[11 June 2014]
Thank God for the LEGO games.
I’ve spent more time with Titanfall and Trials Fusion than any other games so far this year. Titanfall has been an amazing experience, multiplayer the likes of which I’ve never been able to get into, a gateway drug to multiplayer gaming in the best sense. Trials has been… well, it’s been Trials. Trials is a known quantity, a ridiculously addicting combination of platforming and motorcycle racing.
Both of these experiences are intense. Both of them tax my brain and my thumbs in ways that leave me exhausted after marathon gaming sessions, whether I’ve accomplished anything tangible or not. Playing against the human opponents of Titanfall, not to mention the human developers of a Trials game, is intense to the point of stressful.
Traveller’s Tales’ LEGO games are the opposite. LEGO The Hobbit came when I needed it the most, at a time when video games were becoming less about escapism and more about stressful obligation.
Truth be told, LEGO The Hobbit is catching up to those other two in terms of the sheer number of hours I’ve put into it. Much like any other LEGO game, the way to play it is to get through the story as quickly as possible, and then start exploring. In the early LEGO games, the exploring was done within the levels as you looked for minikits and whatever other stray treasure might be lying around. Of late, Traveller’s Tales has expanded this approach, retaining the hidden goodies within the story levels, but also leaving all sorts of puzzles and treasures strewn about a fully-developed hub world.
In the case of LEGO The Hobbit, then, “fully-developed” means “ridiculously huge”. When you’re not making your way through the goblin-fighting, dragon-fearing set pieces of the story, you’re walking all over Middle Earth, finding materials and mithril bricks with which to make new treasures, dressing up in costumes to the satisfaction of various townpeople, and solving more platforming puzzles than you ever could have hoped going in.
Here are a few stats: There are 16 story levels, eight per “part” (as delimited by the movies) of The Hobbit. In each of those levels, there are ten minikits, four treasure items, and a blacksmith blueprint to find. Find all of each group of things, and you get a mithril brick (that’s a total of three per level). There is also a mithril brick reward for achieving “master burglar” status, for finding a whole mess of studs (game currency) in each level. That’s a total of 64 mithril bricks to find per level. You get another 16 just for beating the levels for a total of 80 in the story levels. There are 250 mithril bricks altogether, so a solid 170 are floating around Middle Earth, and none of them come particularly easily.
Also floating around Middle Earth? 32 red “cheat” bricks, 16 more blacksmith blueprints, and a fun little diversion of a hidden level that will let you blow off some steam and get some all-important studs doing it.
This is the game to play when you need a breather, when you need pure escapism, when the weight of the world is getting to be a little bit much and you just need to turn off your brain for a while. There may be puzzles throughout, but none of them are particularly difficult. The platforming should be easy for anyone who’s played a Mario game in the last 30 years. No matter how much you do, though, no matter how much you see, there’s always more, and there’s an extremely helpful map that’ll tell you exactly where to find whatever it is you need.
I’ve fallen asleep playing this game a number of times, and that’s to its credit. It’s a mind-altering sort of peace you get from this game. It’s the trust of knowing that progress is around the corner, the comfort of a certain style.
There are some Hobbit-specific flourishes that could delight or detract, depending on your point of view. As has been the recent trend, LEGO The Hobbit is fully voice-acted, which is nice until you find yourself listening to townsfolk whine about their problems for minutes on end, just so you know every detail of their lives before you help them find an apple or something equally banal. A frequent “punchline” is the stubble and male falsetto voices on the female dwarves, which feels vaguely transphobic in its execution. The difference between a “dwarf stack” pad and a bounce pad and a fire-starting pad is often very subtle, and while you get used to it after a while, it can be difficult to figure out exactly which characters to use where, even when you know where you need to be.
For the most part, though, it’s the same LEGO game you played the last time you played a LEGO game.
This is a well-trodden formula at this point, and Traveller’s Tales could be accused of spinning its wheels and running its prize franchise into the ground, turning LEGO games into its little cash cow that’ll never spawn a blockbuster but will certainly bring in solid sales numbers. It’s a game series that hasn’t changed in any fundamental way since its first installment, apart from perhaps the gradual introduction and expansion of its hub worlds. Still, there’s some comfort in knowing it’s here, that it’ll probably be around for some time. Death, taxes, and LEGO games.