It doesn’t take an analyst to know that the entertainment industry loves a good trend, and one current example is to find a hugely popular work of fiction, turn it into a big-budget film, then let Warner Bros. make a LEGO video game out of it. The works of beloved fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien, of Lord of the Rings and other high-fantasy classics fame, is swirling around this vortex yet again. The brick-based The Lord of the Rings adaptation popped up in 2012, and now comes LEGO The Hobbit, a game based on the current film series which is an adaptation of the novel that first introduced us to Tolkien’s tumultuous world of Middle-earth.
Following the plot of the first two films in the ongoing trilogy, LEGO The Hobbit tells the story of Bilbo Baggins and his Dwarven companions as they attempt to reclaim the usurped throne of Erebor. The game does well to abridge the movies, maintaining the majority of the stories while transforming them into an interactive experience. Releasing this game prior to the third film's première, thus not including the entire trilogy in one package, is a questionable decision, leaving us wondering if the final film will be available to play as DLC on 3DS, as has been implied for the home console iterations. As it is, the game does follow the plot all the way up to the end of the second film, then abruptly stopping where the third should pick up.
Gameplay remains the same as it has in the most recent portable LEGO outings, opting for an isometric view of the playing field rather than rendering the environments and characters in explorable 3D. As can be expected, most of the action involves traversing from one end of each linear stage to the next, ferociously tapping Y to break your enemies to bits and solving very basic puzzles in-between. Obstacles that require specific actions to be performed in order to pass often block off sections of the stages, but thankfully you have an entire band of dwarves with unique skills at your disposal to get the job done. The controls work well, and optional use of the 3DS’s touchscreen to perform tasks or switch between characters is useful in streamlining the action, but it’s all very repetitive and doesn’t provide an original experience. In LEGO Marvel Super Heroes: Universe in Peril, the variety of characters and their super powers each felt unique; in LEGO The Hobbit, all of the characters feel like slightly different takes on the same archetype.
One big change found here that wasn’t present in previous titles, though it hardly affects how the game is played, is the inclusion of a Super Mario Bros. 3 style world map instead of simply bumping you from one stage to the next. Progress through the campaign is linear and still relies on completing goals and collecting gold bricks in each stage, but there are now divergent paths available to take you to bonus stages and optional side quests. As you work your way through campaign stages, button mashing through hordes of orcs and performing character-specific tasks, you will find materials that can be used to construct bridges and other set pieces. These extra buildings fit into the world map and help expand the area to unveil hidden locals. Uncovering and unlocking all of the hidden areas is completely optional, but it does help to significantly extend the otherwise short campaign, the bulk of which only lasts around six hours.
Changes to the world map and resource collection aside, LEGO The Hobbit is practically identical to other recent handheld LEGO titles. The gameplay might be stale for many gamers out there, but the one thing that keeps these games feeling fresh and worth coming back to is the undeniable wit found in the writing. This poses a severe problem for the latest outing, as the source material isn't particularly funny, and thus doesn't leave much room for a sprinkling of that trademark humour. Attempts have been made to force sight gags into the story, but the dialogue is mostly comprised of that found in the films, leaving little to no room for anything else. If you enjoy the Hobbit films and their cast of characters, then it's likely that you'll have an attachment to this game, but it's difficult to say that this one will appeal to a wider audience more accustomed to the LEGO tone.
Unsurprisingly, the audio and visual presentation is also identical to that found in the previous handheld LEGO games, and that should not be considered a good thing. Rather than rebuilding all of the cinematics to accommodate the 3DS, everything has instead been ripped and compressed from the home console game, resulting in muddy images and crackling voiceovers that fluctuate in both quality and volume. To add insult to injury, there's no way to skip past the cinematics. Instead of being able to continue on with the gameplay, tapping the console's touchscreen will restart the cut scene from the beginning, leaving you with absolutely no way to get around them. Because the cut scenes were not made specifically for the 3DS, they also don't boast the console's signature 3D, an effect that is reserved strictly to gameplay and doesn't manage to do much when it is in use anyway. In fact, having the 3D on more is more effective in dropping the frame rate than it is in adding depth to the environments. The in-game graphics also have a slight graininess to them, and more than once did we find ourselves slipping sideways into walls or falling through the environment completely, plummeting to an untimely death.
The combination of lazy visuals, inconsistent audio, and minor glitches all point toward the generally poor quality that hovers over LEGO The Hobbit as a whole. It's the type of game that has glimmers of unique design and good intentions, but in the end fails to live up to its potential. The missing third act also makes us wonder whether or not this title was released prematurely; it's a game that definitely feels like it was rushed to market well before its time.
LEGO The Hobbit attempts to take what has arguably become one of he most repetitive franchises in modern gaming and make it feel new again, but unfortunately falls short of hitting its mark every step of the way. The idea of including a world map in place of the open world found between stages in the home console versions is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't carry enough weight with it to change the gameplay in any significant way. Combine that with the lackluster LEGO script, repetitive combat and crude aesthetics, and you've got a game that feels a little different than what you might be used to, but at the same time manages to remain exactly the same. If you've played any of the other recent LEGO 3DS games then you already know whether or not you're the target audience for this one, but anyone else is advised to remain in a land far, far away.