Version tested: Xbox 360
I'm a vocal fan of the LEGO games, but even I was a bit sceptical about a second go-round for Indiana Jones. The first LEGO Indy game was something of a runt compared to the brick-based versions of Star Wars and Batman, and the idea of adding just one more film story - the limp Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - to the existing trilogy hardly suggested a gameplay bonanza.
The good news, then, is that Traveller's Tales has come up with a package that renders such concerns null and void. This is an absolutely stuffed disc, easily doubling what was on offer last time, and addressing long-running complaints about the LEGO series to boot.
Naysayers who claim LEGO games are just the same thing repackaged are finally proven conclusively wrong, even though every game so far has offered its own tweaks and improvements. Of course, you still explore levels, smashing things, melee-bashing enemies, solving puzzles and collecting LEGO studs for currency. That's what the LEGO games do. To suggest otherwise would be like asking Splinter Cell to ditch stealth, or Call of Duty to tone down the shooting.
What's changed instead is the entire structure of the game. Each original film now has its own hub world, and Crystal Skull gets three, having been split into three acts, each one the same size as the other movies. These gameplay hubs are now an active part of the gameplay, too, unlike the relatively lifeless Mos Eisley Cantina and Batcave. Each contains 15 smaller challenges, as well as numerous secrets, rather than six long levels.
The stories are as silly as ever - particularly for the original three movies. Having told those tales once already, the game opts to offer even dafter abridged versions, with all-new levels that muck around with the narrative in often-delightful ways. The Crystal Skull gets a slightly more faithful adaptation, but at least George Lucas' unwieldy cast list translates to a decent array of characters.
Story levels are accessed in linear fashion, with entrances to each one becoming available as you traverse the hub. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, the hub starts up in Nepal. Wander down a mountain, across a bridge and you're in Egypt. Keep going and you'll reach a dock which leads to the island where the Ark is opened. A short boat trip in the other direction is the temple from the movie's iconic opening.
Unlocking new characters is no longer a menu-driven affair. You find them in the gameworld, beat them and buy them. The same is true for vehicles. Find it, buy it, drive it. Bonus levels can also be found or opened through exploration, while replaying story levels leads to different challenges for specific character types.
Likewise, cheats and bonus items are now earned by hunting down different items in the gameworld, rather than the solitary red Power Bricks of old. Smash 10 scorpions in Temple of Doom's hub, for example, and a crate containing a gameplay perk is immediately airlifted in, ready to be purchased. These are the same traditional extras we've come to expect - score multipliers, fast build or repair skills, as well as silly stuff like poo money and comedy moustaches - but they're now integrated into an active play area rather than tucked away in a menu.
It's a radical overhaul to a familiar system, and the change is not without its growing pains. The hubs are poorly signposted, often confusing in layout, and it's easy to miss vital gameplay areas as you roam around. I spent far longer than necessary just trying to find the second story mission in The Last Crusade, trudging through areas that were not yet available, wondering what I should be looking for. With its newfound size, the game is crying out for a map or compass, anything to nudge you in the direction of essential locations - or even just areas of interest.
The problem is compounded by some surprisingly unhelpful design decisions. Bonus levels can only be completed by characters with certain skills, but the game only tells you what these are once you've started the challenge. It'd be better to know who you need before entering, especially as you're restricted to two characters at a time.
Meanwhile, unlike previous LEGO games where you could cycle through an automatically selected cast that covered all the abilities you might need, auxiliary characters can only be found in their relevant map area and must be manually swapped. Having to jog all the way back through the gameworld, just to collect someone with a spear, is a horrible chore - especially when you've forgotten where they spawn.
With six sizable hubs to mentally map, navigation becomes a trial rather than a joy. I've found that my son - another huge fan of the series - asks me to take over the joypad far more than usual, as he loses track of where the game wants him to go. It's the first LEGO game where we've felt that attaining 100 per cent completion might be more trouble than it's worth.
It's especially annoying since it's an otherwise-excellent evolution, full of beneficial changes both small and large. Whips, throws and guns can now be aimed by holding down the fire button, eliminating the hit-and-miss targeting which marred previous games.
Vehicles, absent from the first LEGO Indy, are included here with a slightly improved handling model. Nimble and fast, they're actually a lot of fun to swing around the levels that are designed for driving action. They're less successful in some of the later checkpoint races, where scenery snags are fist-clenchingly common, and a more intricate physics model means that some rides tend to topple over at the slightest provocation. That's just for the cars though. With submarines, boats, planes - even camels and elephants - to thrash around the large maps, variety and speed are enough to overcome the still-slightly-wonky handling.
The camera has had a more successful makeover, too, thanks to a long-overdue split-screen element. Wander away from your companion and the screen neatly slices in half at an angle. Move closer and the scenery knits back together once you're in the same frame.
It allows for truly co-operative play, with each player free to pursue different goals to mutual benefit, although the level design never really takes full advantage of this newfound liberation. You'll still be tackling problems close together, but simply knowing that you won't be tugged off-screen by accident makes for a much less fractious experience.
However, our old foe v-sync tearing does make an unwelcome return - though a menu toggle sorts him out. Less easy to forgive are some sporadic gameplay freezes and several noticeable glitches, mostly concerning objective-based characters and vehicles failing to spawn. Tut tut.
Thankfully, outside of the campaign there's a robust attempt at incorporating the key LEGO concept of building into the game. You still hold down a button to build objects in-game, but the LEGO Builder offers a flexible way to construct your own gameworlds, or edit the existing ones, brick by brick.
It's easier to use than LittleBigPlanet's rather opaque creative tools, but still perhaps too fiddly for younger fans to grasp its full potential. Using a simple rotary menu system, and broad Sim City-style placement tools, there's a lot of flexibility to be unearthed. Items can be linked to buttons and switches, level goals can be defined, traps and enemies strategically placed.
For those with the patience, it's a powerful little level designer. It's just a shame there's no way of sharing your creations online - the best you can do is put them in a playlist under the Build Your Own Adventure banner and challenge your friends in the flesh.
There's a lot of good, then, but also a lot of not-so-good battling away under the cheery exterior of LEGO Indy 2. It's absolutely enormous for a game many assumed would be a lazy rehash (a full weekend of almost non-stop play gave me just over 50 per cent completion, and not even half the Achievements) but that size often overwhelms the fantastically adept learning curve of previous LEGO titles.
This is a game franchise in transition, and while it's raced ahead in the implementation of new ideas and necessary improvements, it sometimes does so without waiting to see if younger players are keeping up. There's simply too much that is vaguely explained, and too much aimless wandering looking for the next vital objective, and that can't help but drag down the score for a game that, as last time, comes close to being something genuinely special.
In many ways it's the superior game, but many kids will struggle to feel the benefit thanks to the stodgy pacing and slack signposting. Hopefully Harry Potter's turn in the knobbly plastic spotlight in 2010 will iron out the kinks, and deliver the epic LEGO game at which this latest Indy tantalisingly hints.
7 / 10