We’ve been there. And we’re going back again.
Lego video games are, more often than not, well-constructed, lovingly created experiences that remain faithful to the source material while also playfully poking fun at it.
And if Lego The Hobbit was the first Lego game I’d ever played, I’d be blown away by its humour, its action, its nifty mechanics and occasionally tricky puzzles, the scope of its world and – since I played the PS4 version of the game – its surprisingly beautiful visuals.
But in the last decade alone there have been no fewer than 15 Lego games based on licensed properties, encompassing everything from Star Wars to Indiana Jones to Harry Potter to DC and Marvel Comics heroes. Lego fatigue is setting in, and familiarity is starting to breed just a little bit of contempt.
Out this week to coincide with the release of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug on home video, Lego The Hobbit – which sounds like a command to unhand Bilbo Baggins – covers the first two films in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, in which a company of dwarves partner up with Gandalf and Bilbo in a quest to retake the Lonely Mountain from the dragon Smaug.
Like 2012’s Lego Lord of the Rings, Lego The Hobbit is set across a sprawling chunk of Middle Earth, beginning in the Shire and winding up at the lakeside town of Esgaroth and Smaug’s treasure-filled lair itself. From Bilbo’s initial encounter with the 13 dwarves to their capture by the spiders of Mirkwood to the barrel-ride escape from the wood elves, every one of the films’ big moments are recreated here in all their plastic brick’d and minifig’d glory.
U.K. developer Traveller’s Tales have honed its Lego game talents to an exact science, and that’s the only real problem I have with Lego The Hobbit – despite the new characters, new locations and a smattering of new gameplay mechanics (including an RPG-ish loot system used to build quest-solving contraptions), it feels awfully familiar, especially if you played Lego Lord of the Rings.
Kudos to Traveller’s Tales for finding inventive ways of reshaping the same basic gameplay concepts – you wander around smashing everything in sight, fighting bad guys and figuring out what you need to do to get from point to point – but nowadays you really need to be a fan of the formula, not just the subject matter, to properly enjoy Lego games.
Fortunately, Lego The Hobbit makes it easy. The mix of nubbly Lego props with lush organic backgrounds really works, and the gameplay effortlessly switches between fierce action and moments of Lego-style levity. One moment Thorin Oakenshield is battling the fearsome orc Azog with dramatic slow-mo attacks, the next moment he’s cut off Azog’s hand... which waves jauntily and hops away with the distraught orc in pursuit.
The game uses tons of actual dialogue from the films, and, unlike the recent The Lego Movie Videogame, the sound mix doesn’t jarringly fade in and out. This is a slick, mostly seamless product, and massive in scope – true diehards (and I’m starting to pity those who insist on getting 100% completion in Lego games) will find dozens upon dozens of side quests, hidden mithril bricks, item schematics, and so on, scattered throughout the fully backtrackable expanses of Middle Earth, in addition to the hundred-plus unlockable characters to experiment with in the game’s free play mode.
Given how many characters can be in play at once even in the main storyline, I do wish Traveller’s Tales had come up with an easier system to discern at a glance which character is carrying the tool needed to bypass a particular obstacle. A minor quibble, but one that popped up frequently during play as I flicked from dwarf to dwarf, trying to remember which one holds the slingshot, shovel or flail.
And I’m very curious to see how Traveller’s Tales and Warner Bros. will wrap the story up when The Hobbit: There and Back Again hits theatres this December. A downloadable add-on seems like the mostly likely route to take, although part of me wishes they’d simply waited and released the entire movie trilogy as one game.
Fans of Lego games will find more to love with Lego The Hobbit, as long as they’re not growing weary of this increasingly familiar formula. There’s nothing unexpected about this journey, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.