voiceovers - and it's funny to boot. But perhaps the best thing about LEGO Lord of the Rings is that, for the first time, it feels like a proper adventure. If you've enjoyed a LEGO game before, if you're looking for a new co-op game, or simply fancy a bit of an adventure, LEGO Lord of the Rings is a game you shouldn't miss out on.
Format Reviewed: Xbox 360