Traveler Tales has a nice thing going. Take an existing franchise, usually a lucrative one that sells millions, Lego-ize it in a video game (or a series of video games), sit back and watch as you sell and make millions. Of course, it helps that Lego games are usually extraordinarily good. It can be argued, for example, that Traveler Tales is singularly responsible for the best Star Wars games since the Rogue Squadron and Battlefront series died out, and the best Harry Potter games period, via their Lego takes on those universes. Earlier this year, they delivered Lego Batman 2, a loving homage to the DC universe.
Their latest venture is Lego Lord of the Rings, their first attempt at dabbling with Tolkien’s universe (and releasing just in time to coincide nicely with The Hobbit’s release); maybe it’s the fact that they’re releasing two games in the same year, the first of which was extraordinarily good. Maybe it’s because most of their manpower is working on the upcoming Lego City Undercover. Maybe Warner Brothers. had them on a tighter leash for this one than mot of their other games. It doesn’t matter what the reason is, unfortunately, Lego Lord of the Rings doesn’t quite play out as well some of the other games in the series.
Oh, make no mistake, it’s still a fun enough game to play through, and it will probably hold kids’ attention forever; but unlike the other Lego games, which were, yes, aimed at the kids, but incredibly satisfying even for an adult, Lego Lord of the Rings is too simplistic in its gameplay mechanics, and almost too literal in its reinterpretation of Middle Earth. This results in the loss of one of the greatest joys of playing a Lego game, which is seeing the universe the games are tackling gleefully reimagined with Legos. Yes, I understand that Lord of the Rings as a franchise probably holds more prestige and power and respect than any other franchise they have tackled so far, but still, you can’t help but feel a little disappointed.
Surprisingly enough, the almost literal interpretation of Tolkien’s complex and decidedly not-for-kids universe is in almost direct opposition with how simple and almost shallow the gameplay mechanics are. Unlike some of the other games in the series, which hold enough content and depth to entertain the most cynical and jaded of all gamers, Lego Lord of the Rings plays off as a decidedly tired and formulaic take on the entire gig- smashing scenery to collect Legos, running around and fighting Lego themed Orcs and other minions. Yes, the flashy animations hold a certain shine to them and make combat feel deeper and more exciting than it really is, but you soon see past it, and the mindless hacking and slashing begins to get repetitive, fast.
Worse still are the puzzles, which this game has a lot of. It is refreshing to see puzzles in the game in the first place, since most games’ ideas of puzzles these days are ‘blow whatever’s in your way,’ or ‘do exactly everything exactly as I tell you to to get this part that is meant to provide a change of pace from the combat over with.’ No, Lego Lord of the Rings has some real puzzles. It’s just that they aren’t really anything special.
Oh, they’re well designed. Nothing gets to me as badly as poorly designed puzzles, but Lego Lord of the Rings makes good on its puzzle design. it’s just that, like the rest of the game, the puzzles seem a bit formulaic, especially if you’ve played the other games in the series. There’s nothing challenging about them, and unlike numerous other games, like the Portal series, that masks a lack of difficulty with at least the inventiveness of its puzzles, Lego Lord of the Rings is perhaps insultingly easy.
It plays exactly as you’d expect then, from a Lego game. Surprising, given how conservatively Middle Earth has been treated, with not as many Lego surprises in this reimagining. Which adds to the problem, as this Middle Earth is still familiar, only it’s exactly the same as you saw it in the movies. Which is to say, it looks great. Again, though, I stress, there’s not a whole lot of Lego theming going around.
The graphics, as is standard for Lego games, are gorgeous, and dripping with charm. The music here is lifted almost wholesale from the movies, so don’t expect very many new tunes. What that means, though, is some really neat music regardless. The story is handled cavalierly, in spite of how reverent the developers are clearly trying to be. If you’re hoping to use this game to introduce your little kids to the magic and wonders of Lord of the Rings, bad idea! At best, it can be used as a nice complement, but if this game were all the exposure you ever got to Tolkien, you’d come away feeling very confused, and probably wondering what all the hysteria was about.
It’s a good game, then, particularly for its target audience, which is going to be kids. It might be a bit too easy for them, but they’re still gonna have fun. The production values remain surprisingly high. But the game just feels shallow, almost formulaic, and you can’t help but feel that it could have been a whole lot more than what it turned out to be. Maybe in the inevitable sequel, Traveler Tales can give us the Lego Lord of the Rings game that we deserve. For now, get it for your kids if you want, even dabble a bit in it yourself. Just don’t go in expecting something as good as the movies or the books, or even the other Lego videogames.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.