Discussion Review: LEGO The Lord of the Rings

Review written by Matt Litten & Tim Mack.

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Matt: Every time it seems like the LEGO series has surpassed its saturation point, TT Games whips out another licensed property that makes my inner geek child go all aflutter. None have done so more than LEGO The Lord of the Rings. By my measure, TT Games’ toy-brick replica of Middle-earth encompasses the studio’s best work yet. Even though certain scenes are skipped over or combined with other scenes to quickly cover the events of three epic movies and lines of dialogue are pulled from one section of the films and used in others (yes, I have watched and re-watched the trilogy so many times that I can notice the change of even a single line), this game is an excellent interactive recreation of the film trilogy, complete with the same epic soundtrack and acting pulled straight from the movies.

As usual, typical LEGO humor brings a childlike charm to this timeless fantasy tale. Tolkien purists may roll their eyes at the sight of Boromir getting shot with a banana arrow (and almost a live chicken before Aragorn saves the day), Ents surfing the waves during the flood of Isengard, or Eomer’s troop of horse riders putting on a synchronized trot routine as they encircle Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas on the plains of Rohan, but it’s all good-natured fun that you just have to giggle at.

While you’re playing through it, from the peaceful exploration of The Shire to the dreaded climb up Mount Doom, the game feels like just another linear string of missions. However, as you complete the individual levels the map of Middle-earth fills in piece by piece, and by the end of the game you have what amounts to an open world to go back through on the hunt for the usual assortment of LEGO game collectibles. In many ways the post-game collectible/trophy hunting is more engaging than playing through the storyline, but I’ll touch on replay later.

Given the fellowship nature of the Lord of the Rings storyline, the LEGO series style of party-based cooperative gameplay is a perfect fit. Each mission gives you at least two or three different characters to control–at times even the entire fellowship–and each character has unique equipment and abilities to aid in solving puzzles and overcoming obstacles. Frodo can light up dark areas with the Phial of Galadriel. Sam can light fires in a jiffy and dig up buried items. Legolas can swing from poles, tight walk across ropes, leap to higher ledges, and shoot things with his bow and arrow. Gandalf can use his magic to manipulate LEGO bricks into different configurations. Aragorn is a bad ass in combat and can use his tracking skills to uncover hidden secrets. Gollum can climb walls. And Gimli can be carried and tossed into breakable rock platforms (just don’t tell the elf!).

Once the fellowship disbands at the end of the first movie’s story, there are even levels when you have to switch back and forth between two different groups on two separate areas of the map. Like later in the game when the Eye of Sauron’s gaze prevents Sam and Frodo from entering Osgiliath until Aragorn and company do their part to clear the way. An orb, like a palantir, in the corner of the screen shows the status of the other party, and by calling up the character selection wheel you can jump back and forth between the two story paths.

Obviously co-op is the best method of play since TT still hasn’t figured out how to code AI companions that aren’t as dumb as an ear-picking hobbit. Online co-op still isn’t supported either, but if you have children or a local friend to play with you’ll have a blast, I’m sure. What’s so painfully disappointing about LEGO The Lord of the Rings, though, is just how unpolished it is. After at least a dozen different LEGO games you’d think TT would have spit-polished what is essentially the same core gameplay engine to perfection by now (although I will say that the graphics do seem nicely improved over past installments), yet this game suffers through the same mechanical flaws as its predecessors and is actually the buggiest LEGO release yet. At least is has been in my experience.

Fundamental gameplay issues abound, such as clunky character movement and poor camera angles making it difficult to judge platform distances and jumping angles. Since the world of Middle-earth is of such large scale, the camera also becomes obscured during the larger battles when there are trolls and Oliphaunts rampaging about. Hit detection is another sour point. You can be right on top of a breakable LEGO object and swing right through it until you find just the right angle of attack. This makes harvesting studs for the ‘True Adventurer’ ranking on each mission a total pain in the ass. It also drives me absolutely bonkers how so many breakable objects are placed on ledges and hills, spewing studs over the edge before you have any opportunity to collect them. Seriously, how has no one been able to address such easy to spot game design blunders?

