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    • Coda
      Posting these cat-cartoons-without-the-cartoon was a long journey that I don’t know if I’ll repeat soon again. A daily blog is tough … even when you have your material handed to you! But, I couldn’t have done it without the artwork … Continue reading →
    • December 31, 2011
      Father Time is riding out his last few minutes of being the temporal keeper for 2011; he sits in an easy chair with a calendar showing “Dec 31” behind him and a grandfather clock pointing to the time of 11:53. … Continue reading →
    • December 30, 2011
      A happy young lady shares a table at a tony restaurant with her cat; they both wear festive, cone-shaped party hats. The woman gaily says to the tuxedoed server, “One martini and one glass of milk.” The cat does not … Continue reading →

There and back again: coming full circle on LEGO LotR

Posted by joeabbott on December 8, 2012

This is the third review I’ve written on LEGO Lord of the Rings (LotR) but the only one I’ll publish. After completing the first third of the trilogy, I took a break and wrote a glowing review: I loved nearly every thing about it. The story was fun to re-experience as a LEGO game, the many characters and simple puzzles were fun, and the imaginative LEGO creations are always a pleasure to see … made you want to have a set of mini-kits that appeared in the game! The only drawback seemed to be the repetition but let’s be honest … people who get bored with gameplay aren’t seeking out LEGO games!

Then I started another review, perhaps a week later: I’d finished the story and was working on Free Play missions that would allow me to finish collecting all the achievements … and there was a lot more frustration expressed in that review! Griping about finding all the hidden treasures (some items had helper extras you could turn on … others didn’t), control problems switching between characters, and other control problems when jumping to specific locations made for a review of a very different tone. I still liked it, but some of the flaws seemed a bit more glaring in Free Play.

And now … well, now I’ve completed the game, will enjoy a break, but found it to be a very solid game and one I’d recommend with only a hint of reservation: there’s a lotta fun in that game. So, with a bit more balance and a touch less frustration, let’s walk through the game.

Story

lego_lord_of_the_rings_image5The story follows the Peter Jackson movies rather than the books, does so faithfully, and leverages the movie voices and soundtrack to aid the experience. I personally enjoyed that a lot, in spite of a few moments of inconsistency: as when Boromir is killed. To make the moment a little lighter, befitting a LEGO game, they had him shot with a banana, causing his demise, but then included his final lines to Aragorn about following him anywhere. It’s a tough balance, a death in a LEGO game, but this fell a bit flat.

To those who know the movies or books, there are few surprises but LEGO’s sly humor pervades the telling. So much so, they’ve released a video clip highlighting a number of the crafty vignettes. The telling starts in the Second Age at the Battle of the Last Alliance in which Sauron is defeated but his One Ring is preserved, keeping the door open for his return. Through cut scenes you fast forward to the time of the Fellowship of the Ring and see Frodo off on his journey to destroy the Ring. You then control the characters from the books/movie on their quest to unmake the Sauron’s Ring.

The story follows two paths: the first is referred to as Story Mode and allows the player to linearly follow nearly 20 levels. Once completed, a level can be returned to later, with characters of the player’s choosing, to finish investigating Middle-earth and solving all the puzzles; that is Free Play Mode.

Design

imageAs noted, in Story Mode, each level is solidly linear, a single set of steps and solutions exist to move to the next level. The replay value comes in during Free Play Mode, in which items found later in the game, or characters unlocked in different levels, can then be used to solve puzzles that would otherwise be impossible. This opens up quite a bit of territory. Additionally, in Free Play Mode, the entirety of Middle-earth is available, allowing a character to literally run from The Shire to Mordor.

The majority of the game is spent collecting “mithril bricks” that can be used as currency at a blacksmith shop. There are 30 different items, many of which allow characters to assume the skills and talents of other characters. For example, Gollum can walk up walls, a talent no other character has, however, with the mithril climbing boots, any character can ascend the same walls. To craft an item at the blacksmith shop, you must find the blacksmith design, gather enough mithril bricks to pay for it, and then commission the blacksmith (just bring him the design and bricks) to build it. While the animation is clever and fun to watch, it takes a bit of patience to sit through it two-and-a-half-dozen times.

Additionally, in your wandering of Middle-earth, you bump into NPCs who will ask you to find something on your adventures. In most of the levels, you can uncover three “treasures”, most of which are wanted by the NPCs. Upon delivering these items, the NPC will either give you a mithril brick or the option to purchase a coveted “red brick” … the red bricks allow you to turn on “extras” that are usually fairly valuable (the mini-kit finder, being one of these) but in some cases nearly useless (the boss disguises will have the larger bosses show up looking comically different). In all, there’s a lot of chasing about, digging up of treasures, and smashing just about anything to find LEGO studs and score more mithril bricks.

