If you've played one Lego game, you haven't played them all. That may seem obvious, but I've encountered too many people who dismiss new "Lego" titles based on the faulty assumption that they are all the same. "Lego Lord of the Rings" is the perfect opportunity to see how far this series has come since its inception; developer Traveller's Tales has crafted a wonderful platformer that stands on its own -- although the Lego charm and a great license make it even better.
"Lego Lord of the Rings" is a broad fusion of many elements -- exploration, collection, combat, puzzle-solving -- and Middle-earth is the ideal environment for these things to come together. Despite the kid-friendly exterior, the important events from the story have not been substantially changed or watered down. Epic moments like the swarming mass of orcs at Helm's Deep, the fall of the Witch King at Pelennor Fields, and Gandalf's battle with the Balrog are all wonderfully executed and fun to play.
The mix of faithfulness and playfulness with the source material makes "Lego Lord of the Rings" the best video game adaptation of Tolkien's universe, hands-down.
You don't need to be a diehard fan to have a good time here. The game play supporting the story (which follows the three movies) is fun regardless of your level of Middle-earth expertise. Whether you're playing in single-player or with a local co-op buddy, the variety is astounding. You still beat up bad guys and collect studs, but that kind of activity occupies a much smaller percentage of the experience.
Most of your time is spent exploring the iconic environments, hunting down collectibles, and searching for solutions to puzzles. Combat is still important, but it tends to happen in more impressive ways than enemies mindlessly pouring out of doors. Stomping around as Treebeard, riding into battle as King Theoden, and taking down Oliphaunts are just a few examples of how Traveller's Tales keeps the action fresh.
Once the War of the Ring is won, your time with "Lego Lord of the Rings" is just beginning. The (fairly linear) core campaign is an easily digestible eight hours, but the wealth of open-world, post-game content is staggering. With all of Middle-earth available to explore, the most powerful items, best puzzles and coolest characters are yours to find -- including a bonus level where you control two powerful villains. Obsessive players can expect to spend 30 hours or more to hit 100 percent.
As fun as this game can be, some technical issues get in the way. Character selection bugs; graphics problems provide occasional annoyances. The irregular audio quality (the voices are all sampled directly from the films) sometimes makes it seem like the main characters' dialogue is provided by an Internet soundboard, which deflates some otherwise cool moments.
A handful of technical stumbles can't keep "Lego Lord of the Rings" from being the best "Lego" game so far. Finding a great compromise between the linear installments and the sprawling open world of "Lego Batman 2," Traveller's Tales hits sweet spots in the structure and gameplay, constantly giving players new goals and new places to explore. The steady stream of goofball humor keeps the mood light, but almost every part of the game is entertaining in its own way.