Back when the first LEGO Star Wars game came out, it felt like a breath of fresh air. It was unpretentious, unapologetically silly and packed with the sort of well-rounded platforming gameplay that, Mario aside, seems to have died out in the current generation of consoles. The sequel followed, applying the same approach to the classic Star Wars movies, and then The Complete Trilogy smushed both games together with a generous side order of new bonus content.
Now, with LEGO Batman and LEGO Indiana Jones both due a few short months apart, I feel a bitter little tang of concern that this once innovative and surprising template may be turned into a formula, it's freshness dulled by repetition.
Having spent the best part of a week mucking about with a complete build of LEGO Indy, my concerns have proven both justified and overblown. Yes, this looks, feels and plays almost exactly like LEGO Star Wars. You still collect silver, gold and blue studs for currency, used for unlocking characters and bonus cheats. Collect enough in each level and you attain a special rank - True Adventurer, not True Jedi. You have a central gameplay hub, set in Indy's workplace of Barnett College rather than Mos Eisley Cantina. Each level has ten pieces of a secret LEGO kit to find, though they now make artefacts rather than vehicles. And, as always, you can return to any completed level in Free Play mode with a broad selection of unlocked characters, using their various abilities to access areas that were out of reach first time through. However, the game has noticeably evolved in many ways, both small and large, and to write it off as an opportunistic reskin of a successful framework would be grossly unfair.
I should explain at this point that I had some help in writing this feature - my son, Dillon, aged 5, and some of his school friends. It just seems sensible to view the game through the eyes of its intended audience, and as they're all obsessed with LEGO Star Wars - and as Dillon has already finished The Complete Saga several times over - I feel that my primary school focus group should be able to offer something more insightful than simply rattling through the obvious gameplay changes. So it was that they leapt at the chance to be some of the first kids in the country to play the new LEGO game, a privilege that seems to have serious playground clout judging from their anticipation. Bear in mind that none of my young servants have any concept of Indiana Jones beyond the fact that he was a secret character in LEGO Star Wars - their excitement is not one of nostalgia or recognition, but of affection for the games themselves.
Immediately, it becomes clear that the repetition of the LEGO Star Wars set-up isn't down to laziness. Kids love familiarity, and they instantly feel at home, confidently seeking out the new versions of well-loved features. They spent a good ten minutes messing about with the character creation tools, giggling at the girly haircuts and almost collapsing with laughter at the ability to change the colour of the little LEGO people's groin area. Or, to put it in five-year-old speak: "You can change his nuggets!"
Into the game, and it's interesting to see how casually they take to some of the new developments. Most obvious is the ability to pick up and carry items and tools. Whereas puzzles in LEGO Star Wars relied on using specific character types to move certain items or open specific doors, LEGO Indy is much more democratic. Characters can now pick up and use tools, as well as carry objects around in their hands. Broken machines are a regular puzzle component, and rather than needing a mechanic character to fix, anyone can solve the problem - provided they can find a spanner. The same is true of buried items, which require a shovel. Some characters come with these items as standard, but by not forcing you to use those characters the teamwork option becomes much more fluid. Characters do still have their own unique skills (Temple of Doom's Willie has a scream so annoying that it shatters glass) but they're mostly saved for Free Play and there's a lot less character-swapping then before. And it doesn't take Dillon and pals long to figure that out, as they swiftly begin bossing each other about, arguing over who gets to be the next one to pick up and use a key.
This carrying ability affects combat as well, as you can now throw chairs and bottles at enemies, and pick up their weapons once they've been defeated. It definitely feels strange at first, having an Indy who doesn't come with a gun as standard, but once again it's an idea that opens out the gameplay a lot more. Everything from swords to pistols, machine guns and bazookas can now be wielded by any character, and by having them run out of ammo the game encourages you to keep finding new ways to do battle.
Indy himself proves to be much more agile than any of his Star Wars predecessors, with an array of context-sensitive attacks that go a long way to dispelling the slightly monotonous punch-punch-punch action of old. Not only can he dropkick bad guys, but he'll also wrestle with them and toss them over his shoulder. His whip adds yet more cool tricks to his arsenal.
