Hobbit, wizards, horses, rideable pigs and hairy, plastic feet. They may only be two films into The Hobbit trilogy so far, but that hasn't stopped the team over at Traveller's Tales getting their blocky hands on the latest Lord of the Rings films, and giving them a plastic make over. But while LEGO fans may be expecting more of the same, The Hobbit feels like the biggest step away from the familiar (and incredibly successful) LEGO formula in years.
When it comes to a LEGO game, you usually know what you're letting yourself in for - co-op baddie bashing, block smashing, brick building fun, with enough basic puzzles and collectibles to keep you playing for forty plus hours. Head into a level, beat up some bad guys, smash some LEGO objects, rebuild the pieces into something usable, and work with your partner to shove things around a solve a puzzle, and you're onto a winner - a familiar formula that we've come to know and love.
LEGO The Hobbit, on the other hand, takes a slightly different stance. Perhaps because of the slightly older audience of the film, LEGO The Hobbit takes your standard LEGO game, and infuses it with role playing goodness in the heat of Mount Doom itself, forging the one LEGO game to rule them all.
While there are still fifteen levels to play through here, if anything, there's less emphasis on them, as the focus instead is on exploring, joining together with your party of dwarves, and going on an adventure. Taking control of any one of nigh on a hundred characters from the film, from Gandalf to Gimli's dad, you can team up with a friend to explore a gigantic (if slightly more plastic) rendition of Middle Earth, from the dark Mines of Moria to the city of Bree, to the sun-kissed waterfalls in the Elvish kingdom of Rivendell, with the self contained stages themselves feeling more of a side attraction to the "main event".
Perhaps because of this change of focus, the levels here feel shorter than those that have come before, and activities in and around the world map feel more numerous. With the same drop-in, drop-out co-op as before, there's still the same emphasis on teamwork here, with puzzles to solve, bosses to defeat, and collectibles to be found - you'll just be doing much more of it outside of constrained levels when compared to before. With sixteen levels to smash, re-build, and puzzle your way through, you're certainly not getting short changed - but there's so much more to do in the world.
While much of Middle Earth will be inaccessible when you first start playing, as you progress through the story levels, and unlock more characters, more and more of it will unlock. Unlocking new characters is every bit as essential to seeing all that Middle Earth has to offer, as you'll often find things only certain characters can do. Whether it's a fountain of petals that shows only a female character can make the jump; a large, silver boulder blocking your path, that only someone who knows their way around a stick of dynamite can deal with; or an empty plant pot that's just waiting for a dwarf with green fingers to come along, you'll need to swap and change characters on a regular basis.
And that's another area the game's made a big improvement. Whereas on previous games, most characters only had one ability, or perhaps two if they were lucky, on the Hobbit each character has at least two or three abilities at their disposal. Handily, when you head to the character selection screen (by holding triangle, wherever you are in Middle Earth), it lists each character's ability below their portrait, so you can be sure you're choosing the right one. Whack a silver boulder with your sword, or fire an arrow at that unlit campfire in frustration, and the game will also prompt you with a picture of either the character you should switch to, or the ability you need. Handy stuff.
With each level you complete, you'll also unlock a range of quests in Middle Earth, which range from the somewhat logical to the outright bizarre. There's the bearded lady in Bree whose son runs the blacksmith's shop (but seems to have disappeared), a concerned mother who wants to build her son a tree house - so long as it isn't in a tree, as that would be too high up, and the fantastically bearded dwarf who's sick of spiders crawling around his kitchen like they own the place - so he's "going to crawl all over theirs - by which I mean, beat them up!", there are loads of quests to complete - and plenty of humour, too.
As you complete each of the quests, you'll slowly start to make some progress towards collecting the game's many, many collectibles, with LEGO The Hobbit featuring nigh on 500 bits and pieces to find. There's 32 red bricks (each of which unlocks a certain cheat or power-up), 32 mythril instruction sheets, which unlock equipment at the blacksmith, 250 Myrthil bricks themselves (which you take to the blacksmith), and 160 minikit pieces - with ten hidden in each level. LEGO games usually go crazy with collectibles - but even by their standards, this is packed with things to do.
And true to its new found role playing roots, there's yet more stuff to collect, too. As you wander from the Misty Mountains to the Shire, bashing things as you go (after all, this is a LEGO game - where would we be without a little destruction), you'll collect random bits and pieces, as a kind of resource system. From bits of wood to fish, bars of bronze, and priceless gemstones (which the dwarves with their giant hammers can help you mine), there's loads to collect - which come in handy with certain quests. Asking you to gather enough resources before chucking them into a tardis-like bucket to build a giant LEGO kit, you're then sprung into a mini-game that's been carried across from the LEGO Movie game, where the game asks to find the part that comes next from a wheel of choices - which is often easier said than done.
Yet more collectibles waiting be discovered in the levels come in the form of the items that make up your treasure trove, a kind of role playing like inventory that lets you change your character's weapons - only in typical LEGO style, it's more funny than fatalistic. Whether you want to switch your sword out for a fishing rod, bug catching net, or more excitingly, a glowing hammer, or, er, some mythril dance boots and a bright blonde wig, there's plenty of room for customisation. Oh, and did we mention you can even customise your horse? Pink spotty steed to the rescue!
Clearly aimed at an older audience to the earlier LEGO games, LEGO The Hobbit has more depth than ever before. Taking LEGO Lord of the Rings and building on it, adding more role playing, more quests, more collectibles, more co-op, and more fun, this is yet another must buy for anyone looking for some co-op fun. While it may have carried over some of the problems from the earlier games (the "dynamic" split-screen, for example, which intends to show you where your co-op partner is, but only makes the levels harder), almost everything that's been changed here has made the game better. This is one you'll be able to lose yourself in for hours. The only question is - where do they go from here?