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.