The LEGO series of games is a sales phenomenon, now established to a degree that it seems no matter how many releases are churned out on a yearly basis the sales flow, and steady praise flows its way. That's to the credit of TT Games and Warner Bros., but it's always a franchise at risk of spreading itself too thinly — as Bilbo Baggins would say, "like butter scraped over too much bread". OK, so that line is actually from The Lord of the Rings, but it applies perfectly to LEGO The Hobbit on Wii U.
The LEGO formula is well known, and that's no bad thing. When executed well it can be a treat, as it serves to be accessible and fun for gamers of various levels. The basic move-set of running jumping, smashing everything in sight and looking for bouncing LEGO pieces to build into a useful item is as familiar as it is accomplished. In some ways it's a series that — despite regular flaws of fiddly controls or design — manages to bring back the simple fun most familiar in the retro era of gaming, when controllers only had a couple of buttons and a D-Pad. Sure, the LEGO games aren't that simple in construction, but they can feel that way to play, incorporating modern ideas such as an inability to fully perish and seemingly infinite collectibles to keep players coming back time and again. On top of that, they're an entertaining spectacle.
LEGO The Hobbit absolutely nails the spectacle aspect. There are large, sweeping areas and a somewhat open world, or at least a collection of diverse staging areas, and they recreate the world of the film adaptations particularly well. Some areas look gorgeous, and it can certainly feel like a large world that's being traversed; fans of the movies will likely get a kick out of how faithfully Middle Earth is recreated.
There are a handful of levels that succeed in impressing in a visual sense, too, notably those featuring the deadly dragon Smaug and some high-action on-rails sequences. Occasionally the environments are a successful blend of film recreation and clever design, and when the title comes together in this way it truly belongs with its LEGO contemporaries, sparkling for those moments.
Yet the sweeping world and occasionally impressive visuals are a thin disguise for a host of problems underneath the surface. It's evident, frequently, that this was a project driven by a desire to cash-in at all costs, as the source material and core design often fall short of what the LEGO franchise is supposed to deliver. Some story missions follow banal tasks as there's not enough action in the films to cover its 7-10 hour campaign, and there are utterly baffling moments where game-like scenes of the films are less interesting in the actual game.
Some moments undoubtedly foster the sense that the development team on this title was rushed, unsure of itself, or both. There are stages where the action is broken up into awkward mini-puzzles that destroy all flow, there are boss battles that are utterly infuriating and nonsensical, and battle scenes that become a blurry, blocky mess in which the best tactic is to spam the attack button even as you struggle to see your character within the horde. While we praised some aspects of the presentation above, it is also portraying a slightly dark, grey-and-brown aesthetic from the movies, and telling characters apart from one another can be a trial. No other game has, in recent times, confused us so much when trying to complete the simplest of tasks.
It's unfortunate, as we'd say the split between enjoyable levels and those that are poorly executed is marginally in favour of the latter. At their best stages really are a lot of fun, but many seem to have been pushed out into the final product without the testing and quality control processes that would send them back to the drawing board. Most tellingly, we suspect young children will get frustrated, or at least have to resort to repeatedly 'dying' before stumbling across solutions.
The open world aspect, to its credit, does continue the tradition of giving players an enormous amount to do. There are NPCs everywhere that want to be escorted or helped out to produce some trinket or other, and it's a wise move to harvest materials for various super-builds in the game, some of which are mandatory for progress. Our story progress was never blocked as we always had the materials, but additional side-quests often necessitated a lot of extra work. Taking on story levels in free play and accessing all those extra areas is a vital activity in the daunting quest for 100% completion.
That character roster for unlocking the substantial extras is as large as ever, with some arriving in the story and others up for purchase. Yet it's an uninspiring line-up, once again, due to the restraints of the license and a lack of creativity in execution. There are multiple classes that have some key abilities, yet the practicalities of this are either limited or unexciting. There's clever use of Bilbo and his ring, doubling up attacks with dwarves raises a smile and a couple of the diminutive warriors have fun uses, but a lot of the characters simply blend into an indistinguishable mass. This is actually a problem during missions, as the characters are so unremarkable that it often remains a trial-and-error process to identify special abilities and select the hero for the job.
That lack of personality and charm carries across into storytelling, too. As we explained in our review of the 3DS version, the LEGO humour is largely lost aside from some physical gags. The whole game has an odd tone, in that respect, as intimidating music will show an orc demanding that his minions kill all the dwarves, for example, before a clichéd visual gag of a character falling over is thrown in. It's jumbled and frankly not particularly entertaining.
One area where the title does actually flourish is with its use of the GamePad. It's best used as a map most of the time, though is also handy for switching between characters; it serves as a very useful extra tool. Local multiplayer is accommodated, too, with one player having the opportunity to play exclusively on the controller's screen, which is preferable to the default splitscreen. That's the biggest benefit of owning the Wii U version, though multiplayer does bring the framerate down to a juddering degree — that aspect of performance can get choppy throughout the single player adventure, too.
There are fleeting moments of strong ideas as well as a sheer generosity of content that can encourage goodwill towards this release. Despite this, much is wrong with this game, and its sloppy design and implementation in the majority of its story levels — with some honourable exceptions — drags the experience down. Some of the stages and set-pieces truly are the worst we've seen in any LEGO title, and when you throw in mediocre optimisation — it crashed our normally reliable Wii U multiple times — this feels like a rushed, lazy effort.
LEGO The Hobbit has some strengths, and it's perhaps tempting to look at the sheer size of the world and volume of content and give it a pass. However, we feel that the frequently poor design and shoddy gameplay experience represent a low in the franchise. We're often supportive and complimentary of the LEGO series for what it does achieve despite some flaws, but this is a sloppy effort from Warner Bros. and TT Games. A typically rushed movie tie-in, and an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise excellent franchise.