The latest LEGO video game from TT Games, LEGO Lord of the Rings, was released on November 13. There’s a reason you’re reading this review nearly three weeks later: Unlike most reviewers who played a handful of levels and declared the game awesome, I wanted to review the game after experiencing it the way most of you out there are likely to play it — trying to reach 100% in the game and unlock all the achievements (on Xbox) or trophies (on PS3).
Having played most of the LEGO video game since the original LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game back in 2005, the LEGO game franchise was starting to feel more than a little repetitive (which is why I’ve skipped the second incarnations of LEGO Indiana Jones, the LEGO Star Wars re-releases, and so on).
Every game until now has had several things in common:
- Watch minifigs mime funny versions of familiar scenes.
- Break stuff in the game to release studs (points) and to build other things.
- Collect parts of miniature LEGO kits.
- Unlock extra characters with the studs you’ve earned.
- Unlock extra abilities (like score multipliers and invincibility) with red bricks.
- Access previously played levels from a central “hub” area.
- Explore levels again in freeplay mode to use the abilities of characters you didn’t have with you in story mode, thus finding treasures and even more studs you couldn’t get to before.
No, TT Games hasn’t really revamped the basic formula in LEGO Lord of the Rings, but there are a few important differences.
Voice acting in cut scenes
First, and most obviously, the game uses the actual voice acting from Peter Jackson’s movies in the cut scenes — Sir Ian McKellan as Gandalf, Elijah Wood as Frodo, Orlando Bloom as Legolas, and so on. When combined with TT Games’ signature sense of humor (humour, I suppose), there are some really hilarious moments, which I won’t spoil for you by listing here.
But for a Tolkien geek like me who takes both the source material and the movies fairly seriously, the humor has the obvious effect of undercutting some of the most emotionally affecting scenes in the story. Perhaps this makes the PG-13 movie source material palatable in an E 10+ game, but adult gamers may find the juxtaposition somewhat jarring.
Second, there is no central hub area in the game. Instead, you have all of Middle Earth to explore, both between levels and after completing the main storyline. It’s certainly a compressed version of Middle Earth (Minas Tirith and Edoras are within sight of each other), but it’ll take you a good ten or fifteen minutes to walk from the Shire to Mount Doom. In other words, Middle Earth is orders of magnitude larger than previous hubs like the Mos Eisley cantina, Wayne Manor, or even Hogwarts. Regions in Middle Earth like Bree, Rivendell, and Rohan each have puzzles of their own that you have to solve to find unlockable characters and extra studs, as well as three other major gameplay additions — mithril bricks, blacksmith designs, and side quests from NPCs.
All three of these differences from other LEGO games are interrelated. You can find blacksmith designs both within story levels and in Middle Earth. These designs enable you to make items for yourself and in response to requests from NPCs. Many items give you abilities that you might not have yet, like Strength (limited to the Sauron character). But before you can have the blacksmith in Bree craft an item for you, you have to find enough material for him. That material takes the form of silver-white mithril bricks, which you earn by completing aspects of the story, solving puzzles around Middle Earth, and giving crafted items to NPCs who request them in side quests called “fetch quests” (you keep a copy to use yourself, of course).
One final difference from previous LEGO games is the addition of treasures you have to find within story levels. Some are just fun ways to customize your characters, but many are items you’ll need to find in response to fetch quests. Completing most fetch quests earns you mithril bricks, but some also unlock the all-important red bricks.
If you’re thinking that all of this sounds a bit like a classic RPG, you wouldn’t be wrong. You won’t find any character classes or leveling up (beyond abilities you unlock from characters and crafted items), but the new RPG elements in LEGO Lord of the Rings do add significant depth and replay value to the traditional action/platformer genre that LEGO games have been a part of since the first LEGO Star Wars.
Stability & quality
Good quality should be invisible. Unfortunately, “Stability and quality” gets its own section for LEGO Lord of the Rings. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this may be the buggiest, least stable game I’ve played in years (and with a Xbox gamerscore above 20,000, I hope you’ll trust that I play my fair share of games).
