Brimming with confidence and overflowing with unlockables, the latest Lego Marvel game is a content-rich, breezily enjoyable placeholder.
There's a real art to crafting a good superhero story. Ideally, you want the stakes to be sky-high, building to a shattering climax that screams Nothing! Will! Ever! Be! The! Same! Again! And yet, the most popular comics characters have been around for decades, which makes it tricky to mess with them. Whatever you try and do to Steve Rogers - and in the past decade alone, Captain America has been assassinated, resurrected, de-super-soldiered and even replaced by his best friend - eventually it will all be undone. When you're dealing with iconic IP, and your business model is predicated on another issue coming out next month, things can never really change.
Does that sound familiar? Traveller's Tales' Lego series is the most storied franchise of them all, rummaging around and playing dress-up in loads of different toyboxes. But whatever the cosmetic livery, be it Horcrux or Jurassic-related, the gameplay remains distinctive, that signature mix of unhurried exploration and light puzzle-solving, interspersed by knockabout combat and endless stud hoovering. Even 2015's Lego Dimensions, the most ambitious Lego game for a decade, merely added some toys-to-life functionality to the core experience rather than risking rebuilding it from the ground up.
Stasis isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it's cemented the Lego marque as one of the most reliable in gaming, for both the target audience and their harried parents. And in all honesty, there's already so much going on in Lego Marvel's Avengers, a game that attempts to roll up six different blockbuster movies into one semi-coherent package, that it probably wouldn't have been the ideal time to try and implement radical changes to the formula. Instead, it's another incremental improvement, bursting with confidence and adding some impressive cinematic polish while never quite eliminating the franchise's occasional moments of wonkiness.
The first Lego Marvel Super Heroes, released in 2013, was a love letter to the original comics' source material, staged like the mother of all nutty comic book crossovers. It facilitated team-ups between headline heroes Spider-Man, the Avengers and various X-Men while also diving deep into Marvel lore to spotlight cult villains like MODOK. You could even play as Peter Parker's constantly apoplectic boss J Jonah Jameson. There were nods to the movies, of course, but it was essentially a celebration of the interconnectedness of the old-school, four-colour Marvel universe created by Stan Lee and his many creative collaborators in the 1960s.
Lego Marvel's Avengers takes a slightly different approach. The action is viewed through the prism of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, specifically Phase II, to use the rather SHIELD-esque terminology favoured by those in charge of the juggernaut. (At no point, sadly, are you put in charge of unstoppable X-Men foe the Juggernaut.) The spine of the game chops up key scenes from Avengers and its Age Of Ultron sequel and restages them in blockbusting style, complete with flashbacks to the first Captain America movie. Subsequent Phase 2 projects Iron Man 3, Cap sequel The Winter Soldier and Thor: The Dark World are hived off as their own discrete adventures, each with their own hub location.
Reflecting the priorities of the MCU means the TV shows get a look-in too, with Agent Carter in her striking red hat stashing a holdout piece in her clutch purse, as well as colourful, kid-friendly versions of Netflix's street-level badasses Daredevil, Jessica Jones (in her superhero identity Jewel), Luke Cage and Iron Fist. The X-Men are nowhere to be seen, though, and neither are the Fantastic Four or anyone associated with Spider-Man - casualties of how Marvel's countless heroes and villains were carelessly divvied up in rival film studio deals decades ago.
Extensively repurposing dialogue from the Marvel movies adds atmosphere, even if the sound quality varies wildly, and the story mode expands on action beats familiar from the big screen, from the multi-stage Helicarrier attack from Avengers to Age Of Ultron's high-speed smackdown on a Korean highway. Fluid combat animations turn minifigs into plausible threats, and there's a new mechanic that allows any two characters to team up for a destructive special attack. The core Avengers pairings get bespoke moves - such as Hulk fizzing up Iron Man like a Coke can before spraying laser fire everywhere - although any two of the 100+ available characters can interact to do something impressive.
Padded by Resogun-lite sections and bursts of on-rail shooting, it's a meaty campaign, and one worth investing a bit of time into before tackling the free play mode. Unlocking Age Of Ultron's Scarlet Witch and Vision is necessary to access certain areas elsewhere, and the cocky Quicksilver is also a useful addition to your squad. He doesn't just scoot around fast - he's enviably quick when it comes to building the required knick-knacks and geegaws from piles of restless Lego bricks. Getting midway through the Age Of Ultron story will also unlock Tony Stark's oversized Hulkbuster armour, a formidable, if surprisingly spindly killbot. In free play, Tony can now access his various Iron Men from the in-helmet cam made famous by the movies. Requesting a new armour triggers some of the most charming animated skits, notably Stan Lee himself appearing to strap Tony up in his clunky, non-flight-enabled Mk1 suit.
The main open-world hub, New York City, was never going to rival Grand Theft Auto 4. But it's still an impressive sandbox to mess around in, crammed with bite-size puzzles to claim gold bricks, mini-quests to unlock more of the sprawling character roster and perhaps a few more checkpoint races than anyone would reasonably desire. The blocky Big Apple is where most of the action is, from random crimes triggering SHIELD alarms to alien dragon Fin Fang Foom struggling to realise his dreams of creating a frozen yoghurt empire. But while well-assembled, it doesn't really feel like anything particularly new. Head to one of the smaller, more far-flung hub locations - like the rolling fields of Hawkeye's Little House on the Prairie love-nest or the South African shipyard littered with rusty junkers - and, as well as fewer demands on your attention, there are unexpected moments of startling beauty.
This widescreen version of the Marvel universe is a diverting place to hang out, and is pleasingly easy to navigate. Perhaps every game should have an instant "go to space" option - from orbit, you scoot round the globe in your Quinjet to select your next destination. The only frustrations in free play mode come from the Lego franchise's long-standing reliance on locking goals behind barriers that can only be neutralised by a certain subset of characters. With such a populous cast list, it's not always entirely obvious who can do what. Sure, Squirrel Girl is the obvious choice to dig up secret tunnels, indicated by a hovering miasma of neon pawprints. But when you find your path blocked by obsidian barriers that require cosmic energy to pass, shouldn't Ronan the Accuser or Vision be able to shift it, both being either current or former holders of Infinity Stones?
If debating the ownership of Infinity Stones sounds like the sort of argument you can imagine having with yourself (or a friend, or your own child), Marvel's Lego Avengers comes warmly recommended: it's a slick two-player experience that repays the time you invest in it with that overflowing selection of unlockable characters. For neutrals or Marvel agnostics - the sort of people who have never heard of Devil Dinosaur and can't understand why you're jumping up and down at the prospect of unlocking him and his primeval BFF Moon-Boy - it might be just a little harder to see what the fuss is about. There are hints that Marvel might do something drastic at the end of their next blockbuster Captain America: Civil War in an effort to shake things up. Perhaps Traveller's Tales might be inspired to do the same.