Those who have never played one of the many Lego games developed by TT Games might find it difficult to believe that a beloved franchise such as The Lord of the Rings can benefit from a simplified narrative and family-friendly gameplay. The notion seems absurd, and yet past releases have capably proven that plastic blocks and theatrical blockbusters can make a great mix. That's particularly evident in the case of Lego The Lord of the Rings.
Though the game doesn't offer many narrative surprises, the lack of unexpected twists actually works in its favor. If you've seen the movies, you know the story of the brave hobbit Frodo and his journey to a well-guarded volcano where he hopes to destroy the cursed bauble he carries. All of the nastiest creatures in the land would be delighted to pry "the One Ring" from Frodo's cold, dead hands, and the capable people who should protect him are usually busy facing similarly important struggles of their own. The characters' combined adventures provided ample fodder for hours of cinematic excellence, and now Peter Jackson's three enormous films have been crammed into a single game.
This latest adaptation of the classic tale doesn't feel like a cheap substitute for the epic story, even though the protagonists are now fashioned from plastic. The most riveting moments from the film trilogy are recreated here--even a few that existed almost entirely for the sake of character development or mild comic relief, such as the contest between Legolas and Gimli to see who could slay the most orcs. The shrugs, smirks, and tension-diffusing humor that are standard practice in Lego games have been supplemented here with extensive spoken dialogue that was pulled directly from the movies. Kids will love seeing characters skewered by fruit or snuggling with teddy bears, while parents will appreciate the minimal violence.
A fascinating story and great voice work can carry a game only so far, though, and Lego The Lord of the Rings benefits from a solid gameplay foundation that should keep players of all ages coming back for more even when they already know how everything ends. Stages generally consist of a series of basic puzzles, occasionally interrupted by battles with small enemy groups that are easily overwhelmed. You can swap protagonists instantly to gain access to their respective abilities, and there are no permanent deaths. Characters briefly falls to pieces but almost immediately return to the action.
The worst punishment you face is the loss of a portion of the studs you've collected, which means you could be deprived of a True Adventurer bonus once you clear the stage. Advancing from the game's prologue to its closing credits will probably take you no more than 10 or 12 hours, but actually reaching 100 percent completion could easily take twice that long. Mostly, you are allowed to decide what sort of experience you want to get from playing, within the established framework.
Due to the occasionally distracting volume of available content that practically begs to be discovered, a dynamic stud trail guides you to the next story sequence. Banners are spread throughout the open world and handily mark the entrances to action stages, but adventurers can easily get turned around without additional assistance. Fortunately, it's easy to warp directly to places you have previously visited, or to consult a map and set helpful waypoints. The stud trails unerringly lead you toward a chosen point unless you find a new obsession. Detours from the beaten path aren't a problem, either; the translucent stud trail quickly adapts and calculates the best route from your current location to your chosen destination at all times. That helpful mechanic isn't new to video games or even to the Lego franchise, but it's tremendously useful all the same.