Lego is all about scale -- but that doesn't just mean making things smaller. The trick with Lego - what makes it such an enduring and hypnotic toy, for adults as well as kids, is that it makes things both bigger and smaller at the same time.
Yes, by turning Mordor into something that you can smash apart with your hands, Lego makes you feel like a titan. But by taking the interesting bits of the world and shrinking the space between them - placing castles next to fire stations or Rivendell next to Gondor - it also transforms the complexity of the universe, and makes its 'good bits' bigger, and more tangible.
In Lego Lord of the Rings (all formats, 23/11/12) by TT, that principle runs deep, and the result is a beautifully paced, surprising action game that does justice to the series while breathing new humour into its stuffier moments. Storylines are shrunk to their core, scenes are remodelled and jammed together and the Good Bits are rightly placed front and centre.
Unlike earlier Lego games, however, what you're left with isn't just a series of disconnected highlight quests. Lego LOTR is instead a truly massive open-world game, bigger even than Lego Batman 2, in which you'll play through the entire saga pretty much on foot - and often return to in order to complete a massive array of side quests.
After an epic prologue battle, you start off in Hobbiton surrounded by tiny Hobbit minifigs (and one particuarly rambunctious pig). But soon enough Gandalf has paid his unexpected visit, and you're off on your quest. While the distances you walk are shrunk and landmarks from the series are always somewhere in the background. the world appears far more vast and beautiful than you'd ever expect, with vast valleys and canyons, sunsets and one terrifying giant Eye watching your every move.
Lego games are renowned for their slapstick humour, and that's present and correct too. Instead of portentiously placing the One Ring into the fire to reveal its Elvish writing, Frodo accidentally drops it in a cup of hot tea. When the Black Riders are washed away by the flowing waters of Bruinen, you can just see one carrying a yellow life preserver. Boromir still dies, but he's impaled by a giant banana.
So yes, it's funny - and, for the Lego fan, part of the fun is seeing classic 'bits' turning up as props - the same treasure chests, briefcases and swords you remember from youth are all present and correct here.
But what's more impressive is the sense of emotion that runs through the game too. LOTR has always been an affecting melodrama, but when Gandalf 'falls' to his apparent doom in the Mines of Moria, your heart breaks watching the hobbits weep for his demise. And when Boromir pledges his allegience to his 'king' Aragorn at the moment of his death, it's honestly upsetting. It was amazing the Peter Jackson managed to do this in the films. How TT were able to do it that in a Lego game is baffling, and astounding.
Helping that effort is the inclusion of both the original score and dialogue from the films. It's not straight cuts from Jackson's trilogy- it's a chopped up script, designed to smooth over the cracks of the story's deeper plot lines. But while it should feel silly watching a yellow-faced Gandalf scream 'You Shall Not Pass!', it actually works really well.
As ever in Lego games, the most disappointing elements come in the actual gameplay. It's the usual mix of simple puzzles, button-bashing combat and multiple switches of character. Most of the time it's fine, but at its worst it feels a bit dusty. This is helped later when character skills can be shared with the help of upgrades, but it's slightly arbitrary at first. The camera isn't always helpful for completing some platform sections, and the constant collection of studs gets a bit tedious.
Luckily, the game is much deeper than you'd expect - and it's so fun and enjoyable to just run about and hit things, the slightly underwhelming mechanics are easy to forgive. Sub-missions and quests are plentiful, and as ever there is a huge amount to unlock in the form of new characters, weapons and silly extras like costumes and sounds. The combat is more satisfying than ever too - orcs smash apart with a pleasing sprinkle of plastic - and there are often dozens of enemies on screen at once.
It's worth noting too that we we'ren't able to explore anywhere near the full game ahead of writing the review -- and for those committed fans who want to complete the whole thing - you've got your work cut out.
In a sense, that's one of the few problems with the game, though. For fans of the movies there is a temptation to rush through the story mode, just to reach your favourite set-piece or location. And the movies themselves are so vast, it's possible to get frustrated at your progress - Lego LOTR ticks along very nicely, but like in Lego Star Wars, sometimes you just want to get to the damn Death Star, we mean, Helms Deep, already.
But if that's a criticism, it's a very slight one. This game is like a delicious, massive steak: you want to both eat it all at once and send out a glowing Tweet about each individual morsel. Yes, the relatively shallow gameplay means Lego LOTR isn't for everyone - this is, after all, mainly a kids game. But for fans of both toys or Tolkein, it's a wonderful experience which both expands and condenses a previously stale triology.
Like the best Lego toys, it's tiny and massive all at once.