There was natural incentive to tumble down the Tolkien tunnel again over the last year. Given enough time reading you wish there was another medium to enjoy Middle-earth. Movies are good but the right game can be better. Until board games include pop up trees, mountains and Howard Shore then they won't suffice for me.
This will be my first time comparing two games so I will be sticking close to the review structure by weighing out their qualities based on the usual sections of scorable merits I've seen used elsewhere. And like those scores given elsewhere, the number will do little to sum up the game, which is my only excuse for the length of this post.
I maybe played LOTR the third age ten years ago when I ran out of RPGs on the Playstation 2 and so it was the right fantasy setting for me to enjoy another ragtag band of rogues from varying races. This filled a small RPG shaped hole and I thought there must be many more games worth playing that were drawing on this wide, rich land and lore. I have yet to play Battle for Middle-earth but all trusted reports of the game inform me that I gave up too early. There are the game tie-ins for the LOTR movies and they are certainly serviceable especially on the co-op mode in Return of the King. I watched a friend re-attempt the final levels of Two Towers recently and his blood pressure was raised to new heights - he was on Normal mode. Afterwards he and I were convinced we are now lesser gamers than in the days of our youth.
Interaction with the game world in order to produce immersion. That is what games can empower us to do. And also because in one of these games you get to play as Gandalf as he falls through the deepest pits in Moria, grabs ahold of his falling sword and you aid him in buring said sword in the back of his falling flaming enemy. I hope that sentence sold a copy of this game (the lego one).
The Lego LotR game closely follows the plot of the three movies condensing where it can and shortcutting in order to make it breeze by while also enjoying some of the best moments people will want to see done with the lego men of their favorite characters. I don't think this adaptation will be converting anyone to either lego or LotR but it has charm and I could easily see it being a companion piece for younger audiences or anyone who has watched the scenes enough times that they want to join in on the fight.
I don't even remember if this ever happened in-game.
Shadow of Mordor starts off with a good premise with the protagonist being undead, while his family are very dead. This story fits in the games feature where being defeated is to get a game over means that after respawn you carry on these rivalries. It's even the type of a LotR original sidestory I would embrace where you share a body with Celebrimbor, weaving his memories with yours, your reality with his wraith realm, both living in the present to unearth the past. There is no special writing on display but the voice actors do their best to give the game some color and character. You will experience a lot of the story through cutscenes and dialogue shared by characters as they escort you or you them to the next scripted sequence. When I was a young excited boy who dreamed his own LotR fanfiction I always envisioned a character who was a merging of Boromir's lineage, the skills of Legolas with the forced destiny of Frodo. This main character would have been great for a boy with an underdeveloped brain. I already forget his name. He looked cool though.
What you see here is a promise that never overcomes premise.
It's sort of strange when you buy a movie tie-in game, often there are huge chunks missing. The transitions between locations and the absence of certain plot points has a feeling of being thrown around the gameworld and sometimes you're just along for the ride and hope Gandalf is as nimble and he is noble. The RotK game included movie cinematics but that was a half-assed attempt at context. Maybe this was so you still get the game and movie sold separately, I don't know. You would think Lego LotR would quickly summarise up the opening, oh no, no this game gives you get the whole intro history of the rings, Isildur with his father and Elron in their battle animated in glorious lego 3D and there is even re-creations of Mr. Jackson's graceful camera panning that manage to keep the atmosphere intact. This is a loving tribute.
I would turn back if what's behind them was ahead (they go around, cowards).
Shadow of Mordor maybe started with 'let's build an modern action adventure in one of our most lucrative properties'. Harry Potter was on bumpy ground at the time while also not fitting the Assassin's Creed / Batman Arkham mould as easily, so this is where they turned. 'We need a brutal and gritty sword and sorcery to wash out that taste of the cartoonish hobbit movies. Also make sure a wife and child get killed in the intro in case it isn't clear.' - Quotations are invention, did not happen.
Concept art that made it into both marketing and the final product.
I always admired Jackson and his team of scriptwriters in their adaptation skills, Fellowship is such a breeze that is paced like a fine tuned aventure machine. The history lesson is breezed over and you are soon with the main characters, easing the viewer in. The game echoes this intro, voice over of Galadriel intact. It's a visual guide to how the ring ended up where it did.
