The Lego games cop a lot of flak for being formulaic, and sure, sometimes they are repetitive. You spend plenty of time smashing rubble so you can hold down a button to reshape it into a ladder to the next area, where you fight three dudes then start looking for the next pile of rubble to smash. But the games built around that loop have evolved over the years, and sometimes one will come along and push the whole series of licensed-properties-as-digital-plastic-bricks a big step forward. LEGO® The Lord of the Rings™, to give it the full and proper name I'll never use again, was one that improved on the format in significant ways.
It was the first in the series to use dialogue from the source material, for one thing. While the earliest Lego games had been silent pantomimes, which suited the Star Wars prequels' "look out, Count Dooku's behind you!" plotting perfectly, retelling the stories of Indiana Jones and Harry Potter in mime was more confusing. (Lego Batman 2 had voice acting first, and Clancy Brown's a great Lex Luthor, but that was an original story rather than an affectionate parody of movies like most of the others.)
Lego Lord of the Rings takes dialogue straight from the original films, but abridged for cutscenes and accompanied by sight gags for kids. When the writing on the One Ring is revealed it's because Frodo drops it in a hot cup of tea, and when Boromir refuses to die it's because he's been shot not just with arrows but also a broom and a banana. When the Black Gates of Mordor open, it's because the orcs are having pizza delivered.
The other big new thing Lord of the Rings introduced to the series was a full-sized open world. Traditionally you'd get a hub between levels, somewhere like Mos Eisley cantina or Diagon Alley, and in Lego Batman 2 an entire miniaturized Gotham. Lego Lord of the Rings plonked all its levels down across a map of Middle-earth. Between levels you can poke around bits of it, and after you've finished story mode the whole thing's unlocked, complete with sidequests and puzzles and minigames.
This was 2012, before so many of us got sick of maps full of icons, but even today it remains a nice open world to journey across, with plenty of color and incident. Wander up to the right river bend and you can take control of a tiny sailing ship and blow apart pirates with your cannon. In the Shire you can race on a pig, and out behind Bree there are skeletons waiting to be assembled so they can burst into dance. Sure, there are dopey jumping puzzles and other bits of filler, but at least there aren't 50 towers to climb or smuggler's caches hidden in every stretch of water.
Part of the reason it doesn't get boring is that the scale's perfect. The road goes ever on and on, but all you have to do is walk round the corner to arrive at another iconic place. You stand in Osgiliath and in one direction see Minas Tirith, the White City, then look over your shoulder and see Minas Morgul, home of the Nazgul. This Middle-earth feels like it's been reconstructed on a bedroom floor, an open world that's manageably sized because it's designed for children rather than unemployed adults, who are surely the only human beings with enough spare time to 100% any modern RPG.
It's always a short walk from a swamp where it's perpetually raining to a mountain pass or an elven forest, with Howard Shore's score from the movies hopping from theme to theme as appropriate to each location. Not only can you simply walk into Mordor, you get an achievement for doing so. I took Boromir there, strolled through The Black Gate (still open for pizza delivery), and then found a mission to kill 20 orcs within a time limit so I could unlock a shiny mithril Lego brick. It's not Middle-earth as Tolkien intended, or even Peter Jackson, but it's endearing in its own way.
And that's why it's a shame the licence expired and Lego Lord of the Rings was removed from Steam in January. It's less of a loss that Lego The Hobbit's also gone, since that was perhaps appropriately one of the Lego games content to retread the formula instead of doing something new with it. But still, if you want to play the Lego games today, there's one less worth recommending. I'll just have to tell you to try Lego Marvel Super Heroes instead.
Oh, one more thing to praise Lego Lord of the Rings for—it understood Sam was the best hobbit. Each Lego hobbit has one puzzle-solving ability to make it worth switching to them mid-level—Pippin puts out fires, Merry goes fishing, Frodo's phial lights up dark places—but Sam can not only grow plants to make platforms, but also start fires, hook his elven rope up to grappling points, and cook food. That last one may not seem super useful, until you need to fry up a meal for a hungry ghost in exchange for its treasure.
Even in Lego form the hard-working gardener is quietly the most valuable hobbit. The cutscenes play this as a joke but it shows an understanding of the source material that's stronger than most videogame adaptations of Middle-earth, Lego or otherwise.