There's a surprise hit every year, and 2005's was definitely Traveller's Tales' Lego Star Wars. It was a game so full of cute touches and heart-warmingly playability that it charmed the pants off anyone who came across it - even those hardcore Star Wars nuts still nursing their wounds about the relative merits (or lack of) of the second trilogy. But let's not rip the scab off that particular wound. Let's talk about happier things.
Humour was Traveller's Tales secret weapon in the two Lego Star Wars games; those silent cut-scenes fleshed out with a raised eyebrow, a grunt or moment of slapstick that made you want to see what happened next, and moreish, kleptomaniacal gameplay that somehow kept you coming back for more, despite its inherent bash n' collect simplicity and an awful lot of 'now-build-this' repetition.
Having seen Lego Star Wars brought back into the LucasArts fold, Eidos has managed to snatch back some of the glory by getting Traveller's Tales to effectively apply the exact same formula to Lego Bionicles - albeit lacking the effortlessly familiar premise of the Star Wars movies, and with characters that many people will have trouble identifying.
To a large degree it works just as well, but inevitably some of your enthusiasm will be tempered by the law of diminishing returns. This is, after all, a game designed to an almost identical template, and being the third such game in little over 16 months, you'd expect a few new ideas somewhere. For newcomers, this won't be an issue at all, but for people like us who've played through the others, you can forgive us for being a little cynical at what TT has pulled off here.
If, like us, you're new to this Lego Bionicle lark, then spare us a moment for the obligatory explanation as to who you are and what you're supposed to do. Essentially, you play as the 'heroic' TDA Inika, on a mission to defeat a whole host of beastly Piraka who are have stolen the mask of life and are using it to take control of all the creatures on the once-peaceful island of Voya Nui. Yeah, yeah. Usual stuff. Basic premise: enter the six zones in turn, play three Lego Star Wars-style shooter-based levels in each, defeat the boss on the fourth level, claim their mask, job done.
As with LSW, the game throws an awful lot of enemies at you for you to dispatch and then eventually requires you to suss out how to unlock a door at the end of each mini 'section'. Like its spiritual forebear, you have access to various different characters at one time, each one with specialities that allow you access to specific areas and carry out mission critical actions. Unlike LSW you don't have them following you around, but simply cycle between them as required.
In the roster of six characters that you'll use in the game, Jaller can walk across lava flows, Hahli can cross water, Kongu can jump large distances, Nuparu can climb rock faces, Matoro can snipe, while Hewkii is arguably the most essential of the lot, being the construction specialist who has the ability to rebuild all those piles of Lego bricks and make door mechanisms work and the like. You won't really care who they are, more what they do - it feels more like you're cycling through an arsenal of weaponry at times.
But in what is largely a pretty relentless shooter (no melee combat here, sir), it's the weapons that each carries that has the biggest influence on which character you'll choose as you battle around all the various levels. For example, Nuparu might be the strongest of them all in terms of armour, but his ability to lob balls of pure energy is both slow and inaccurate. Far better to strafe around levels using Jaller or Hahli's rapid-fire weapon.
Key to the process of upgrading all these weapons is slavishly hoovering up the millions of Lego pieces that emerge from shattered fragments of downed enemies, as well as those hidden in destructible scenery items and hidden caches that certain characters can access. At the end of each level, you have the opportunity to visit the game's shop and spend your booty on improving not only your weapon's firepower, but other characteristics, such as armour, and their special abilities. Just like Lego Star Wars, it's increasingly important to take the time to pick up as many Lego pieces as possible, and half your time will be spent checking every avenue to make sure you've extracted the maximum Lego currency possible. But - as is always the case with these games - many parts of the map are initially off-limits to you until you've upgraded sufficiently or unlocked that particular level's boss as a playable character. It's all about replayability, but whether you can be bothered with trawling through levels all over again is moot - especially as the game, bafflingly, neglects to include the drop-in-drop-out co-op mode that made the two Lego Star Wars games such fun with a pal. What an odd decision, especially as it's been designed specifically for kids.
Despite the general lack of character in the game's rather samey-looking Bionicle cast of heroes and enemies, Traveller's Tales still manages to eke some humorous elements out of the proceedings - particularly once you've vanquished your foe at the end of each boss section. Watching them getting their robotic bodies stoved in by giant rocks, or sinking haplessly into big pits of lava always raises a smile - though these days you rather expect it from TT.
On balance, the game's perfectly pitched for kids in terms of offering a one-size-fits-all challenge that will be suitable for even the very youngest gamers. It's uncomplicated yet still pleasantly compelling to plough through, and enough of a challenge not to be a total walkover for those of us with a few decades of screen-staring behind us. The combat and control system works just fine, utilising the well-worn two-stick third-person system with a decent lock-on to ensure that everyone will have no problem picking it up and playing it. That was the idea, of course.
If there's a 'problem' with it, it's that the supposedly climactic boss sections are hugely unimaginative and ludicrously easy at times. The first part of these two-step sagas are little more than a war of attrition, waiting for your Hero meter to fill up before some pre-scripted sequence plays out and the process repeats three times. And then when that's out of the way, the final section requires little more than to lock-on and blast the head of a Paraka denizen a dozen times until they politely fall over.
Second gear of war
But our complaints aren't strictly related to uninspired boss encounters, but the fact that there's this sense that the game struggles to get out of second gear, with its promising structure marred by its hugely repetitious design. LSW games at least managed to throw a few lightweight puzzles in there and other interludes that freshened up the main quest. Bionicle Heroes ploughs the same furrow for the entire game and then makes it pretty much impossible to fail anyway. Once you've managed to power up all your various abilities about halfway through the game, there's little incentive to see it through - apart from the change of scenery, there literally nothing new to see or do that you haven't already been through a dozen times before, with enemies that you've faced off against thousands of times. By the end, you're just playing it to get the achievement points - which are pretty generous, by the way. The unlockables are, to put it generously, pointless. Three extremely easy (and short) bonus challenge levels and a park that the defeated Piraka wander around in. Please.
Needless to say, this wasn't a game designed to showcase the 360, and hence it's a pretty unremarkable spectacle. The fact that it's here, though, makes it the obvious choice to review - if only to see the game in, technically, its best light. The trouble is, the graphical limitations of the engine and TT's quickfire development cycle have ensured that practically every cliché in the game design manual has been ticked in an attempt to generate some variety among the otherwise samey levels. Lava? Check. Ice? Tick. Forest? Ding ding. And so on. The scenery and general design is perfectly fine, and the character approximations are faithful to the subject matter, yadda yadda, but we stopped being impressed by games that looked like this in the Dreamcast era, truth be told. The fact that TT has swamped the game in motion blur is only redeemed by the fact that you can switch it off, and the game actually looks much better once you do. Having said all that, the game's perfectly polished in terms of animation, character design, effects and so on - it's not offensive in any way, it's just so very ordinary at times. Clearly the subject matter places a fair bit of restriction over how it looks, but that doesn't necessarily excuse the fairly anonymous environments.
If you were a massive fan of the Lego Star Wars games then by all means check out Bionicle Heroes - to a very large degree it looks like the same game, and as such you'll get the same kind of grinding enjoyment out of mining all the levels for booty. But with some key differences between the two and a general lack of the variety and charm that LSW had in spades, this feels like a step back. It'd make a safe Christmas present for a young kid, but they'd thank you more if you bought Lego Star Wars 2.