It's been an unexpected journey from LEGO Star Wars to LEGO Lord Of The Rings. It's taken in the treasure-laden temples that Indy typically frequents, the streets of Gotham City, and even made time for a couple of pit-stops at Hogwarts. There was never any real doubt that Middle-Earth would eventually get the LEGO treatment and now that it's finally here we're glad TT Games took so many detours along the way
Years of careful iteration and technological advancement have resulted in not only one of the best LEGO games we could have possibly hoped for but also one of the most authentic Lord Of The Rings titles.
The fact that it's a great LEGO game was pretty much assured the moment we heard of its existence (and solidified the moment we saw a plastic Gandalf shouting, "You shall not pass!"), however it was harder to tell if we were in for a faithful representation of Middle-Earth. We've been burned in this area before, thanks mainly to EA's contributions to the franchise, but TT Games has pulled out all the stops.
Taking you from the burrows of Hobbiton to the crack of Mount Doom, LEGO Lord Of The Rings encompasses all of Middle-Earth (well, the bits of it you see in the trilogy and films, anyway). It's been shrunk, obviously, but between story missions you're free to explore it as you please, whacking bushes and statues for studs and even taking on the odd side-quest. It's not quite the epic BioWare-style RPG that we've wanted ever since we were teenagers, but it's surprisingly close to the dream.
The day-to-day combat and platforming is nearly identical to previous entries, with all the highs and lows that entails, but the narrative's been enhanced with dialogue nicked from Peter Jackson's films. The way TT Games do it is delightfully cheeky, occasionally changing the context to help abridge the story, or to throw in a cute visual gag. In the previous games, it felt like you were taking part in a hyperactive silent movie, now it feels like you're playing pranks on an oblivious Ian McKellen, who has suddenly become the most dead-pan actor ever.
The other major change to the formula is the inclusion of crafting, which means there's finally a proper purpose for those hidden bricks. Here they're used to create a number of special tools, which reside in your Treasure Trove and can be quickly whipped out at any time to pass an environmental obstacle or defeat a baddie in a pleasingly extravagant way. Between the crafting, the side-quests and the more open environment, this feels at times like a sandbox RPG.
It's not perfect. We encountered a few glitches (thankfully fixed by a restart) that are unlikely to be patched any time soon. The increased scope has also resulted in a game that can be a little fussy and (even worse) unfriendly, particularly when you're attempting to swap characters or items. This LEGO Lord Of The Rings is more ambitious than the early games, but it's messier with it.
However, if that's the price we have to pay for a faithful, charmingly funny send-up of a classic fantasy trilogy, then we've come off (relatively) easy. The future of the series might lie with the Wii U and LEGO City: Undercover, but there's time for one more encore for the classic formula.