You should never toss a dwarf, not unless you're very brave. Dwarves hate it. It's thoroughly rude. It'd take a braver man than I to hoist a shorty over my shoulder to sling him across a gaping hole.
The level of tossing on offer here is a good indication of Lego games getting braver, then, because you'll spend a good chunk of your time hurling one particular dwarf across rivers, bridges, ravines and crevices with little care for the potentially very serious consequences. From the quaint countryside life of Hobbiton in the west, all the way to Mordor's ashy sulphuric wastes in the east, that's a heck of a lot of dwarf tossing.
Braver still, Lego Lord of the Rings takes a big stride into open-world adventure. It understands the importance of a quest and the freedom of an open road, and it successfully fuses it all with the wit and charm of a Lego game. The quality of the series' famous laugh out loud moments remains at an impeccable high, but their frequency takes a noticeable hit in order to keep the Lord of the Ring's dark tone intact. It's the most serious Lego game yet, but it's also one of the most engaging.
With the entire trilogy - Fellowship of the Ring, Two Towers and Return of the King - you're playing through 9 hours (if we're being conservative) of film here. Fear not; story scenes are truncated as to not drag you into the mire of Jacksonitis, but you still get enough of the plot to feel like you're playing through your own plastic Middle-earth. There's even a genuine sense of adventure, whether you're battling Black Riders on Weathertop, fighting off hordes of Uruk Hai at Helms Deep, or strolling into Rivendell as Gandalf for the first time, gazing out at the sumptuous sunsets.
The open world structure also offers some freedom to the flow of the story, away from the rigidity of the series' restrictive, but honest, hub worlds. This time, story missions can span several scenes, especially during Twin Towers and Return of the King moments. Famously spectacular scenes, like Gandalf's battle with the colossal Balrog, are more like mini QTEs, but these sequences are impressive and infrequent enough to never stain the overall experience.
With such a huge area to explore you'll have an embarrassingly low number on your percentage meter if you're just hopping from level to level. As with every other Lego game, completing a story segment opens up Free Play, where you're able to replay with characters non-specific to that particular scene. This lets you access secret areas to gain extra collectables. You can also complete various side quests - unashamedly named Fetch Quests - which have you replaying in Free Play to grab various items for NPCs. These side quests are contrived, but the tasks you're set are at least as humorous enough to keep you from getting bored of hunting down random items.
As well as buying characters, completing side quests, unlocking Mini Kits and reaching True Adventurer status, a new crafting and inventory system serves to further your investment in Middle-Earth. Collectible designs litter the overworld and story levels, which hold the secrets to the game's various tools and weapons and must be forged using (yet more) collectible Mithril bricks. Once completed your shiny new gear is accessed in free roam from your Treasure Trove, effectively sidestepping the need for a bunch of characters with their own unique abilities, and allows you to go about the overworld mopping up all the goodies you haven't yet been able to find because you've lacked a specific skill set. Some are absolutely hilarious, too; we're looking at you, disco ball.
Despite its obvious strengths, the inventory system is let down by sloppy implementation. Changing weapons requires you to hold down a button before a radial menu appears. With so much of standard Xbox 360 controller being left unused I can't help but think there must have been a more elegant solution. Switching characters also results in some unwanted fiddling, as the game often decides to forget a member of your party, forcing you to resort to yet another radial menu instead of, say, a tap of a button.
All of the game's other issues fit in with the rest of the series. There's no online co-op, which has been a notable weakness for years, and the camera still creates some unnecessary annoyances, hiding things just off screen, which is a real pain when you're hunting for the last vital piece of a puzzle.
Thankfully, for better of worse, the last few years of Lego games have been good enough that we're prepared to brush aside these issues. Things like the lack of online co-op are undoubtedly more prevalent with each iteration, but Lego Lord of the Rings is still a huge success that's wonderfully adorable and an absolute delight to play.
Version Tested: Xbox 360
This review was written after spending 15 hours with a retail version of the game provided by Warner Bros.