One neat design decision was to include a “ghost trail” of LEGO studs leading you to your next objective. While other mechanisms are used during the levels, the ghost studs keep you from getting lost on your journeys through Middle-earth.

Gameplay

imageThe controls are where the game suffered the most in my eyes. At the core of any LEGO game is collecting studs and, in LEGO LotR, finding mithril bricks. For the majority of the story and wandering about, the controls are solid but frustration enters when you’re asked to maneuver in tight location or jump with precision: either the camera angle or the controls themselves just fall short.

To get one mithril brick, I had to run through a cave, up a ramp, scale a wall, jump to a tightrope, leap onto a hanging vine, and then swing into a mithril brick. I found myself muttering under my breath, “yeah, this is a lotta fun … great fun you guys designed here … oh, maybe this is the challenge portion of the game, good challenge … yeah, great”. And I went on a long time as it seemed at each transition I found ways to fall back to the cavern floor and need to run, climb, and jump all over again. Frustrating.

Other rough spots include using the same button to pick up as to discard (anyone else find they were throwing away Sting or Galadriel’s light as often as picking them up while fighting Shelob?), picking up an item but also having to “place it” in your backpack even though the game should do this for you, or selecting the character wheel to pick another character but having the game instead switch to your partner. That last issue caused keen frustration after you’d walked up a wall as Gollum but then wanted to change into, say, Legolas … if the game inadvertently switched you to the other character, Gollum would then hop off the wall you’d just climbed to join them.

I do remember being at a point where I thought I only had “hard” mithril bricks to collect … those that would take a bit more puzzle-solving thought or extra time/skill to reach. But after an hour session one evening I looked about the Middle-earth map, saw they were mostly collected, and I had a happy moment feeling like I’d actually accomplished something. Those times are fun: you get the bricks you need and are off to the blacksmith to craft another item that you can turn in for a quest reward.

imagePresentation

Overall, the game is gorgeous: faithful art from the movie is overlaid with exceptionally clever LEGO object and character designs and through the entire thing, Howard Shores scores carry you back to a great movie and wonderful story.

When I finished smithing the last item, I needed to get back to the Shire and Bag End to claim my final achievements: the There and Back Again achievement. Most of the times I’d use fast travel (just selecting a location on the map and instantly appearing there), but this time I chose Frodo as my character and jogged from Bree to the Shire, enjoying the music and smiling at the locations of my vicariously lived adventures; I was heading home to say good-bye.

Now a game that gives you that is doing a lot.

Achievements

For the most part, I thought LEGO LotR did a nice job balancing out the achievements: you’d get one for every level you completed, there was a handful of “fun” achievements (Return of the Mushroom King – have Aragorn wear a mushroom crown), and then some collection achievements.

It was the last set, the collection achievements, that I disliked the most; four in particular:

  • imageThere’s some good in this world. – complete all fetch quests
  • My Precious… – collect all mithril bricks
  • Here’s a pretty thing! – craft all mithril items
  • Not with 10,000 men… – unlock all characters

The reason I disliked them was that they all seemed to represent the same thing: collecting all items!

By the time I completed There’s some good in this world, I only needed eight mithril bricks to complete My Precious. After collecting those eight bricks for My Precious and having all mithril bricks in the game, I could them complete Here’s a pretty thing at the blacksmith. After smithing all items at the blacksmith, the smith himself became available for purchase and so I was able to complete Not with 10,000 men.

The last achievement, There and Back Again, is unlocked once you collect all bricks, unlock the smith, and then return to Bag End. And so, within an hour or so, I was able to get the final five achievements but getting one really sets you up for getting the rest. So while I enjoy getting 235 GamerScore in one sitting, I wouldn’t call that the best design.

Coda

That’s it. Just a fun fun game that had a few rough spots but, in the end, was (for the most part) a joy to see and play. If it wasn’t for my achievement habit, it would have been all fun, as it didn’t get tedious until I need them all (my precious).

Metacritic scores this game the equivalent of a solid 8/10; I’m calling it a 9/10, but then again, I had originally titled this piece, “Who’s a LotR nerd? I’m a LotR nerd!” Loved the game and now I’m geared up to sit through another viewing of the movies!

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