If you’ve never played even a bit of one of TT’s Lego [insert brand here] games over the last generation and a bit, then you are missing out. Full of characters and references from the respective series, and probably one of the few remaining series that really put the emphasis purely on fun, the Lego titles have throughout the generation taken on franchises from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to Indiana Jones.
With two DC-centric Lego Batman games under their belt, this year sees TT turn to that other comic universe, home of Spiderman, Thor, Magneto and Nick Fury: Marvel.
Lego Marvel is the latest entry in the series (and the first to ship on PS4 and Xbox One), and as you might expect, is based on the universe of the massively popular comic publisher. More specifically, it is based in no small part on what is known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the divergent interpretation of the shared big- and small-screen Marvel world introduced with 2008’s Iron Man film. As a result, Lego Marvel is pretty Avengers-centric, with plenty of references to the events of last summer’s blockbuster, even if it doesn’t strictly adhere to the established canon of that film.
For example, the first level (which starts with a Clark Gregg-voiced Agent Coulson welcoming Iron Man and Hulk back to New York) has players smashing their way across the same approach to Grand Central as in the film, with the level culminating in a boss fight next to Stark Tower (cue Iron Man, as the building’s signage is flung down at him: “Hey! I just replaced that!”).
There are plenty of other references scattered about – the Tesseract turns up more than once, and you’ll be pretty tired of hearing about schwarma by the end – but if you’re truly anal about canonicity, it’s best to take Lego Marvel as a separate entity given the numerous adjustments to established events.
That’s not to say that Lego Marvel is simply ‘Lego Avengers and Friends’ (and there’s certainly more variation than the Batman-focused Lego DC games), as Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men all turn up with their respective associates and nemeses, and the game is sure to give both groups solid levels together as well as mixing them up with the rest of the cast.
As ever with the Lego games, the fan service is among the best aspects – every character on the grid has individual animations and voices, making references to their previous appearances when you play as them, and plenty of the more obscure Marvel characters make appearances too.
Stan Lee makes plentiful cameos (more on those later), and the references make sure to branch outside the Marvel universe too – The Incredibles, Lord of the Rings, and even Snakes on a Plane get mentioned at various points.
The game’s story itself is pretty entertaining and does a good job of taking advantage of the various locations in the larger Marvel universe despite the New York hub setting, and the villains are as cheesy as you might expect (take Dr Doom’s Doom Ray of Doom, for example) – for sure, this is the Marvel universe at its brightest, with plenty of quips and jokes along the way, and the voice acting adds to that rather than unnecessarily grounding it.
In terms of mechanics, there’s much of the platforming and light brawling that you’d expect from a Lego game. If you’ve never touched one, the levels that form the basis of the game’s main story play out largely by destroying things and rebuilding useful objects from them, with specific abilities assigned to each character. For example, shield slots can only be activated by a throw of Captain America’s shield, while hacking points require smart characters like Tony Stark or Mr Fantastic, and claw switches will need Wolverine or Beast. New in Lego Marvel are ‘bigfigs’ like Hulk and Abomination that lose the ability to build or interact with objects in favour of more health and more damage.
Most characters have multiple abilities (Tony has rockets that can destroy silver Lego objects, and a laser that melts gold Lego), and while on your first playthrough you’ll be given a select group of characters, the replayability of the game comes from heading back into levels in Free Play mode, where you can pick the right characters to open up secret areas and find collectibles.
Outside of the main levels is the open-world hub, which in Lego Marvel is based on a comicified version of New York (complete with staples like the Oscorp and Stark towers), which serves as your starting point for main and side missions. Obviously we’re not talking life-size here, but both the size of the world and the amount of side content is impressive for what is really just a diversion from the main story’s linear levels.
Floating high above the city is the Helicarrier, where you can find the level (and free-play) select menu as well as additional gold brick-granting side quests, and even Deadpool’s room, which is where you’ll want to head to pick up the game’s cheat-style red bricks (coin multipliers, funny heads, the usual).