Obviously, it can be used as a weapon, spinning enemies around, stunning and even killing them. It can also be used to swing from designated spots, or to pull on distant levers. Whip an object, and Indy pulls it into his hands - very handy for grabbing something to throw, or for retrieving a vital puzzle item from an unreachable place. He's not infallible though, as Indy's phobia is also incorporated into the gameplay. If you encounter snakes, Indy becomes a gibbering wreck and it's up to the other characters to find a way of removing or circumnavigating the serpents. The same is true of Willie and her fear of insects
The downside to all these new abilities seems to be some confusion, at least for my posse of toilet-obsessed games testers. Friendly fire was a recurring problem in co-op play for LEGO Star Wars, and it seems more prevalent here. Catching your friend with a stray punch in the middle of a fight is understandable enough, but often the player in control of Indy would find himself whipping his companion while trying to activate a lever or find the right position for a swing, or accidentally shooting a gun rather than throwing a punch. Couple this with the push-pull co-op camera system, which still has am unfortunate habit of trapping characters off-screen or dragging them off platforms as it tries to keep everything on-screen, and tempers did tend to flare up. It's hard to explain how a virtual 3D camera works to kids, and cries of "Why do I keep falling off?" and "You made me dead!" were common, at least for the first few levels.
All the familiar Indy scenes are here, and the boulder chase at the end of the first level of Raiders of the Lost Ark proves to be a big hit. This is quite revealing, since it's a run-towards-the-screen action sequence, and I know from patience-testing experience that the similar sections of LEGO Star Wars (in particular the final level of Episode III) were among the least popular with Dillon and company. It seems that Traveller's Tales realised this, since the improvements are evident - and indicative of the general gameplay polish. The boulder chase is short but sweet, for one thing, and just the right length for the kids to find the timing without being frustrated by constant restarts. It seems more forgiving as well, giving characters a chance to jump out of a hole should they stumble, rather than booting them back to the start for the slightest infraction.
Quizzing my pint-sized team over orange juice and chocolate buttons later, I asked them if they felt the game was better than LEGO Star Wars and they all enthusiastically said that it was. On the subject of difficulty, opinions were split. Some elements - particularly those familiar from the previous games - were judged too easy. Other parts were deemed harder, though there were no points where frustration tipped over into anger, and the only sulks came when it was time to switch the Xbox off. Achievements are shrewdly paced, taking their titles from classic Indy quotes and serving up a steady stream of points for advancing through the story mode and finding all the items in Free Play.
To my adult eyes, it certainly seems more sophisticated and complex, requiring much more traditional platforming skills than LEGO Star Wars, as well as the ability to solve sequences of interlinked puzzles. This is presumably in keeping with the slightly older profile of the Indy character, but it didn't seem to deter these youngsters. I only had to pitch in with the joypad a few times - mostly involving some hard-to-judge perspective jumps - but mostly I could offer suggestions from the back, and they soon clicked with the game's similar-but-different vibe. Unlike them, I did notice some of the old screen-tearing that so blighted LEGO Star Wars, but the welcome addition of a v-sync menu option seems to sort it out.
I also feel that while the game itself is as fun as ever, the world of Indiana Jones itself doesn't map quite so neatly onto the LEGO brand. While there was plenty of repetition among the 160 LEGO Star Wars characters, they were at least an eclectic bunch of droids, aliens, heroes and villains. Even the most useless character had a certain collectability about them, which tied nicely into the Star Wars fanbase. By contrast, I find it hard to imagine that people will be too excited about LEGO Indy's line-up, populated as it is by lots of grey-uniformed bad guys (no room for Nazis in LEGOland, clearly) and a supporting cast that doesn't translate all that well to LEGO form. Anyone itching to play as Chatter Lal? Anyone even know who Chatter Lal is? The little Sean Connery is incredibly cool, but for the most part it's a collection of interchangeable blokes with no real appeal beyond chasing that 100 percent completion score. It's perhaps no surprise that the game makes frequent references to the galaxy far, far away, with a couple of cut-scene jokes as well as five hidden Star Wars characters to find throughout the game.
They're restricted by the tone of the films, of course, but this carries over to the levels themselves. The actual design of the levels is fine - and sometimes ingenious - but visually speaking it can all start to look a little samey. Inevitably, there's a lot of running around in jungles and deserts, catacombs and temples while the lack of vehicle levels, a gameplay element greatly improved in The Complete Saga, is noticeable. And, since I've started down this road, it's hard to muster up the same enthusiasm for collecting pieces of generic statues and artefacts rather than miniature X-Wings and AT-ATs. This isn't a criticism of the game itself, per se, just an observation about the licence itself. I suspect, for this reason, that regardless of gameplay LEGO Batman may prove to be the more varied and colourful game.
Those rather tangential concerns aside, LEGO Indiana Jones is looking like another meticulously crafted slice of family entertainment from Traveller's Tales. The evolution away from specific character types and tasks may have been forced by the nature of the Indiana Jones movies, but it benefits the game as a whole. It now feels, rather appropriately, a lot more like an adventure game and one that should both please and stretch young (and old) fans of LEGO Star Wars. It certainly hit the spot for my hastily assembled audience of small people. Plus, you can change the colour of Indy's nuggets. How cool is that?
LEGO Indiana Jones is out on every platform ever on 6th June.