Lego The Hobbit could simply be called ‘There’ because there ain’t no ‘Back Again’. Lacking the narrative content that will form the final third of the swollen and gaseous film trilogy, this is a perfectly acceptable entry in Traveller’s Tales’ Lego franchise but the release comes at an odd time. The disappointing Lego Movie Videogame is barely out of diapers and Smaug has finished his desolation of multiplexes, leaving the game stranded in the wilderness before the final chapter of an unfinished story. Here's wot I think.
I haven’t seen the second film because I did go to see the first one and I’m not convinced that it’s finished yet. Every time I wash a dish I have nerve-needling flashbacks. The Lord Of The Rings films were effective because Wingnut created a Middle Earth that felt historical rather than mythological, treating the silliness of elves, dwarves and all with just enough gravity that most audience members accepted that serious business was occurring.
The first Hobbit film flits between cartoon capers, Looney Tunes violence and beard-stroking pensive conversation. The tonal confusion – is Bilbo’s journey a jaunty inconsequential series of misadventures or an epic quest with grave political implications – is absent now that The Hobbit has been translated into Lego language, and (unsurprisingly) the use of dialogue, scenery and set pieces from the films is similar to that seen in Lego Lord Of The Rings.
Indeed, it’s not quite true to say that the tonal confusion is absent because, as in the last visit, much of the humour in Lego Middle Earth comes from the juxtaposition of pratfalls and mischievous fourth wall breaking with Howard Shore’s wonderfully grand score and the often earnest performances of the cast. Graphically, the Lego games are now at the point where visually spectacular setpieces are possible and The Hobbit is packed with them.
While some sections, particularly the escape from Goblin Town, are almost as overlong and cumbersome as their cinematic inspiration, most are much improved in this version of events. I found the blunt, literal interpretation of the storm giants’ game was one of the film’s weakest scenes but it’s a highlight of the game, cheekily tipping a hat in the direction of Shadow of the Colossus. For the first time, a Lego game with scenes directly pulled from a cinematic source actually surpasses the original with its depiction of the action.
As with Lego: LOTR, Middle Earth acts as an expanding hub, with hundreds of discoveries scattered about its lanes and settlements. Major events in the films take place in separate levels, several of which are lengthy and unimaginative. On the whole, each adds something enjoyable to the toybox though, usually a new character, minigame or simple mechanic. While there are no particularly astounding surprises for anyone familiar with at least one other recent Lego game, The Hobbit is as polished and content-rich as I’ve come to expect.
At one point, I decided to rush through the remainder of the story missions so that I could get on with writing the review, but five minutes later I’d returned to my old habit of smashing every object on every screen so that I could collect all of the sweet, sweet studs (also the name of the ‘dance troupe’ I accidentally joined during Fresher’s Week). I don’t know whether it’s the audio-visual feedback or a completionist streak in my character, but something drives me to hoover up those little colourful blobs. Give me an attractive backdrop and some precarious piles of bricks to smash and I’ll sit hammering buttons for hours at a time.
I don’t think it’d be fair to describe that process as grinding because I don’t collect the studs to progress or to achieve anything in particular, I do it as if it’s an end in itself. The Hobbit does contain honest-to-badness grinding though in the form of collectible gems and other doohickeys that can be used to craft objects. The drop rates are reasonable at first but on later levels, mining the clearly marked spots didn’t always earn me enough bits and bots to forge items on an initial runthrough.
Part of the appeal of these games is the ability to replay areas with new characters and abilities, but I’ve never particularly enjoyed that aspect, preferring to wander around the hubs in my spare time rather than replaying the linear levels. The Hobbit feels like more of a chore than previous games, partly because it is so packed with things to do and see. My completion percentage is low and I’m not inclined to return and bump it up, but I do feel like I’ve missed some of the good stuff, which isn’t usually the case.
One new feature (new to me, may have been in the Lego Movie game, which I haven’t played) is a minigame that attempts to introduce the joy of building things into the game. It’s always seemed odd to me that a game about a construction toy doesn’t contain anything resembling creative assembly other than the rapid piecing together of blocks, accomplished by performing the extraordinary architectural feat of holding down a button. The Hobbit takes things a step further by adding minigames, in which certain items are assembled automatically piece by piece, with occasional pauses during which the player must select the next item from a small selection.
The minigame is even simpler than it sounds – the game shows you the necessary item so you just have to match the shape with the silhouette – but I enjoy seeing tiny pieces of Lego clicking and clacking into place. That such a dull process can please me says a lot about my tolerance for such things but also makes me once again recognise that whatever other license is attached, the Lego license itself continues to be a strong part of the appeal.
Character switching is the most frustrating part of the game. With LOTR or the superhero franchises, I have a good sense of who can do what. Need to smash something? Go with Hulk. Need to shoot a target? Try Legolas. In The Hobbit things aren’t quite as obvious. Need to drag a block? Flick between four fucking dwarves with different shades of beard until you settle on the only one capable of shifting it. Every character has one ability, with one specific use, but levels tend to require switching between those abilities every couple of minutes. Playing with a friend would cut down on the need to swap so often but it still feels like work rather than play. It’s a shame that instead of thinking through problems, players are essentially asked to try every key on the ring until they find the one that fits each lock blocking the way forward.
It feels good to finish on a complaint. When I was writing about Path Of Exile a few days ago, I felt a bit mean finishing on a sour note, but The Hobbit left me feeling a bit grumpy. Admittedly, burning through a Lego game as quickly as possible isn’t the best way to play, and I’d probably feel more fondly toward this one if I’d dipped in and out over a period of weeks.
Even the most ardent of Lego game fans probably haven’t run out of content in all of the previous releases yet, and I can’t imagine many people feel a burning desire to see Jackson’s latest in Lego form RIGHT NOW. With a Complete Saga no doubt due sometime after the final Hobbit film is released, along with a probable DLC pack, it seems sensible to wait. But if you do need a new Lego game in your life right now, this is a good one. Bits of it are awesome, most of it is decent.