TT Games is no stranger to big name properties. The Lego Star Wars: The Video Game series has been a sound success, and the company has also very capably managed to create good quality games around famous names like Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and Batman. But there's something about The Lord of the Rings, and something about its fans, that was always going to make it that much more necessary to create as faithful a representation as is possible within the realm of plastic blocks. Luckily, TT Games has proven to be more than up to the task. In fact, yet again the team has outdone itself to produce a Lego game even better than the last.
For every popular book series made into a film diehard fans will scorn the (necessarily) comparable lack of depth in the latter. So the fact that this game is heavily based on Peter Jackson's stunning interpretation of Tolkien rather than the sacred words of the man himself is bound to ruffle a few feathers. But it makes a lot of sense; games are highly visual, much closer to films than to books. And once TT Games made that decision to pay tribute to Jackson's work they did an incredible job of it. Sure, everything is made of Lego, but it's all instantly recognisable, from the little characters themselves to the large world of Middle-earth through which they roam. The epic landscapes in the background will transport you to Jackson's version of Tolkien's world, and even the camera angles are often surprisingly familiar. More than once you'll spot a scene animated to mimic the exact movements of the actor, the very same sweep of the camera, that oh-so-recognisable slow motion moment.
It's not just the cinematography that is borrowed either. Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes may have been the first of TT Games' Lego titles to feature vocals beyond the occasional grunt but Lego The Lord of the Rings: The Video Game is the first to feature the actual audio from the property on which it's based. You won't get to hear the entire script but the famous lines are all there; yes, you will get to hear both Boromir and Gandalf telling various entities what they can't and shan't do. While most of these lines take place in the carefully replicated cutscenes, some will occur while you're scurrying about fighting orcs or just smashing up plants in exchange for bricks. It was clever of TT Games to pluck the exchange between Frodo and Sam in the film when the pair get lost on their way to Mordor – “This looks strangely familiar.” “That's because we've been here before. We're going in circles.” – and apply it to a totally separate situation in which the player is solving a puzzle, but some limitations cannot be avoided, like Gollum's repetition of the same “hurry hobbits-es, hurry” line during a particularly long-winded trek through the marshes.
For those who worried that voice would subtract from the slapstick comedy found in the earlier, voiceless games, fear not: TT Games has taken plenty of opportunities to sprinkle humour over the top of even the scenes most reminiscent of the films. In some cases – like the orc shooting Boromir with an arrow, then a broomstick, then a banana – the comedy is clearly supposed to provide relief from moments that are much darker in the films, but in others it's just for fun, like when Merry and Pippin don fake moustache disguises to spy on the meeting in Rivendell at which the fellowship is formed.
Fundamentally TT Games has been clever here in taking as many features from the films as it could possibly turn into assets in a game. One example is Galadriel's gifts, most of which find a tangible use throughout the adventure. You may not get to play the part where Frodo and Sam slowly edge down the cliff face, but Sam can use his elven rope to pull things towards him and hang from hooks. And the light of Eärendil proves very useful when exploring dark caves or scaring off spiders. These gifts are stored in another of the features that is new to the series: the inventory. The capacity for collecting objects and even combining several to make a new one adds another layer to the game that is far from unwelcome, but the system as it currently stands could do with some tweaking, for instance so that the player does not have to manually select an inventory slot for every item she picks up.
Issues like that with the inventory seem to be partially due to a lack of buttons, particularly with the Wii version of the game. You'll notice it when you press the button to turn a nearby pile of bricks into the structure you need in order to progress only to have the item menu pop up, or when you want to get on a horse but pressing the corresponding button makes you change character instead. The game is often so keen to give you the epic adventure experience that it limits your control over it a little too much. A few sequences are almost entirely automated; you might think you're rowing that boat or steering that horse in a particular direction, but if you let go of the controller the action will carry on without you.
Led down a prescribed path as you are in these moments, a lot of the feeling of involvement with the adventure comes from the characters themselves. Legolas is a particular joy to control, as he walks confidently across a rope other characters will only hang from, and skilfully shoots arrows at the multiple targets you line up for him. But the others have their uses too. Sam can light fires and – in a slight deviation from canon – instantly grow plants that are big enough to climb on. Aragorn can track creatures by following sparkly trails. Gandalf can levitate objects with his staff. In true adventure fashion, you'll have to learn the value of teamwork if you want to move forward. Sometimes, that teamwork is simple, like getting the tall characters (elves, wizards, men) to carry the smaller ones (hobbits, dwarves) through deep snow. But often things get a little more complicated, requiring multiple characters to use their unique skills before you can get ahead, and how that will affect your enjoyment of the game will depend on two things: the level to which you appreciate the puzzle-solving and mechanics of the moment versus just wanting to reach the end, and whether you're playing alone or with a friend.
The Lego games from TT Games have always been built for cooperative play. Each one since the first Lego Star Wars: The Video Game has given you the option to add a second player to take on the role of the Obi-Wan Kenobi to your Qui-Gon Jinn, the Robin to your Batman, the Ron to your Harry. But Lego The Lord of the Rings: The Video Game occasionally takes this split-screen play in a new direction. Every now and then, two events will take place at the same time but in different locations, and if you're playing with a friend the game will divide the two of you between them. So one of you might be sneaking the four hobbits past a black rider while the other has Gandalf engage in a fierce battle with Saruman. It's a clever way to allow for single-character moments like the latter (after all, Gandalf does face the White Wizard alone), but it could lead to arguments.
However, it's hardly more enjoyable to deal with the constant switching that is required if you're playing on your own, with the limitations on the number of selectable characters ever on screen at once (presumably to avoid clutter either in the level or in the memory of your console) meaning you have to pick the right person for the job from the selection wheel each time. And some moments – like one in which Faramir moves parallel to Frodo and Sam, shooting arrows through gaps in the wall separating them to trigger switches that let the pair progress – really work with two players in different locations. Besides, for those that want to experience every aspect of the story for themselves, you can always replay the level once you're done.
In fact, there's so much to do beyond simply getting the Ring to Mount Doom that you could easily finish the story with a completion level of less than 25%. The first time you play through the quest, the game will restrict you to a linear path – you can't, for example, walk Frodo and Sam into Mordor until your actions elsewhere have caused the gaze of Sauron to shift away – but as soon as you're done the entire map opens up to you. Not only does this give you a chance to appreciate the miniaturised Middle-earth and see the links between its areas of interest, but it also means you can forget all about that pesky Ring and turn treasure hunter. As is the norm for these Lego games, the world is full of collectables, though the Bricks in this one are Mithril rather than Gold. But there are also silly side quests that are totally unrelated to the story, many of which involve using the new – and simplistic – crafting system.
Of course, how much all of that extra content appeals to you will depend on the sort of player you are. It might be that you rejoice at the chance to spend more time in Lego Middle-earth, finding and using your collected bricks to buy the rest of the playable characters, crafting every item and opening every door. Or it might be that you promise yourself you'll go back and complete every side quest, only to lose interest the minute the Ring meets its doom. But even if you only plan to go there and not back again, it's definitely worth forming your own little fellowship and giving it a try.