One Brick To Build Them All
Though the characters may only be a few centimetres tall, the LEGO games have been getting gradually bigger and bigger each year. LEGO Harry Potter invited players to roam freely around a dinky plastic Hogwarts, and this year's LEGO Batman 2 not only offered the chance to take to the skies as Superman, it offered an entire virtual Gotham City to explore.
All of those now pale alongside LEGO Lord of the Rings, which fully embraces the sort of open world setting made popular by big boy RPGs like Skyrim. With the whole of Middle-earth at your fingertips, with no loading screens or breaks, you can walk from Bilbo's round green door all the way to Sauron's Black Gates in a single uninterrupted journey, just like Frodo.
There And Back Again
Don't worry that this rapid expansion will leave you lost, however. You can use the map to set waypoints to any point of interest, and by default the line of transparent blue studs will lead you to the next story mission. LEGO statues in each key area can be activated, revealing the location of all the bonus quests and items hiding in the scenery, and these statues also act as fast travel points, allowing you to hop from one end of the map to the other in the blink of an eye.
The game understands that its players don't want to be left wandering, but also that they like to explore, so there's always something to investigate in the near distance. Certain characters will offer side quests, asking you to replay story levels and find lost items hidden inside, while hundreds of silver mithril bricks are scattered across the landscape.
The silver bricks are at the core of LEGO Lord of the Rings' most interesting new feature: crafting. Unlike the gold bricks earned in previous games, mithril is a usable resource. Every story level, and all the main locations in the open game world, contain hidden blueprints for dozens of special items. Find the blueprint, collect enough mithril and you can head to the village of Bree where the blacksmith will forge your bricks into the required item.
Every item, whether found or crafted, ends up in a shared inventory that all of your unlocked characters can access. Many will offer useful gameplay advantages, such as bows and swords with fire and ice powers. Others are there for a laugh, with weapons that make silly noises, or a trumpet that makes minifigures dance. Some are even drawn from Tolkien's prose. Find the Ent Draught and you can use it to give characters giant heads!
Speak Friend, And Enter
It's every bit as playful as you'd expect from the LEGO series, so there's always something to find and muck about with, but that doesn't mean that the game doesn't take the source material seriously. Developer TT Games has found room for a few elements from the books that didn't make it into the Oscar-winning films - Tom Bombadil is a secret character, for instance - and it also uses as much of the movie media as possible.
Howard Shore's sweeping soundtrack makes your journey feel suitably epic, while the decision to use actual dialogue from the films pays off surprisingly well. Previous LEGO games had mute minifigures who only burbled or squawked. LEGO Batman 2 introduced voice acting, but had its own tale to tell. Now, you have serious actors such as Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen and Elijah Wood speaking through funny little LEGO men, and the result is both hilarious and weirdly dramatic. The game still fills the cutscenes with pratfalls and slapstick, but there's also genuine drama and scope to the story. It's a very clever balancing act.
The End Of All Things
LEGO Lord of the Rings moves this reliable old series forwards so far and so fast that it's hard to see how we can ever go back to the simple style of the previous games. This is an olyphaunt-sized experience, and one that may seem daunting to very young players. For those who rise to meet its challenge, however, they'll discover a rich and rewarding LEGO world that will remain fresh for weeks - even months - to come.
- The biggest, most ambitious LEGO game ever
- Utterly true to Tolkien's world
- Weeks and weeks of gameplay
- Some of the platform jumping can be frustrating
- Younger children may need more help than usual
- Keeping track of quests could be easier