The horizons in Lego The Lord Of The Rings are often stunning. Soft focus and warm lighting combine to offer an impressionistic approximation of the vistas on show in Peter Jackson’s take on Middle-earth, and the skies grow increasingly portentous. Move your gaze to the foreground and characterful versions of familiar faces rendered in glossy plastic are there to greet you, ready to move you through Tolkien’s epic saga.
Travellers Tales has been looking to the horizons itself, throwing in several ideas from outside of the series’ time-honoured – now bordering on worn – gameplay template. Crafting makes its series debut, tied to a new collectible, Mithril blocks. There are quests. At long last, there’s a character selection wheel. And for the first time, the cutscenes are voiced by the film’s original actors, albeit through samples lifted straight from the trilogy. But like the skyline of Frodo’s journey, the ultimate destination beyond those hazy peaks is a desolate place of jagged edges, of beautiful things made twisted.
The voice acting is the most obviously jarring addition. The problem isn’t the sound itself, but in Traveller’s Tales’ continued reliance on the slapstick humour on which the series’ reputation has been built. It creates an uneasy tug of war in the cutscenes, one that no-one wins. The gravitas of the dialogue is frequently damaged by the hijinks and pratfalls, while the buffoonery seems less funny when backed by the graven tones of Sir Ian McKellen, or the mellifluous elvish of Liv Tyler. It’s like a Beastie Boys acapella laid over a Mozart symphony.
Equally discordant are the moments where you realise just how limply some of the new checklist of features have been implemented. Where epic battles were promised, what you get is areas walled in by static troops – rings in which to brawl, but hardly sweeping scale. The promised open world is a collectible-littered hub that links together the Lego games’ stock-in-trade, standalone levels. Your progress through story mode is also occasionally dictated by where the gaze of Sauron falls, enforcing a fairly linear approach. There are times during co-op when each player ends up following a different but concurrent strand of the story, which would be a nice touch if the cutscenes and showpiece moments from both threads didn’t keep taking over the entire screen. Confusingly, the UI and tips are still shared across your display as well.