Worse than these problems, are the bugs. On multiple occasions I’ve had a character fall off a cliff and endlessly respawn stuck in freefall with no way to return without reloading the game since characters can’t be changed in the process of dying. Another time Gollum fell straight through the level architecture into a blank screen of death when I went to climb him up a wall. I’ve had the voice acting cut out while talking to NPC quest givers; they animate but no words are spoken so there’s no way to know what the quest entails. The game even outright broke on me at the end. During the final battle with Gollum at the final kill moment, there’s a scripted moment where you need to switch from Sam to Frodo. On my first try, the switch prompt failed to kick in and I couldn’t switch characters to continue the scene until I reloaded the last checkpoint and replayed the level. Things like this smack of lazy, rushed game design.

What’s your experience been like with LEGO The Lord of the Rings, Tim? Have you encountered any similar bugs? How’s co-op been playing with your kids?

Tim: When we posted the trailer for LEGO Lord of the Rings I was both excited and a little put off. First of all, Lord of the Rings is a book that remains as one of my all time favorites. Secondly, I can’t help but feel like Lord of the Rings is a story that rises above the brick building toy juggernaut. Don’t get me wrong, the LEGO brand has done a phenomenal job creating new and unique toy lines based off of most recent pop culture franchises. I just can’t help but think that TT Games has grown as a development studio and can create unique stories that aren’t framed around movie franchises.

It is fairly telling that every issue Matt has with the game, I do too. The camera definitely makes some moments more challenging than necessary. Random NPCs offering a quest while not actually saying anything is another weird glitch that happened at least two or three times for me as well. I agree that hit detection is also frustrating, but my gripe about that leans more specifically with the character I typically play as when trying to clean up all the extra open world tasks. Legolas is a great character for the simple fact that he automatically switches between daggers and bow depending on what is being attacked, without having to dig into the toolbox which contains all the Mithril items. Too often the game switches targets in the middle of attacking an object or enemy and I end up spending more time trying to hit two or three things with half health than staying focused on one item until it is dead.

These minor annoyances for the most part are what I’ve come to expect with any TT Games LEGO title. Sadly these are components of the game that can easily be remedied, but seeing as this is at least the 10th release from TT Games where some of these minor annoyances haven’t been fixed, I don’t see them being fixed when the LEGO Marvel game comes out later this year. Instead TT Games has chosen to focus on different gameplay elements to add a depth to the game which I partially welcome but also find to be almost filler for the sake of giving gamers something more to do.

As Matt mentioned, the story levels are introduced in a fairly linear fashion but each new story mission is accompanied by a bunch of NPCs who ask for items that are hidden among the various story missions. While this sounds like a great reason to replay missions, I found that keeping track of so many items was almost more trouble than it was worth. I love the idea of quests being offered as a means for driving the story forward; however, NPCs only ask for an item if you seek them out (or have an item to free them from what is keeping them from being able to offer a quest). The game feels almost overly burdened with a need for adding replay above what LEGO games have traditionally offered.

One of the other additions that does work well with the method of storytelling that Lord of the Rings offers is the split character feature. Playing through a portion of a level as Frodo and Sam while Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas are waiting in the wings allows for more game to be played without long load times between levels. Playing local co-op with this design is a bit challenging though as having half of the screen split between two different areas of the level is distracting. Some puzzles are much easier to solve when presented in a full screen.

Matt: Strangely, the extensive replay value is both a blessing and a curse with this game. The sheer volume of content discovered during post-story collectible hunting and side questing is phenomenal, and there are even parts of the greater storyline not covered during the story missions that you’ll only discover by exploring every nook and cranny of toy-block Middle-earth. One example would be the lighting of the warning beacons between Minas Tirith and Rohan.

Blocks of Mithril are one of the main collectibles and, combined with recipes also collected throughout the game, they can be taken to the blacksmith in Bree to create special Mithril equipment members of the Fellowship can use during Free Play. Finding Mithril is sometimes as easy as jumping through a tricky platforming obstacle or breaking open a chest hidden off the beaten path, however many are also locked away until little mini-games are completed, such as time trial races while riding goats and target shooting challenges with Legolas (or any character with a bow).

I agree that the side quests are an odd fit. Actually, I would straight up call them busy work since all they do is force you to go back to levels you’ve already beaten just to fetch random items for no-name NPCs who feel completely out of place within the game world. Extra gameplay hours? Yes. Additional fun? Ummm…no.