SOM = 6
Lego LOTR = 5
Presentation (graphics, sound, feel)
Tolkien's world is rich and detailed and for too long I simply wanted a game adaptation of a series that was being done with the quality and care of the Witcher games. I never realised that my best experience of experiencing the world of Middle-earth would be done in the Lego adaptation. I was never a huge fan of the Star Wars Lego games since it was just playing through the movies when the movies were and remain enough for me. Maybe because Middle-earth was about walking, the onfoot journey to travel through all of the roads of nature which Tolkien's pen took pains in order to create and make believable. The Lego games allowed me to walk all of them, the highlights at least, the second player as Sam and me as Frodo (I actually prefer playing as Sam) but this game was an excuse for me to wander the wilds of Middle-earth, not as large or as detailed as the original vision in either previous version but a worthwhile time overall. The cutscenes are also respectably recreated down to the shots, even if you aren't a fan of the Lego games humor which is intent on removing the gravity from any situation here. This was just before Lego games went marvel and gave out freedom of choice in character and sandbox play style with results that will shape how they go forward.
This image is fake. I don't play as Frodo.
There are graphical shortcuts in Lego games, this seems to go without saying. Just look at poor Elrond's ears! But this cutesy display which reduces orcs (more so) into grey enemies with some face paint, are the same graphics which have allowed Lego games to adapt violence and destruction without losing its intended younger gamer audience. Pipes and pints are removed for the kiddies but you'll see plenty of dismembered lego men.
Rated 15+ for fantasy violence.
From what the internet tells me, the lego games seem to share a similar creative and programming team and Lego LotR comes before they exploded into the next generation. So if you have already played some lego games there are few to no surprises here. Yes, it does feel more finely tuned than the outings that came before and their formula for success was to make the game from the movie and put in the Lego stuff. Also yes, the soundtrack is one third of the appeal.
No respect for the blocks which built them.
All of the little lego men lend themselves well to the sweeping overhead shots which showcase large armies that digital CGI created thanks to easy armour rendering. I think the color of the world and how it looks so closely to how we have seen it before, showcases how the game certainly helps transport you when other things fall short.
This game lets you know there will be elves, lava, a lot of rock and many orcs on your journey so lets not pretend this isn't ahead of you. Thankfully Tolkein did all the finely crafted pacing for them so there are green fields inbetween. The game, like the films looked at, trys its best to strike a balance.
Lego LotR does not seem intent on building Middle-earth to scale, but it frequently does a good job of creating that illusion. Isengard being a good example of them not wishing to lose the spirit of how it had been lovingly and accurately portrayed onscreen. Even a place you simply pass by, 'Cirith Ungol' is given all the color and atmosphere it deserves.
On the other hand Rivendell looks like it should be free to explore but it is a quick surface level tour that resembles the movie with its bridge and waterfall and the council room. This will make others itch for an adaptation where it doesn't cling to the narrative beats or what feels like a tour of the movies locations. And there will be those who want to recreate 'Bilbo's last song'.
Red, wood, fire, smoke & stone. We're in Mordor alright.
The cutscenes of SoM are truly high end spectacle, Celebrimbor and Sauron are animated and voiced with respect and grace with a dark ethereal tone that will give people the material adapted in a fashion I'm sure they will be happy to receive. The only shortcoming being it is too brief and could have been more lore heavy.
This game possibly had a much harder task of creating a new location that needed to be in keeping with WB's property. The mountain ranges, the Orc and creature design, faction symbols and the people of these lands needed to be in keeping with the universe. Let's just say this is where the game did what it does best.
When you start the game and one of your first times to explore outside of the story scenarios, you see the freaking black gate under construction on the Mordor side and that is sweet. You quickly see the Orcs villages and cities and areas of patrol, you won't see Orc families or their bootcamps or anything suggesting intelligent life but it seems to line up with the universe we know. The setting is wide and brutal and when it changes to something fresher and greener it showcases a land deserving of the lore.
Outside that gate is the land we wanted to explore. Out there is where it stays.
Tolkien is in that fantasy setting that speaks highly of trees, nature, goodwill and magic but knows the fire, destruction and wartime that comes in opposition. Not everyone who is a fan wants all of these and so the balance is tough to find. The lego games are still games so there is more action than happy time exploration in the green fairy lands, but there is certainly much more than in Shadow of Mordor, a game which leans hard into the darkness and death involved.
One certainly feels better than the other, but only one has that soundtrack.
SOM = 8
Lego LotR = 7
Shadow of Mordor is a well crafted game with solid action, exploration and even decent combat mechanics. A strong prototype for showcasing popular Assassins Creed / Arkham Batman games play style into the much beloved fantasy setting. The issue being that this is a game that feels like a prototype of a AAA budget title. Money and craftmanship poured into the graphics, world, and enemy orc Nemesis system. Leaving behind any concern about missions or story or even boss fights. They made sure to code in slow motion visuals of a severed orc's head rolling when you win.
