A familiar formula is invigorated by an inspired use of the Marvel licence, leading to a gleefully generous game.
Here's your litmus test: Ego the Living Planet is bobbing around in the corner of the start screen for the latest Lego game. Ego is a deeply obscure 1960s Marvel character, a giant sentient planet with a moustache. And he's in this game, if only fleetingly. That's the level of silly Silver Age nerd bait on offer here. If this news makes you grin like an idiot, then this game is for you.
If you've not warmed to any of the previous Lego games, however, this most definitely isn't the game for you. Unsurprisingly, it follows the same template of scenery smashing, stud hoarding, character swapping and gentle puzzling that has typified the series since it first appeared back in 2005. That's not to say the franchise has stood still - play the original Lego Star Wars back-to-back with Lego Marvel if you want to see just how fast the formula has evolved - but it's definitely not about to shake things up with any radical departures from what young fans expect.
And that's a good thing. Some game formats lend themselves to iterative repetition, others wear themselves thin. Much like Mario, the Lego series has found strength in familiarity, advancing the core mechanics slowly but surely while using context and character, along with levels designed to delight, to win players over. Certainly, there are generations of youngsters for whom the tell-tale tinkle of a blue Lego stud or the swoosh-thunk of a minikit will be as iconic as the jingling coins and "wahoo" yelps of Nintendo's mascot.
Marvel, it turns out, is a perfect match not only for the Lego games' fondness for huge rosters of playable characters, but also their silly and surreal aesthetic, very much shared by Marvel's own colourful universe. The storyline finds the various Marvel heroes working together to take down a coalition of supervillains working for Loki and Doctor Doom. The villains are stealing cosmic bricks, made from remnants of Silver Surfer's board, to build some kind of super-weapon.
Though it's not an official game of the Marvel movies, it takes many of its cues from them - Clark Gregg voices Agent Coulson of SHIELD, and the events of the Avengers film are obliquely referenced. The impersonated voices also defer to the big screen, with passable versions of Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Tom Hiddleston's Loki. Even the non-Marvel produced movies get a nod. Professor X and Magneto sound like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, even if their costumes are saying 1960s comic book.
Crossovers are in Marvel's blood, of course, and one of the game's biggest pleasures is how often it mixes up its cast, offering new team-ups. Some levels focus on a particular team - the Fantastic Four and X-Men each get their own stage - but you're just as likely to find Captain America, Iron Man and Wolverine accompanying Thor on a trip to Asgard. Where Lego Batman 2 made fans wait until the very last levels to throw the Justice League into action together, Lego Marvel can't wait to add new faces into the mix.
And that's just the core cast. There are well over 100 playable characters here, mining deep into Marvel's eclectic and often bizarre history. M.O.D.O.K is playable, as is H.E.R.B.I.E, the daft robot introduced in an early Fantastic Four cartoon. Captain Britain is in here, as is Moon Knight and even Howard the Duck. Stan Lee, inevitably, is all over the game, appearing in every level in some ridiculous predicament, offering gold bricks and quips when rescued. The honorific bestowed for meeting the stud total in each level - True Jedi in Lego Star Wars, True Hero in Lego Batman - is, of course, renamed here as True Believer, and is accompanied by a cry of "Excelsior!" from Stan the Man.
It's an absolute joy of a game for Marvel fans, in other words, and there's a gleeful generosity to the way the comics, cartoons and movies have been mashed up to provide the widest possible array of obscure and cool characters. They've been well used too, with the expected abilities applied to obvious characters - Spider-Man can use his webs much as Indiana Jones used his whip to climb or pull down objects - but there are also new variations on old themes. Iceman can create bridges and form water into useful structures. Thor and Storm can summon lightning and then use it to charge devices. Functionally, it's all simple stuff - you stand near something and hold down a button - but in the context of large, intricate levels, populated by iconic superheroes, the interplay of powers and abilities, each opening pathways for someone else to use, is as beguiling as ever.
With an entire city to explore, the obvious predecessor is Lego Batman 2, but Marvel's New York is a much more vibrant and populated place, even in Lego form. Indeed, the game often feels more like the Wii U exclusive Lego City Undercover, with its densely featured map littered with checkpoint races, puzzles, side quests and errands. Yet the game never falls into the trap that ensnares many adult open-world titles, which can make attaining 100% completion feel like eating an old duvet. Every task here is short but sweet and there's always some fun pay-off - so while there's not much to the tasks mechanically, it never feels like mindless busywork.
Where the game excels is in its longevity. All the Lego games have been designed to be replayed, with each story level offering bonus content when repeated in Free Play with unlocked characters, but Lego Marvel takes that ethos to new heights. There are ambient events dotted around the city, such as fights against Sentinel robots and Red Hulk, and also 11 bonus levels. These take place inside iconic New York and Marvel locations and introduce yet more characters to the game in their own bite-sized scenarios. You'll join Daredevil, fighting Elektra and Bullseye in the Kingpin's lair. You'll venture into Doctor Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum, tidy up the Daily Bugle newsroom and even do battle in Marvel's own offices.
It's just a shame the game engine is really starting to creak at the seams. There are impressive moments here - not least when the game throws dozens of smaller Lego bricks around, passing for Sandman's silicate body, cascades of water or debris hurled around by Magneto's power - but too often the world stutters and snags. Characters are easily lodged in awkward places and navigating the likes of Hulk and The Thing through some stages is a fumble. Camera issues abound in close quarters, and elements such as vehicle control are twitchy. Flight is both invigorating and frustrating, requiring a light touch that will test children as much as it thrills them.
The game can also be a little confusing, with some odd player directions. Characters like Invisible Woman can create a forcefield to deflect projectiles, but the on-screen hints only refer to Captain America for such tasks - even when he's not playable in that level. Ditto for the hooks that Spidey can pull down with his webs. Mr Fantastic, Hawkeye and Doctor Octopus can also make use of these, yet the captions insist on saying you need a "web-slinger" to activate them. Adults who are well versed in how the previous Lego games worked will figure it out easily enough, but it can leave newcomers in an unnecessary muddle.
It's a testament to the finely balanced, laissez faire design behind the series that these rough edges don't impinge on the fantasy. Most are easily fixed with a quick character swap, or at worst a checkpoint restart, and since the game never punishes the player too harshly, the damage to your progress is barely noticeable. That such bugs exist at all is disappointing, and the series definitely needs a tune-up if it's going to endure into the next hardware generation, but there's nothing here that will render the experience unplayable for kids.
The true test of any Lego game is how well it captivates that audience, and as predictable as it may seem, this jaunt into Marvel's rich universe is another triumph in that area. Just as my son is outgrowing the series, my seven-year-old daughter has become obsessed with it, and this is the game that lured her in. She loves that she can be Spider Woman and She Hulk - the game having the largest cast of worthy female characters in Lego history - and she doesn't give a hoot that sometimes people get stuck on corners.
Like its predecessors, Lego Marvel has surface flaws - but it's so generous with its content, so clearly head-over-heels in love with the characters and world it's inherited from the comic page and cinema screen, and so reliably, reassuringly designed from the ground up to both enchant and inspire young minds, that it's impossible to allow the slight technical scruffiness to sour the experience.
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