LEGO The Lord of the Rings – Xbox 360
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: TT Games
Release Date: Nov 13, 2012
Genre: Action, Adventure
Reviewed by Mark Smith

Review Score: 4 of 5

With so many popular gaming franchises out there, LEGO has probably become more famous in gaming circles than the plastic toy building blocks that inspired them, and now Lord of the Rings joins the growing family of classics like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Batman. Much like the most recent outing with the caped crusader, Lord of the Rings follows an open-world design with specific levels fixed to certain locations on the map of Middle-earth, allowing up to two players in drop-in/out co-op to experience all their favorite moments from the movie trilogy and everything in-between.

You know you are in for a magical adventure the moment the game begins and Gandalf rides up to Bilbo’s house with a wagon full of fireworks. I sat there for at least ten minutes just watching all the little random animations taking place just on the title screen. Once you start the game you are in for an authentic cinematic experience, at least as far as the audio goes. Much like Batman, all the characters speak, including some fantastic narration all lifted directly from the movies. This also includes the emotionally driven Hollywood score, giving the game much more gravitas than any LEGO game to come before it. In some ways, the music and serious voice acting by noted Hollywood talent is a brutal contrast to the irreverent humor and parody from past LEGO games.

Further enhancing the presentation dichotomy is the use of gorgeous CG backgrounds that would look great in a non-LEGO game, but ironically, actually detract from the “LEGO charm” that we expect from the franchise. Simply put, the game isn’t as LEGO-fied as it should or needs to be. Sure, there are a bazillion things to smash and hundreds of thousands of LEGO bricks to collect but they all reside in these hyper-realistic backgrounds that look, quite frankly, “too good”.

The game retells the key events from the movie trilogy hitting all the hot spots and glossing over the narrative and dramatic points with CliffsNotes precision. At any given time you are likely to have several characters to choose from, accessible via the pop-up radial menu, and each character has their own unique abilities/items that will often require switching them out for key puzzles and strategic combat moments. As always, the game is designed with co-op in mind, so it is almost always easier to get through the story when you have a second person playing another party member. LEGO Lord of the Rings uses the same dynamic split-screen tech we first saw in LEGO Indiana Jones where once the two players move far enough apart the game will intuitively split the screen to keep both players in view and merge together when characters regroup. Arguably, the moving split-screen views can be distracting and even annoying at times, but so is the constant flashing reminder to have Player 2 press Start if you are playing alone. That prompt really needs to go away. And why is there still no online co-op?

As you make your way through the story you will unlock areas of the map and a lengthy cast of characters that you can use to re-explore Middle-earth in the almost-endless Free Play mode. As with past LEGO games, there is a seemingly endless supply of collectibles and quest items, many of which require you to play parts of the game with a certain character or ability. You will start seeing these special areas or unbreakable bits even minutes into the game, so make mental notes or just plan on replaying the whole game over if you are a true collector and completionist.

Lord of the Rings adds a few new twists to the familiar rules of the LEGO genre. You can now find and collect red blocks that will add various “assists” to the game you can toggle in the cheats menu. There is also an impressive crafting system in place that allows you to collect special mithril blocks then take them to the blacksmith to forge special items, provided you have unlocked their designs. These items are crucial for unlocking and gaining access to all corners of Middle-earth. Additionally, you will equip these items to a specific character, essentially giving that character a unique ability that further adds to the whole character swapping scheme of the game.

LEGO Lord of the Rings is a great game overall, even if it has lost a bit of that LEGO charm when it comes to actual gameplay. I remember back to playing LEGO Star Wars and all the destruction and rebuilding of LEGO items using those quaking piles of rubble and realize just how much of that is gone now. Giant maps, dozens of characters who offer up mini-quests, a robust crafting subsystem, endless collectibles, and linear story missions that almost seem optional in the grand scheme of things are bullet points I expect from a game like Skyrim or even an attempt at a realistic Lord of the Rings trilogy game. Putting a LEGO face on something as serious as this Tolkien property and then not taking it far enough may be this game’s only true fault.

Regardless of whether you are a LEGO fan, action-adventure junkie, or just looking to supplement your Hobbit movie experience, there is a month or more of adventures waiting in LEGO Middle-earth that is certain to delight and entertain the entire family…two at a time of course.