You will explore an open world and speaks wih characters, walk and fight with them until you don't have to anymore. One orc voiced by Phil Lamar works with you but he lasts even shorter. One by one they do something that keeps you busy until you kill story characters in a boss fight.
Someone's head is gonna roll after this.
The Nemesis system (WB patented) is the core of the game and that's a fact, in my opinion, to the point where the story is just there out of obligation, expecting the players to craft their own rivalries out of the enemy ranking system which is fun until you've done it twice and then you realise the game is on repeat. I described this game in my Top 10 regrets as a pile-on session and for me that was what it was. I had too many encounters that slowly drew in more and more orcs and soon there was half the damn hierarchy swarming below me, I never wanted a grenade so badly. While the final boss confrontation between you and Sauron looks epic and feels dangerous it just plays out like a regular enemy mini-boss and there is little challenge stopping you from beating him. That Uruk with the tatoos general gave me a harder time.
Orc... shanty towns?
The scorched land of Mordor is huge, full of old ruins to explore, orcs strongholds, caves and you soon get a green world to run around to change it up. Fighting petty squabbles or reloading checkpoints until the stealth mechanics accept your methods and playing missions that are outdated even by PS2 standards, does little to engage. When the feature to 'turn' orcs onto your side got introduced I didn't see the need for it and while it meant they were helpful in executing rival orcs and sneaking past or into somewhere. But when the final battle depends on you having converted orcs who have risen in the ranks, I did not care and the game didn't seem to think my caring was needed. I was just relieved that it was optional for the most part.
This is the recruitment process.
To really explore in style and speed, you have a sprint gameplay feature in Mordor which makes exploration very fun until you can tame beasts which is a gameplay feature earned from doing a series of tedious and identical side-missions. A lot of great surface level features that are cool gimmicks since they never really build on any of them, are utilised. The bow is great until enemies get stronger and magic or dagger helps when you're outnumbered but only sometimes. The game is not bad, it just feels like the prototype for what could be a good game. I have heard the sequel is more refined but all of the complaints I've heard (excluding micro transactions) all sound like the same issues I had with the first game.
Mordor often oozes discomfort.
Whereas in Lego land you can only jump, dive, swing, aim or you'll play as Sam to grow some little plants, Legols to walk tightropes, Merry to climb trees, Frodo to turn invisible, Aragorn to track and Gimli to smash. You will control Gandalf to get shit done and can control the Lego cretin that is Gollum because someone will want to. The missions and puzzles here are not a step up from Shadow of Mordor, a generation behind in fact with the rewards and EXP almost being more of a chore, where SOM removed thinking of them until you spend them. Both games could have done with a splash of more cinematic moments to add to their gameplay. Both experience limitations because of their setting and both try their best to add on top of it.
I was disappointed in no waterfall mini-game.
Maybe doing battle on the slopes of Mt. Doom while the Howard Shore 'Give up the Halfling' plays as you knock back orcs and in the background waves of pre-rendered armies charge, all done in the games tutorial was exactly what I wanted. It's odd since it isn't a world of difference from the licenced games but it just has more polish and somehow greater reverence of the source material.
In the opening moments of the first film, there is one rush from Elendil as he charges Sauron and, in the game, Sauron is 15-foot and coming your way, brushing aside the army and I am waiting patiently for the game to take over as usual, but instead the army parts and my charge is paved before me. Knowing how this story goes I charge not into a cutscene but into a boss battle (we are still in the tutorial). Small feats like these impressed me more than they should have, low expectations helped.
The King will lead the charge, followed by his only heir.
One might say this earned goodwill gets quickly undone by the game intro skipping Gandalf arriving in the shire and jumping to Bilbo leaving and Frodo getting the ring since all levels need their narrative hook. Fair trade how I see it.
One of the best memories I've had in recent years is playing co-op of this game and when me and player2 first walked through the shire we soon became lost and a little awestruck by how large and lived in the shire felt. I chase these small moments when I can take them from games before familiarity and skepticism invade, reminds me of young Zelda days.
If you have played one lego game then you have played this game. You haven't seen and walked the world but you will know all the combat, all the lego bolts and their sound effects, all the simple puzzles to clear the way and every lego ledge that feels added in on top so you can interact with this world. The game tries to balance the HUD but I wish there was a mode to turn these off. Really I want it to forget it's a lego game and just let me enjoy the scenery. I am aware I'm a selfish type of gamer.