For example, I’ve encountered multiple persistent bugs in the “Taming Gollum” level alone, ranging from minor rendering issues when throwing a bomb to a failure to save the level’s completion status until the fourth time through story mode (including a full restart between the 2nd and 3rd attempts). Since this prevented any further progress in the game, and I couldn’t skip cut scenes the “first” time through, I spent two hours playing this level over and over.
Characters with new modes of locomotion are also problematic. Gollum can climb up and down walls, but he jumps off unpredictably and inconsistently, making you despise his LEGO version as much as his loathsome literary or cinematic counterpart. Combined with camera issues common to many games, finding mithril bricks that require Gollum can be maddening! Imagine falling off Mount Doom over and over again not because you aren’t pressing the buttons well enough but because Gollum slides or flies off the mountain just as you’re reaching a particularly difficult section. Improving your gaming skill through repetition in order to achieve an in-game goal is one thing; fighting unstable software is another.
There’s no excuse for these types of issues. If TT Games invested resources in developing for fewer platforms (LEGO Lord of the Rings is available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii, Windows PC, Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS, and PlayStation Vita), perhaps they would have the money to spend on proper testing and bug fixing. I bring this up because I routinely see more bugs in multi-platform games than in platform-exclusives, but this degree of instability is a new low.
If this were a game from another publisher, I’d recommend waiting until they’d had time to release some patches. But I’ve played three-year-old LEGO games from TT Games full of (lesser) bugs, with no update via the console. I can’t promise the game will be less buggy or more stable a year from now.
Full disclosure: I worked at Nintendo during the GameCube / Game Boy Advance era, and (among other duties) I coordinated communication between the development team in Japan and the test team in the U.S. for games like Pikmin and Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. My bar for game quality is thus very high, so I may be harder on TT Games in this regard than other reviewers. I suspect my frustration may reflect a certain amount of professional bias…
The model designers at TT Games (alongside LEGO set designers when TT Games used a set design instead) have done an excellent job of rendering iconic aspects of the movies in LEGO form. The Balrog with its flaming whip is spectacular, and it’s a joy to watch the beautifully designed minikits come together as you find all their parts within levels.
Following the standard convention in LEGO games, anything built from bricks is breakable, so much of the background in levels and in Middle Earth must therefore be rendered realistically. With so much landscape and so few structures in the source material, this means most of the game doesn’t look like LEGO. That’s okay, because an entirely plastic landscape would be a bit of an eyesore, and it makes the model design team’s interesting creations stand out all the more.
Depending on how thoroughly you explore during story mode, expect to finish all sixteen levels in 6-9 hours or so. If you quit there, that’s not great value for a $50-60 video game (the main story alone in Assassin’s Creed 3 took me 40+ hours, plus multiplayer that I’m not particularly interested in), but the real value is in freeplay mode. Reaching 100% and earning all or even most of the achievements/trophies will probably take you another 20-30 hours. Frustratingly, though, some of that time may be spent fighting camera quirks, working around bugs, or replaying after a crash.
LEGO Lord of the Rings is certainly no Skyrim, but there’s solid value if you continue playing the game after finishing the first run through the story.
I can heartily recommend the game to LEGO Lord of the Rings fans at full price; others might want to wait until the inevitable price drop in a few months.
My rant about lack of proper quality assurance notwithstanding, LEGO Lord of the Rings is a good game — and my favorite of TT Games’ LEGO franchise since LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy. I love the new world exploration and RPG elements, which add far deeper value than previous LEGO games, and on the whole the shift to voice acting works well.
Placing this on a scale for comparison to other video game reviews, LEGO Lord of the Rings gets 75/100 from me — with improved quality, my score would be closer to reviews from other sites. I’m interested to hear what other LEGO fans and gamers think (for example, am I being too hard on TT Games for quality?), so let the discussion in the comments begin.
LEGO Lord of the Rings is out now on multiple platforms.