You might remember Lego LotR and Lego The Hobbit being given away last year, shortly before the license expired and the games stopped being sold. I can’t help myself when it comes to that kind of thing, so I have both those games in my Steam library. I don’t have a good reason why. I’m never gonna play Lego The Hobbit. It’s an unnecessary cash-in adaptation of unnecessary cash-in movies, and they didn’t even include the third one. Lego The Hobbit is basically trash.
I should probably admit: I don’t really like The Lord of the Rings.
It’s not that I DISlike it, exactly. I’ve just never been that interested. I read The Hobbit as a kid, and that was fun, and then I started Lord of the Rings and got bored and quit. And then a few years later, I tried again and got bored and quit. And I didn’t really pay much attention to the movies either, having been raised to believe that one should always read the book before watching the movie. Except I got invited to see Two Towers in the theater. Which I did, but I also understood approximately none of it. There were tree people, and that was cool I guess? Also who are Merry and Pippin and why should I care?
Do you even know which is which? I genuinely don't.
Now, being alive and American, I’ve been exposed to Tolkien a lot, between references and memes and movie clips and video games and re-reading the first third of Fellowship. I know the Ents exist, for example. I know Gandalf yells YOU SHALL NOT PASS at a monster and then dies except not, and I assume there’s some symbolic significance to his Grey/White thing. And while I’m poorly spoiling things I don’t fully understand, Aragorn is secretly a prince or something? And then at the end, Frodo destroys the ring. Oh, and Gollum exists. Except the riddle-spouting cave dweller I remember from The Hobbit doesn’t quite match the sneaky, split-personality version that made Andy Serkis famous.
Last week I was bored and installed Lego Lord of the Rings. I wanted something simple and clean, a game that I could drop into without any stress. Lego games are nice that way. And unlike being Player 2 on my friend’s PS2 copy of Return of the King (or Two Towers? I don’t remember anymore) this is a game that would give me some context. It’s got a loose version of the whole trilogy, and I figured I could at least get a broad-strokes understanding of my biggest geek-culture blindspot.
I know I’m supposed to read the book before watching the movie, and it’s clear I’m supposed to have watched the movie before playing this game. But now I know who Boromir is, so that’s worth something, right?
This guy, voiced by Sean Bean, because this game recycled the film dialogue.
Ok, to be fair to the game, that’s not all I learned. I know who Theoden is, and that Saruman/Grima were manipulating him. I know about Isildur and Elrond, and I assume the thing with the ghosts was less deus-ex-machina originally. I know Gollum shows up on Mt Doom. You know what I still don’t know? Who the fuck Merry and Pippin are.
Or anyone else, for that matter. With so many Iconic Things happening (Gotta show the big battles, Gotta show Gollum in the swamp, Gotta YOU SHALL NOT PASS) in short cutscenes surrounding the levels, there’s not much room left for the characters to be people. Characterization only really gets to happen when it’s directly necessary for the current plot point. So basically all I know about Eowyn is that she went to the Battle at Pelennor Fields when she wasn’t supposed to, and avenged Theoden, and that was a cool moment. All I know about Faramir is that… his name is Faramir. He had a sword and a bow, which made him objectively better than his friend, Dude-whose-name-I-forgot, who only had a sword. Gimli and Legolas have maybe ten spoken lines between them. They’re just The Dwarf and The Elf, which I guess is a step up from being Those Other Two Hobbits.
You better already think these dudes are cool. The game won't bother trying to convince you.
This is why Boromir stands out. His Iconic Moments are tied really closely to his character arc. He starts off as a bit egotistical, with an understandable (if wrong) argument: The Ring is powerful, and that makes it useful as a tool against evil. He’s got his conflicts with Aragorn, and falls prey to the Ring’s corrupting influence, but ultimately recognizes his wrongness and dies a hero, bleeding out from his banana wound. (He got shot with a banana in the book too, right?)
Here’s the thing: As underwhelming as this game is as a Lord of the Rings primer, it reminded me how good Lego games are.
Okay, yeah, they’re formulaic as hell and there’s barely any challenge. Yeah, they’re selling themselves on brand recognition, both Lego itself and the flavor-of-the-week IP. Yeah, Lego The Hobbit is trash, and not just because it’s actually about Bilbo The Hobbit.
That said, the formula has steadily improved over time, and the developers generally show real effort and care with the properties they adapt. And while there’s very little mechanical difficulty, there’s boatloads of collectibles and optional content. I finished the story and my completion percentage is 27.
This is what the map looks like. There's no minimap.
There’s just so much to do in this game. I can replay stages in Free Mode to access areas that the canon characters can’t, but I should probably explore some of the big Middle Earth overworld first and get the “Find Thing X in Level Y” sidequests. And also find the Mythril Block puzzles (A bit like Mario Odyssey moons, actually) so I can unlock new tools and weapons. If I put in the time, I can give Dude-whose-name-I-forgot a bow like Faramir. Or a trowel, so Sam doesn’t have to dig up every single patch of dirt in the game all by himself. That’s cool.
Granted, I’m not going to actually DO that. I don’t know/care enough about the franchise to glean much joy out of making Saruman shoot arrows or buying Nameless Gondor Guard and kitting him out to tackle whole levels alone. All I really wanted from this game was the story mode and it (kinda) delivered. But all that extra stuff impressed me anyway. Maybe someday I’ll go back and work on some of this postgame content.
But probably not, because playing this convinced me to buy Lego Marvel. It’s a franchise I’m more familiar with, and honestly it’s a better fit for Lego-ization anyway. Superhero costume designs translate better to minifigs, and their powers are more interesting. And there’s probably more scenery-smashing and coin-collecting there than I’ll ever need. Plus New York.
So, goodbye for now, Middle Earth. And thanks for... Well, Boromir, I guess.