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.
If you decide to temporarily put your main quest on hold, or if you keep playing the game after clearing the final story stage, you'll discover a variety of simple but entertaining diversions. Your main way to kill time is to seek out white mithril blocks so that you can give them to a blacksmith in the village of Bree who can then construct new equipment for your characters (provided they also bring him blueprints that are obtained within story missions and by completing side quests that non-player characters occasionally offer). Sometimes, you discover those pale blocks as you navigate the world, and you only need to climb a tree or explore a cave to retrieve them. In other instances, you may need to race through a short checkpoint course, or defeat a certain number of enemies within a set time period. You can consult your map to find the location of nearby blocks or to meet up with the unlockable characters that start wandering the map as you advance through the campaign.
As you interact with the world, you'll find that bringing a friend along improves your experience because you're no longer forced to do everything yourself. You shouldn't have much trouble convincing a friend or family member to join you, either, since the game presents such an inviting world. There are places where it really comes to life. Roaring waterfalls line the face of distant cliffs. Birds take flight and flap their way across the sky. The only real technical issue is occasional pop-in as distant objects appear out of nowhere in some of the more open environments, but even that issue never reaches a point where it's distracting.
Friends who are tempted by what they see can easily join a game or drop out as desired, with no negative impact to the other player. Two players don't have to stick close to one another, either; if the distance between two heroes exceeds a certain amount, the screen splits diagonally down the middle to accommodate separate exploration. You and your friend can divide and conquer, meeting in the middle only when fighting mobs or solving cooperative puzzles. Since puzzle solutions usually involve running to the nearest patch of light on the ground and using a specific item to clear a path to the next obstacle, it's easy for a new player to get used to how everything works in a minute or two. Most distinct challenges within a stage need to be conquered twice, which ensures that both players can stay busy if they wish.
Though the bulk of the puzzles you encounter throughout the game are relatively unremarkable if you consider only their basic design, the developers also included a few sequences that do a nice job of turning events from the fiction into entertaining challenges. In one stage, you must wander through a swamp while avoiding a winged beast. You take damage if you don't find shelter for all three characters in your party when you see the monster circling in the skies. In another scene, the ring's curse draws Frodo toward his doom if you leave him to his own devices, so you need to keep a close eye on him as you work to find an alternative way forward.
There are also some great boss battles and set pieces, many of them unique and surprisingly ambitious (in particular, watch for a few cool scenes involving elephants). The frequency of such highlights means that the game is more than just a standard puzzle or action game with a Lord of the Rings skin. Sometimes the developers' ingenuity results in stages that aren't particularly enjoyable a second or third time around, though. In those cases, it's possible to bring new characters to familiar environments. Those characters can usually find secrets that were previously unavailable. Just like that, the familiar becomes interesting all over again.
TT Games and Lego struck gold when they united for Lego Star Wars in 2005, and that rich vein is still yielding worthwhile results. Lego The Lord of the Rings is perhaps the finest treasure that the partnership has yet produced, a compelling mixture of cooperative gameplay, secrets galore, and a story that remains one of the most fantastic that Hollywood has ever captured on film. If you haven't given the Lego games a chance yet, there has never been a better time to start.