Another issue I have with the game’s post-story phase is how every time you start the game, it dumps you back to Minas Tirith as the starting point, even if the last time you saved and quit you were in a completely different location on the map. This wouldn’t have been such a big issue if the loading times weren’t so sluggish. You’re either stuck trekking back across the open map on foot (or horseback if you can find a steed) or watching the One Ring spin in the corner of the screen as the quick-travel system loads away. Snore.

Given my affinity for the incredible fantasy universe created so many years ago by Tolkien and the inspired film trilogy Peter Jackson was able to pull from the novels’ pages and put on the Hollywood big screen, LEGO The Lord of the Rings is a game I wish with all my heart that I could say is great. It damn well should be, yet due to careless design and an obscene number of glitches I just can’t embrace the game as much as I so desperately want to. Even with the flaws, though, this is my favorite of all the LEGO games to date. TT Games needs serious help in the QA testing department, but in terms of recreating a beloved fantasy world and film franchise out of toy bricks, they really nailed it. It doesn’t live up to the impeccable quality of the books and movies, but with patience and the capacity to forgive seemingly unforgivable flaws, most gamers should be able to find some level of enjoyment out of LEGO The Lord of the Rings.

Matt-TryIt

Pros:
+ Impressive open-world LEGO recreation of Middle-earth
+ Detailed minifigs capture the personalities of all the characters
+ Enormous cast of characters, each with unique gameplay skills
+ Epic soundtrack and excellent voice acting pulled straight from the movies
+ Post-story collectible hunting and side questing add immense replay value

Cons:
- Same basic game design flaws we’ve endured for like a dozen LEGO games already. Seriously, WTF?
- Unforgivably glitchy
- Side fetch quests are dull and feel completely out of place
- Frequent and lengthy load times
- Still no online co-op

Tim: Starting out at Minas Tirith once the game is complete is definitely an odd design choice. If the world map functioned better and fast travel didn’t take so long to load up I wouldn’t mind, but I find myself having to scour the world map in each region to try and remember where the last place I had gone to so that I can pick up where I left off. Maybe we are expecting too much here, but I think that if a game is going to offer so much busy work as an addendum to the main story, the option to get back to where you last left off should be much more streamlined.

The hidden nuggets of the larger Middle-earth that can be dug up from the side-quest stuff (and further exploration) is pretty impressive. I was amazed by how much extra lore I stumbled across when I was able to fully access all the hidden areas in Rivendell, but the effort to do so definitely felt more like a chore than a reward.

One other function that bugs me is the fact that each character has an inventory wheel that is basically empty. Once various items are found in the world they can be selected from the toolbox but can’t be added to one of the empty slots on the inventory wheel. Why do I have to scroll through the huge screen of collected items each time I want to use a different tool when I should be able to assign it to one of the empty slots? This is one of the flaws in the game that adds to the tedium of finding all the extra goodies once the story has been finished.

For all the minor quibbles I have, the game is still fun to play and offers great value to make it worth a purchase. I found myself quickly sinking more hours in after finishing the story proper simply for all of the collectibles that the game offers. The scope of Lord of the Rings is displayed with an amazing level of detail and the game doesn’t drop in any noticeable frame rate when there are easily fifty or more orcs standing around on the battlefield. Mixing images from the Peter Jackson movies and art by Alan Lee, the game also relies heavily on the score written by Howard Shore which provides a depth to the game that adds to the overall experience.

Tim-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Huge open world
+ Use of voice work from the movies adds a nice depth
+ Plenty of collectibles for replay
+ Gorgeous, epic scope in most levels

Cons:
- Wonky, unreliable camera
- Side quests feel more like busy work

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available for Xbox 360, Wii, PC, 3DS, DS and Vita
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Developer: TT Games
Release Date: 11/13/2012
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-2 (local co-op only)
Source: Copies purchased by reviewers

About the Author

Matt Litten is a 28 year old from-the-womb gamer turned video game reviewer/blogger and current editor/owner/operator of VGBlogger.com. Matt got his first taste of gaming as a youngster on the NES and Atari, and the rest is history from there. In 2004, three years removed from high school and still looking for a career direction in life, Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com, and after a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez Matt turned his attention to VGBlogger, and to this day is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary.