The latest Lego game is a typically crammed tribute to Marvel comic lore that buffs the well-worn formula up to a shine.
In the back of any good comics shop, past the towers of Funko Pop vinyl figures and BB-8 bobbleheads, you will find the good stuff: longboxes stuffed with back issues. Serious collectors know that the chances of finding anything valuable in a longbox are extraordinarily slim. But there can still be treasure here. Maybe you'll turn up an old Marvel Two-in-One, the clobbering-centric team-up book starring The Thing. Or a foil-covered Punisher 2099, part of Marvel's short-lived far-future offshoot where 'shock' has become the swearword du jour. Or part four of a convoluted six-part arc starring magic amulet-powered cyborg Darkhawk, Marvel's 1990s attempt to create a new teen hero to rival Spider-Man. Flipping through a longbox full of random issues is one of the best, and cheapest, ways to get a pure comics hit, with none of the hubris, intricacy or sheer daftness sanded down the way it can be when these characters are repurposed for movies and TV shows.
Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 is a sandbox game that, brilliantly, loves the longbox. It probably helps that last year veteran developers TT Games constructed an impressive monument to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the slightly awkwardly titled Lego Marvel's The Avengers, a game that not only mimicked Robert Downey Jr's in-helmet Iron Man HUD from the movies but generally had such a sleek, regimented feel you could imagine it being used as SHIELD training aid. Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 still nods to the MCU - Doctor Strange can spin up fizzing portals like Benedict Cumberbatch with his magic yo-yo, Hulk is first introduced in his gladiatorial Autumn/Winter 2017 Ragnarok ensemble and there are welcome bursts of Star-Lord's well-worn Guardians of the Galaxy mixtape - but it feels like a conscious attempt to return to the source. Menu screens are imprinted with pop-art dots that evoke the vintage four-colour printing process and the game lifts the familiar visual signposting of comic book caption boxes.
If the retro comic aesthetic helps put some clear blue water between this game and Lego Marvel's The Avengers, it also helps that the main antagonist has yet to be glimpsed in any post-credits Marvel scene. Kang the Conquerer, a 1960s villain who originated in the pages of the Avengers, is a time-travelling history buff with a flair for the theatrical, not least flying around in a gigantic spacecraft shaped like a sword. Deliciously voiced by Peter Serafinowicz, who bathes his baritone in a river of ham, Kang's masterplan boils down to building his own bespoke crazy-quilt realm from choice cuts of prime Marvel universe real estate from across time and space. Perhaps the blue-faced despot really dug Lego Dimensions.
If you thought Mario relocating to New Donk City felt like a weird metropolitan mash-up, Chronopolis throws in everything like a Sim City cheese dream. There are deep pulls from the comics, like the dystopian Nueva York of the 2099 line and an old-timey version of Manhattan from Marvel's Noir universe, alongside locations more familiar from the big screen, like Thor's pipe-organ citadel Asgard and the ergonomically utopian Nova Corps homeworld of Xandar. These various locales are stitched together with bits of ancient Egypt, a medieval castle and a mini Westworld because... well, why not? With Kang's spired space castle at its centre and a PA system recommending you take a trip on the anti-grav monorail system, Chronopolis feels like a demented theme park.
For all the clashing architectural styles, it all hangs together surprisingly well. And like any good theme park, there is something new and amusing to do around every corner. If the New York-centric open worlds of the two previous Lego Marvel games felt well-executed but a little empty, the zany boroughs of Chronopolis feel dense with fun stuff to do, from TNT-ing giant silver top hats off statues to tracking down Black Panther's wandering housecat Mr Tiddles. There are also short and snappy races and character sidequests - including helping stage a Hulk musical - that help start to chip away at the intimidatingly large list of unlockable characters and vehicles (236, and that's not including DLC).
The main story subtly sidelines some of the more overexposed Avengers to bring others to the fore, notably cosmic superlady Captain Marvel and the Inhumans, superpowered royals who have also brought their floating city of Attilan. But for all the cool additions - including rootin', tootin' Wild West versions of familiar characters - there have also been some notable subtractions. Veteran heroes the X-Men and the Fantastic Four got a call-up for the original Lego Marvel Super Heroes but have sadly been put on gardening leave here. It's a shame, as these sorts of time-travel shenanigans were Reed Richards's bread-and-butter for decades.
The 20 campaign missions mostly boil down to visiting a particular Chronopolis location and guiding a preselected team of heroes through some light puzzling and platforming before a climactic boss battle. But TT Games have brought all their years of experience crafting the core Lego experience to bear: each level is reliably well-paced, imaginatively rendered and stuffed with visual humour. Defeat poor Kang and there are another 10 bonus levels to unlock, presided over by the fourth-wall-breaking, katana-wielding Gwenpool, a comics geek turned hero who has commandeered a room in Avengers Mansion for her cheat code terminal and stash of longboxes.
Hived off from the main game is new multiplayer battle arena for up to four players, evolved from similar modes in Lego Dimensions and the recent Lego Ninjago Movie game tie-in. Presided over by the Grandmaster - a cosmic bookie fond of booming announcements who was recently embodied by Jeff Goldblum in Thor: Ragnarok - it's a fun but fairly throwaway addition that includes a variant that feels like a very half-hearted Splatoon knock-off.
Stick to the exploring the bustling streets and airways of Chronopolis by jetboot, webshooter or instantly delivered Quinjet and Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 remains a superbly boisterous and pleasurable experience. It's an all-you-can-eat buffet of comics lore featuring resurrected heroes and villains from some of the least-thumbed pages of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe presented in a fun and inclusive way. If there is a problem, it's the one shared by all Lego games. Although they reward - or even insist - on having hours poured into them in order to unlock every gold brick, save every Stan Lee in peril or claim every hidden Minikit, there is never a sense that you can achieve any level of elite play.
Despite the visually impressive tumbles of Captain America and the lightning-fast moves of Black Panther, you only ever really feel like you are spodding around, cheerfully chipping away at the current objective at a tempo dictated to you by the game rather than your ability. That's entirely fitting: unlike other extensions to the mighty Marvel franchise, such as the self-consciously gritty Netflix TV shows, Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 is rather heroically dedicated to ensuring players of all abilities - and all ages - can enjoy the experience. It's a game for everyone, and sets a new benchmark for amiable, fuss-free fun in the impressively storied Lego games pantheon. Now if you'll excuse me, somewhere in Chronopolis there is a side-mission that unlocks Darkhawk. Have they done justice to his chintzy magic amulet? Only one way to find out.