A standard pause screen from the game.
There is a marvelous addition in lego middle earth, where the ring wraith have their first encounter with the young hobbits where they hide under the tree and the game turns this into a stealth section. Proving that for everything it excludes there is a small workaround that fits the gaming mould. Even Pippin's bag throw which startles their enemy in the movie, is worked into tossing rocks at birds to spook the horse here. That's where the game does it better than I know I could. Frodo's sprint and leap onto Bucklebury ferry is a nice raise of stakes to keep you engaged but here they turn it into a crash bandicoot style chase. I've no complaints. Even bashing B to have Frodo resist putting on the ring was an innocent moment that felt dedicated to the experience we all had seen.
This never would have happened to Bilbo!
Even when he finally does put on the ring on weathertop, the zoomed-in camera and wavy focus helps recreate what we know it should look like. It is amazing how often small efforts like these can get overlooked. There is a minor section when Frodo has the ring on and he has to evade Boromir and this is padding but is short and I found it delightful. The followup scene to this, where Sauron's eye comes rushing into the location to focus on Frodo, looks better than how the movie did it! The game knew where to find a foothold for more modern animation.
I also never expected or imagined playing as Gandalf when he and Saruman throw down but here I did and I was happy to oblige. The games camera should have been my enemy here but I witnessed no such occurence.
There will be quick time events to make the scenes feel as cinematic as you remember them. The game does tend to throw in some things because they know you will get a kick out of them, even if they don't add much. In this way, the two games I am talking about are similar.
Press square to joust and then impale lego orc soldier.
I can see a lot of the lego puzzles hamstringing the pace of the game and story when they know how quick it was in other versions whereas here, Aragorn rushing to aid Frodo at the top of a hill ends up including a three-man job puzzle.
These additions won't be for everyone, I don't know if everyone wanted to explore and get to know the locals of Bree via sidequests.
When the fellowship are together at long last it is fun to switch between them and there is a decent level of faithful interaction between the characters that makes them feel like a unit complementing one another. Hoisting the hobbits over the shoulders of Aragorn and Boromir to wade through the snow did produce a smile from me. Fans of legolas will find a lot to love (yes, you get to take down Olyphants). Gandalf projecting a shield dome around us while we keep the enemies emerging out of the dark of Moria at bay, is a standout memory. I once again recommend co-op.
I wish all D&D underground raids turned out like this.
The Mines of Moria are complete with cave troll, shaking stone stairways and the Balrog, it is very much a lego adaptation of all these events. It is these times that you do feel the generation leap from previous games and even when the puzzles are simply use Legolas to walk along a chain or a hobbit to shoot a target or build a fire, it still does keep a lot of the intensity intact while still slowing the pace enough that you feel like you're in the heat of the battle, forging your way ahead rather than watching it like before now.
The game offers fan service if the fan is not picky. You play as the hobbits fighting alongside Boromir and you get to be Aragorn when he storms in to stop that big baddy Orc killing him without dignity.
You get to fight the Balrog on top of Zirakzigil
as the mighty Gandalf the Grey's final enemy is cast down in epic fashion.
Just use the damn ring!
The game throws in a few surprises such as controlling Faramir when they take down the Olyphants. I would have liked some more horseback action, since when the soundtrack you know and love is ongoing you just want to charge and swing your sword toward victory. You get to toss Gimli, you get to loose the arrow Faramir shoots into the Nazgul in Osgiliath to rescue Frodo.
A shortcoming could be that not everything is made equal in this legoland since the times you control treebeard don't offer anything special and the games fights which look the coolest still play as simple as the lego formula will allow. I was underwhelmed controlling Treebeard to smash up Isengard but that doesn't mean everyone else will be! I think the final fight between Sam, Gollum and Frodo, is the only one with the best balance between action and with a forced puzzle added in.
Everything that is animate and interactable is in lego style and it does jar a little with the fantasy aesthetic but you get used to it and it is to be expected by now.
The game gives you plenty of scenarios that would be much more fun to play with a second player, which is the ideal way to enjoy the game. The transitioning screen between characters is fast and easy and is great for showcasing the two parallel storylines that make up the latter half.
I see this land has both kinds of trees.
