The LEGO series is venerable, a tremendous success by any measure. Brick environments and LEGO-ized heroes coupled with pop culture thematic material is a recipe for success. The series is going strong, selling well even though the core gameplay experience is older than the current console generation (which itself is a bit long in the tooth). As the series has aged, new twists and tricks have been added to formula, and for the most part, these additions have kept the LEGO series good, maybe even very good, but not great. Does LEGO Lord of the Rings have what it takes to make the first truly great LEGO game?
While the basic ingredients of the LEGO series have changed gradually over time, all of the familiar elements you expect are present in LEGO LotR. The environments are filled with brick scenery that can be smashed into bits to collect studs, the LEGO currency. Walking around, destroying everything you see, is extremely repetitive, but still as enjoyable today as it was in the first LEGO Star Wars. After the main story has been completed, there is much to do, including finding collectibles and purchasing new characters. The drop in/drop out, two player local co-op works just as well as ever. These elements are the building blocks of the LEGO games, if you'll pardon the pun, and LEGO LotR implements each one as well as any previous game.
But the most successful LEGO games are those that interpret their source material into LEGO game form effectively. Both LEGO Harry Potter games used spell casting and potion making to mix things up. The special ability suits and cast of heroes and villains in the LEGO Batman games gave players all sorts of enjoyable options. LEGO LotR effectively implements the epic sense of scale, struggle between good and evil, and the camaraderie and teamwork shown by the Fellowship of the Ring into video game form.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of LEGO LotR are the production values, from the expansive environments to the quality of the cut scenes. Levels are truly expansive, and feel much larger than those of previous games. From the rolling fields of the Shire to the blasted wastelands of Mordor, and everywhere between, the sense of scale is incredible. The hub world, where levels are linked to one another, isn't quite as detailed as LEGO Batman 2's Gotham City, but it's still enormous. Riding from one level to the next on horseback really makes the world of Middle Earth seem nearly as alive as in the movies and books. Adding to this is the brilliant inclusion of spoken dialogue taken straight from the movies in cut scenes. Don't worry; the famous LEGO humor is still present, mainly due to some hilarious sight gags. LEGO LotR looks and sounds fantastic from start to finish.
The Lord of the Rings is the original fantasy epic, a clash between the forces of good and evil that almost single-handedly defined the fantasy genre. From the beginning, LEGO LotR immerses the players in the struggle. As the Nazgul chase the hobbits, there is a real sense of dread and tension. In the mines of Moria and the battle at Helm's Deep, wave after wave of enemies surround your LEGO characters on all sides. One particularly nice touch is what happens when you try to explore an area in the hub world you haven't unlocked. For a brief moment, Sauron's flaming eye flashes on the screen in terrifying fashion. Even though it's still clearly a kid-friendly game, the struggles of the protagonists are quite intense.
Against the dark forces of evil, teamwork is absolutely required to win. LEGO LotR is perhaps the most cooperative of the series, apart from the lack of online co-op. The fixed split screen option returns, correcting the forced but dizzying dynamic split of LEGO Batman 2. There are lengthy sections where players must split up to meet their goals. Some of the best are when Frodo dons the Ring, taking him to a shadowy version of the game world. These puzzles, requiring back and forth actions between both worlds, are among the best designed in the game. The co-op is extremely strong in this latest entry in the LEGO series.
After you complete the main story, which I estimate takes between eight and ten hours, there is still plenty to do. Free play returns, and with it, the deep exploration options that LEGO games are known for. Saving up studs to buy new characters is always fun, and a questing system, as well as a blacksmithing mechanic, will keep LEGO devotees happy for many hours past the completion of the story.
The LEGO series has reached a new height in LEGO Lord of the Rings. The trademark brick bashing, humor, puzzles, and collectibles all return. The epic scale, battle between good and evil, and sense of teamwork of the Lord of the Rings saga are impressively adapted into video game form. The game is excellent, easily the best of the series. LEGO Lord of the Rings rules over all of its predecessors, and is better than many other game releases this gaming season as well.
Editor's Note: This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game, provided by the publisher.