Lego Lord of the Rings has been out for a while but I've only just managed to walk into Mordor. It was quite simple in the end. I also tossed a dwarf, loads of times, and I avoided being Legolas as much as possible because something about the cut of his jib irritates me. I undertook the Quest for Mount Doom and, eventually, I saved Middle Earth from evil. But I also broke every piece of furniture in Rivendell, spent ages looking for a lost hat and generally made a nuisance out of myself. Here's wot I think of the whole adventure.
Peter Jackson? Peter Jokeson more like. You know what I’m talking about. The same guy who felt the need to cut out the most important part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy when he adapted it for the screen has only gone and expanded The Hobbit, which is three pages long, into a seven hundred and four hour trilogy that he wants you to watch at twice the speed of normal life. Or something. It’s technical. It’s also madness.
The specific excised passage in Jackson’s adaptation, which is more abridged than a Sunday School Bible, occurs just after the hobbits visit The Prancing Pony. After meeting Aragorn, the jolly little footmen remember that there was a pond back in Hobbiton, with a small jetty suitable for fishing. Pippin has a rod in his backpack so they reckon, sod the quest, and instead head back through the Old Forest, smash everything they see en route, then ride a pig around for a while, destroy a market square, forget why they came back to Hobbiton in the first place, and end up dancing at a party. And then they break everything at the party into pieces as well, leaving a group of hobbits jigging, dementedly, on an empty patch of land.
He also left out Tom Bombadil and some people were bothered by that as well. They clearly hadn’t thought about the embarrassment and horror of watching Robin Williams, or somebody else twinkly eyed and prone to sugary outbursts, prancing about with twigs in his beard trilling, "Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo! Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow! Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!"
Bombadil does make an appearance in Lego Lord of the Rings and so does all the backtracking, smashing and fishing you could hope for. It’s optional, as is the majority of the game, but good grief, it’s hard to turn down all of that brick-breaking and exploration. Middle Earth isn’t enormous but it is open, after a bit of work. Each chapter of the story sets the gathered characters on a contained quest, which, when completed, opens up the area of the world for exploration and free play. Most involve getting from A to B, although with enough variation in sub-objectives to ensure they have more than changing colour schemes to recommend them.
I was unsure about the use of dialogue from the films but it works well, particularly when used to send up the earnest line readings. As someone who enjoyed the Wingnut versions enough to have seen their extended versions several times, I took great pleasure in seeing their moments of wide-eyed sentimentality punctured. The gags are corny and sometimes the humour only stretches so far as replacing a weapon with a carrot or a frying pan, but Sam does take an orc down with his pan in the first film and I’m pretty sure one of the Uruk-Hai gets knocked over by a pinecone. Lego Lord of the Rings is sillier but in its later stages, when it more confidently switches dialogue into alternate scenes, it’s a cleverer silliness than shield-surfing Legolas ever was.
It’s not only the voices that are borrowed. Entire scenes and sets are recreated to delightful effect. Even camera angles are recognisable, but it’s when the references go beyond aesthetic nods and handshakes that the game is at its most playful. Many of the specific obstacles and objectives are drawn from minor details in the films. The attempt to cross Caradhras is made difficult due to frequent snowdrifts, deeper than a dwarf’s makeshift dunny, and the taller members of the Fellowship can be used to rescue the smaller when they become stuck. Because each member has a special ability or two, it’s often necessary to transport Gimli or Sam across in order to advance, which makes for enjoyable exchanges, reminiscent of Lost Vikings.
The need to exchange characters is also in keeping with themes of fellowship and finding strength in unlikely places. I was pleased that Sam’s cookery and gardening skills are far more useful than all the violence any warrior can muster, and as he and Frodo walk into Mordor, it’s the valet who leads the way.
The story missions recreate all the major beats of Jackson’s trilogy and most work well. There’s the occasional frustrating encounter, particularly those that run too long. I’m thinking specifically of the Dead Marshes, which are the closest thing Middle Earth has to a sewer level, with their thin walkways and repetitive tasks, which might as well be ‘open valve to drain water’. Dull, dull, dull. But for every section like that, there are six or seven that will bring a smile to all but the most unsmiling faces: catching fish to tame Gollum, distracting a Black Rider by causing a beehive to fall on his bonce, or actually gathering the necessaries for the idiot hobbits to cook their fourteenth supper-feast on Weathertop.
Even if the story missions were weak, I’d have been happy to endure them because unlocking Middle Earth and then exploring it freely is a fine reward. In the construction of the world, Lego pieces are only used for objects that can be broken, which includes every living thing, and the rest has a slightly more fantastic design than the films. Everything looks great though, from the splendid backdrops to the blocky Balrog, and there are minigames and collectibles aplenty off the well-trodden paths.
The compact nature of the world has its charms as well. Ever noticed how wherever someone stands in Middle Earth, Mount Doom is lurking just over their shoulder, trying to ruin their family photo? Lego Lord of the Rings seems to know that. Leaving Moria, there’s a small incline and just around the bend, there’s Lothlorien, resplendent. Look back from the forest and the entrance to the mines can just about be seen and that’s good. My mind made the least predictable connection it could have made by making a comparison with Dark Souls and its approach to world-building. Several linear paths, landmarks on every horizon and the sense of a place that has collapsed in on itself rather than spread thin and stretched like butter on an abundance of bread.
It’s a journey without much of an in between, offering adventure at almost every step. What little does exist between the known events has been filled with bricks to collect, objects to smash, characters to purchase and a sprinkling of optional missions.
If you are happy to spend hours of your life exploring a small and lovable Middle Earth, smashing things and seeking out simple puzzles, then you will find Lego Lord of the Rings to be exceedingly generous. At its base, there’s little deviation from the established Lego format but the open world, along with a wider range of abilities, and basic crafting and equipping of items, makes for a more expansive game. Add to that the strongest use of a license yet (the films, not the book), with intelligent use of the voices, visual design and music, and this is my favourite Lego game to date. Everything may be made of fake plastic but crossing back into the Shire and hearing the first stirring of ‘Concerning Hobbits’ creeping into the score is utterly heartwarming.
I should probably say something about how the multiplayer works, A partner can drop in at any time and you’re both free to switch between available characters at will. The split screen works well, only dividing when necessary and shifting to track both players without being too obtrusive. Occasionally, two events are happening at the same time in different places and the players are separated. This first occurs when the hobbits are sneaking through the forest, avoiding the Black Rider, and Saruman is forcing Gandalf to breakdance. One player is left with the hobbits while the other controls Gandalf.
Maybe some people enjoy that separation but, I must admit, I dismissed my co-op partner at that point. The game may be generous but I’m quite selfish and, left with Sam rubbing some twigs together to start a fire, I was dismayed. I didn’t want to miss out on my first chance to be Gandalf so I ended up playing the rest of the game on my own. And I’m very happy that I did. Multiplayer may be fun but sometimes a man has to be one and whole, for many hours, when there’s so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.
The special edition of Monty Python and the Holy Grail on DVD had a Lego version of the film included as a bonus feature. Or at least I thought it did. When I saw that option in the menu, I was amazed that the whole thing had been recreated so imagine my face when I found out I was wrong. The feature only contained the Knights of the Round Table musical scene and I'm still disappointed about that. Lego Lord of the Rings makes me feel much better though, by containing Lego versions of almost every major scene in a long and complex cinematic trilogy, and then filling those scenes with things to do.
Lego Lord of the Rings is available now, as is the demo, which unfortunately contains one of the game's worst story missions. Boo.