The game takes opportunities to expand on sections such as cave of ghosts and reduce Shelob's lair while still trying to keep the atmosphere intact. Often you will see the structure fall into the cycle of a cutscene, walk, do a lego puzzle to get past gate, use a character to do something only they can do and you'll be in the next set piece. Your level of enjoyment is up to how much lego you can tolerate and if it is worth it to get to the next narrative beat you recognize. The climb up Mt. Doom is extended and loses some steam when you have to solve a colorful block puzzle you already did before. But it gets made up for when you can switch between Sam and Frodo during the final fiery confrontation with Gollum inside the volcano. That section even throws in a lego based puzzle that is more balanced and a part of the fight. The end of that sequence rewards you with a sprint back down the mountain as magma and boulders shower around you. Where the game minimizes the emotions attached to the story's events it throws in some extra action to make up for it.
Story events have been adjusted for broader appeal.
You get to take part in the Rohirrim charge on the Pelennor Fields and you get to challenge and fight the Witch king. More often than not the environment does a good job convincing you that you are within these set piece.
I remember fighting at the black gate in the RotK movie tie-in game and I remember Legolas saying 'they are an endless tide' and he wasn't joking about that. Here it does look better, with the Crack of Doom shooting fire under Sauron's watchful eye and Aragorn taking on a huge troll and the numbers feel overwhelming and that's before a Nazgul drops in. Lego games never did epic in my mind but they made up for it in scale this time around.
Make sure to fight and die where the eye can see you.
SOM integrates some of the best ideas when being in ringwraith mode, there are hidden buildings, enemies show up like in detective vision and it can expose the explosive items or the more mythical hidden collectibles. The transition into this mode is butter smooth. Maybe the sequel does something big with it because it was not in this game. I don't plan to find out... no matter how low the price drops.
Which way to Mirkwood?
Talion (the main guy according to Google) controls with speed and resonsiveness to structures, somehow overcoming the trappings of the AC games by making the climbing more automatic while you just focus on getting eyes on your target. The bow and arrow is satisfying and even better when you get a headshot. Moves like drop kills are added as upgrades but combat became something I wanted to avoid after jumping over enemies becomes a bad move. Stealth was never made easy won when the character doesn't move with extreme precision but when it does work in this game is when it is at its best.
The biggest enemy of all your enemies can be what makes a good friend.
The sword combat is fine, a step down from the Batman games they've taken from but there is some interruption to the fights even when scripted sequences occur. You feel the numbers when you're fighting several enemies at once and dealing with the real level of heat, they will use shields and armour and you'll have to rely on other tactics to win and that is a real feeling of intensity which will make you focus on every move. You can control a large beast and stamp around which is cool but I somehow never made it be useful. There are dagger attacks, there's skill trees with upgrades and all the standard components that justify this engine as a finished game.
SOM = 8
Lego LotR = 8
I purchased both of these games on sale and together they both cost me just under $5. I've bought more expensive beverages. That's a whole lot of Tolkienein inspired content for so little. I'm pretty sure my copy of Children of Hurin cost me more.
There could be living, rock tossing mountain between us.
Lego LotR has co-op mode and a beautiful world to explore. After completion you can have any character play any chapter. SoM has endless amounts of collectibles and rival Orcs champions to take down and a world that has plenty to do and is brisk to explore. Both games have a lure to come back but neither truly demand to be played to absolute completion (do the kids still say 'platinum' the game?)
SOM = 5
Lego LotR = 6
With a book you can drink in every ounce of history lovingly poured into the mythos. You can sketch it and see others having done the same and you can venture as far as your mind can take you. So why have the games not exploited a chance to do where the books and films have limitations based on their medium? I can play Gollum in the shire here!
We have to temper our expectations as gamers, not only from past mistakes where we misplaced hope, but because the world we interact with via controller won't always be everything for everyone. I am the type of fan who would gladly give £30+ out to play an episode dedicated entirely to the antics of Tom Bombodil. It is common that the very series where I would like endless spinoffs and shameless cashing in on franchise fever are not always the hot top topics among the powers that be.
Smaller and cuter, but no less deadly.
I just find it odd that a series with literally endless tales and side stories ripe for expansion are instead enlisted for TV series when really interactive exploring the world taken off the page is the real attraction. Maybe this is where games and comics have a unique relationship.
I like to think the fans of middle-earth are still happy with what has been given, they have been lucky enough to have had a passionate and possibly one-of-a-kind film adaptation and a dedicated legacy for publishing of Tolkiens work. The magic is finely engraved in the deep tomes Mr. Tolkien's lifetime and his estate have continued to produce. I only hope future games will see the wide stretching lands of opportunity still there for the taking. What we've had has been a good time and I hope many others pick them up to re-ignite a draw to be transported back there.
....The Lego Game was the winner, in case that wasn't clear. I should go play Battle of Middle Earth or LotR Online.
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