Game Reviews

Lego The Lord of the Rings

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Lego The Lord of the Rings

Lego The Lord of the Rings on home console and PC was a treat.

Not only did developer Traveller's Tales pull off the tonal feat of transposing Peter Jackson's grandiose trilogy into the cheerfully trivial, irreverent, jeopardy-free toybox of a Lego game, but it managed to imbue it with the sense of scale and adventure that you'd expect to find in a good RPG.

And then there's Lego The Lord of the Rings for iOS, a touchscreen version for the smartphone generation that is, for better and for worse, considerably slicker, cheaper, and more compact than the original - though it still encompasses the full narrative arc, making a return journey from Mount Doom via Middle Earth's deadliest attractions.

It also retains much of the original's atmosphere, as you venture from the rural woodwind idyll of The Shire via the stringed menace of Weathertop all the way to the thundering brass of Helm's Deep and the battles beyond.

Sampled dialogue, grunts, and exclamations from the films help to build this atmosphere in places - though it has to be said that in other places they're so quiet and scratchy as to be a distraction.

The board is set, the pieces are moving

You play as, well, pretty much all of the characters in The Lord of the Rings films at one point or another. You unlock characters and add them to your party as you make your way through the campaign, and these generally have specific abilities for solving certain puzzles that you can go back and tackle in Free Play mode.

For example, on your first sortie through the blizzardous Pass of Caradhras you might spot a cracked rock that you (as Gimli) can only smash with an extra powerful axe, which you don't have. The rock remains unsmashed and you go on your way. Shortly afterwards, you acquire the axe in Balin's Tomb, allowing you to return to the Pass once you've finished that stage and unlock the previously inaccessible content.

When you return to locations you can also take on little missions, such as finding weapons for King Dain Ironfoot II, so there's plenty of reason to revisit areas to squeeze extra gameplay out of them. That's the way the Lego games are made.

The Ring has awoken, it's heard its masters call

Unsurprisingly, Lego The Lord of the Rings contains IAPs, which sit quite naturally alongside the soft currency of Lego studs that you accumulate in abundance by smashing up scenery and killing orcs and other assorted fantasy jerks.

You can spend Lego studs (or real money) on various boosts and power-ups, and you can spend money on character packs, but none is necessary and you can enjoy the game without giving the IAPs a thought. You'll be relieved to know that Lego The Lord of the Rings is not one of those games that have been spoiled by IAPs.

It's been spoiled by other things instead.

Take the controls. There are two options available - the default Casual mode, which lets you pull your avatar around like a kite, tapping with a second finger to jump and prodding objects and enemies directly to attack them; and the Virtual controls mode, which I preferred.

But neither option is ideal. Both are imprecise and frustrating - particularly when paired with a camera that thinks nothing of backpeddalling unhelpfully as you run directly into the screen rather than swinging around to show you what lies ahead. The Lego games are consistently criticised on console for having woolly, frustrating controls, so this touchscreen version never stood much of a chance.

To be fair, there are respects in which the touchscreen controls work well. To aim a projectile you just drag a reticule onto the target, which is simple and intuitive, and to dig or turn a handle you jiggle or rotate your virtual stick, which makes far more sense than the button-mashing of the console version. But on the whole the controls are problematic.

There is no curse ... for this treachery

Then there's the conciseness, which may make Lego The Lord of the Rings suitable for mobile devices but at the cost of the sweep and grandeur that made the original so good.

While there are some setpieces lifted more or less directly from the console game, the majority has been custom made for iOS, and it all takes place on a more modest scale.

The locations are smaller, there are fewer missions to complete, and the system of gradually unlocking characters has been condensed, so that you're able to do more with the characters you have. You can also take larger parties into story missions far earlier in the game, allowing you to complete more tasks.

As a result, there's both less to do and less to go back and do later. In other Lego games, stages are tantalisingly littered with objects that you won't be able to interact with until some distant point in the future, and in many cases you end up returning to stages repeatedly as you acquire new abilities. The same is true here, but on an almost token scale.

And the action itself tends to be more linear where it strays from the console game. Lego titles are never challenging, but this one feels even more than usual like tiresome prompt-following chores.

Of course, this is nothing new. The thing that makes this inane busywork tolerable in other Lego games is that simply going around smashing up scenery and collecting the studs that explode out of every object you touch is innately gratifying, and returning to areas to scour them of all their secrets gives each game a compulsive loot-hoarding quality.

Thanks to its woolly controls, Lego The Lord of the Rings isn't as gratifying as it ought to be, and thanks to its compact nature it isn't as compulsive either.

Of course, you wouldn't expect a £2.99 iOS game to be everything that its £20 console counterpart is, but there's no escaping the fact that Lego games rely on qualities that this game doesn't really have in abundance.

Here at the end of all things

Finally, and perhaps most significantly for some, Lego The Lord of the Rings for iOS is not a multiplayer game. This isn't a fatal issue for solitary gamers like me, but given that for a large proportion of Lego game fans the appeal is in tackling the stages co-operatively the omission is going to be pretty significant for a lot of players.

I've spent several paragraphs on Lego The Lord of the Rings's shortcomings, so it's important to stress that it's still a pretty good game, by any measure. It'll give you several hours of gameplay for a pretty small outlay, it has crisp graphics, stirring music, unobtrusive IAPs, and a high budget console game standard of design.

If you're a fan of the console Lego games and you're expecting this to be the same thing on iOS then you'll be disappointed, but for younger and less demanding gamers this is a mostly solid, mostly fun, mostly polished introduction to the Lego universe.

Lego The Lord of the Rings

Lego The Lord of the Rings for iOS costs a fraction of its home console counterpart, and it's a fraction of the game, but it's a decent single-player introduction to the Lego franchise