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game review

Merry and Pippen constantly need Sam and Frodo to bail them out, and the same thing sort of happens in the books and movies, which makes you wonder why Tolkien put them in the story in the first place. Comic relief?

If there's one thing the Lego Lord of the Rings video game reinforces, it's just how useless Merry and Pippin are.

The two hobbits are distinctive in the game because they carry a fishing rod and a wooden bucket, respectively, both of which are necessary early on to solve puzzles. In the game's first level, for example, Merry must use his rod to fish a rock out of a pond, to be thrown at a bird to distract an evil Ringwraith so that the scared Hobbits can scamper to safety.

But other characters soon acquire these items as well, at which point Merry and Pippin are shuffled off to the background, their only subsequent roles being that of the frequent rescue subjects. The same thing sort of happens in the books and movies, which makes you wonder why Tolkien put them in the story in the first place. Comic relief?

It's been a big year, meanwhile, for Traveller's Tales long-running Lego franchise, which so far has included other huge entertainment properties, from Star Wars to Harry Potter to Indiana Jones. Lego Batman 2, released earlier this year, shifted the games' structure away from the simple linear affairs of the past to the open-world format made popular by the likes of Grand Theft Auto and Assassin's Creed. The game also introduced voice acting to the series, with characters in prior releases communicating their stories only through comical grunts and squeaks.

Lego Lord of the Rings builds on both of those advances, with the item creation system representing another big step forward. As in previous games, players can choose between a huge roster of characters, each of which has unique special abilities that are needed to solve different puzzles or access hidden areas. Legolas, for one, can hit targets with his bow or jump extra high while Gimli can shatter cracked walls and floors with his axe.

Now, though, Frodo and company can also forge items like a Mithril bucket or fishing rod by collecting grey Lego bricks hidden around Middle Earth. After delivering the bricks to a blacksmith in the village of Bree, Frodo gets a fishing rod, Sam gets a bucket and Merry and Pippin are never needed again.

By adding another level of thinking and planning to the puzzle solving, Traveller's Tales has made the exploration of the large open world of Lego Middle Earth more exciting and ultimately more rewarding. It also makes the finishing the game a little easier now that you don't have to spend lots of time looking for that one character with that very specific ability needed to access a hidden area; you can craft an item that gets you there instead.

The added bonus is that you can stick with your favourite characters and simply access gear from the inventory, rather than having to play as less-desirable characters like, say, certain useless Hobbits.

As with all of the previous movie-based Lego games, Lord of the Rings loosely follows the narrative of its source material, in this case Peter Jackson's trilogy. Players venture through Lego-stylized versions of some of the films' most iconic scenes, including the encounter in the Mines of Moria, the battle of Helm's Deep and Frodo's finale atop Mount Doom.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Lego game without the wacky humour. The game uses the trilogy's music and voice dialogue, but adds in its own funny twists. I laughed out loud when the Riders of Rohan broke into synchronized dressage, or when a pizza delivery guy showed up at the Black Gate, prompting an Orc to exclaim, "Looks like meat's back on the menu, boys!"

The movies' story is only the beginning; indeed, when you finish it, you're told you're only about a third of the way through the game. The real fun – collecting buildable minikits, grey bricks and new characters – through free play, where you can switch to any character you've acquired, now begins. For players addicted to accessing hidden areas and finding collectables, Lego games have always been video-game crack. This one's no different.

The fun also comes from the careful planning required to get to 100-per-cent completion. Each of the story levels can be replayed, but in order to find all of the hidden stuff, you'll have to make sure you have the right characters or items with you. Silver Lego blocks, for example, will require Mithril fireworks to break, while orange door handles will need strong characters such as Sauron to open.

Finding those respective items and characters, meanwhile, will require other special items and characters. It's a complex web of puzzle solving that's ultimately very rewarding if you can get through it.

The game suffers from a few problems, though, some of which have plagued Lego games for years but which have inexplicably not been fixed yet. The biggest and most frustrating has to do with platforming, or jumping from ledge to ledge.

The controls here are often finicky, with characters jumping into certain airborne "sticky" zones that then guide them down onto their targets. Hitting these zones is often tricky and unpredictable, which usually leads to trying jumps over and over and over. Not helping is the fact that you sometimes have to fight the camera into angling properly.

There's also a lack of look inversion option, a standard feature in games that lets players change their controller set-up so that pushing down on a thumbstick causes you to look up and vice-versa. This was a big problem in Lego Batman 2, where it was tough for players who typically use inversion to control flying characters. It's not as egregious in Lego Lord of the Rings since there's no flying, but it's still an inexplicable omission in any modern-day game.

A few technical issues notwithstanding, Lego Lord of the Rings is another positive step forward for Traveller's Tales' charming series. There's no doubt it's similar to previous Lego games, but the different characters and setting and continuing gameplay additions are enough to keep things fresh and exciting.