While flying characters can obviously just take off from the Helicarrier and head down to the city, others will need to head to one of the marked points on the ship from where they can instigate a sky diving mini-game complete with epic music. Given the obvious restrictions on the game (we’re not talking about a triple-A first-party game here) and the fact that the game is shipping on six platforms, it’s impressive to go from exploring the Helicarrier to skydiving to running around the city with no loading or even any real frame-rate drops.
In fact, Lego Marvel has a number of those surprisingly impressive moments. Avoiding story spoilers, some of the game’s bosses are made up of an impressive amount of individual objects, while you’ll find a lot more debris and destroyable objects in the levels than in previous games. The presentation in general is well-done, with some impressive lighting (especially in levels), and character animations are fluid, particularly during combat. The soundtrack is suitably dramatic too, although as with much in the game, the Avengers influence is clear.
The game’s character selection grid is also the largest so far which means plenty of choices in free-play (not to mention plenty of fan service), as the only character with an exclusive ability is Mr Fantastic (who can turn into useful objects when standing on a Fantastic Four-logoed hotspot, or, erm, a teapot otherwise). On a more personal note, I also found the lighter tone made the game a lot more enjoyable than, say, the more grounded and darker Batman and Lord of the Rings game in the series.
That’s not to say that all is well, the lack of polish throughout the game is noticeable. There are a fair few examples of the game’s cutscenes and voicework not matching up with the actual on-screen action – the game’s first boss booms down at “you two” when there are actually three heroes in the level, and during one mid-level cutscene Thor mentions that he can’t call down a storm due to the location, despite having been able to during the level both before and after that.
Likewise, the game’s insistence on prompts and tutorials for specific abilities is understandable given the younger target audience, but they end up being more confusing than anything else – one says that only bigfigs can smash a particular sort of wall, despite the fact Thor can use his hammer to do the same, and another says “only web-slinging characters” can attach to particular hooks, even though you’ll be using Mr Fantastic’s arms and Hawkeye’s arrows to use them just as much.
There’s also a surprising amount of repetition to level starts – three times in a row missions begin with a character’s base under attack, and later another few in a row start with planes being shot down or crash-landing (and why on earth do S.H.I.E.L.D.’s planes take off from the middle of random junctions rather than, I don’t know, maybe their aircraft carrier?).
Elsewhere the free-play/level select menu looks like a two-minute Microsoft Paint job, and there are numerous annoying bugs ranging from blue coins that can’t be picked up no matter how many times you run over them to hard console crashes when trying to start a level in free-play, and oddities like graphical corruption on cutscenes and characters sometimes just switching to T-poses rather than to their swimming animations when you jump into water.
In addition, issues that have long plagued the series return with gusto. Controls are more irritating than ever, and the number of abilities assigned to only a few buttons can cause genuine issues.
Both melee attacks and ranged attacks are on square, which means you’re often firing way off-screen rather than punching the enemy right in front of you. Spiderman’s spidey-sense and build actions are both assigned to the circle button, which more often than not means you’ll just avoid him for anything but detecting secret paths. The same flashing triangle prompt appears for button-mashing QTEs and to point out a character which can now be switched to in a new area, leading to rapid cycling through your characters when you actually just needed to press once.
Thor and Storm both need to call down lightening to charge up (using circle) then channel that energy into switches (using circle or square, whichever seems to work at the time). And in my personal favourite example, I died a dozen times trying to defend myself from two laser turrets (using Captain America’s shield, on circle) because the game thought I was trying to pull a Hulk-specific handle (also circle) so Cap just shrugged and died.
The list really does go on – while I understand the desire to keep main game functions to the face buttons for accessibility, the sheer number of abilities in the recent games just leads to frustration more than convenience, and it’s clear that future titles really are going to need a re-think this.
Aside from controls, other issues return from previous games, including characters that get stuck on or clip through environmental objects, and non-active characters often failing to help in fights or not following the rest of the group because they’ve got themselves stuck somewhere the AI can’t calculate a route back from. Camera woes return too, sometimes being too low to see whether a particular switch needs a clawed character or a smart one, or meaning bigfig characters in your party block your view of the level, other times meaning you have to mash circle while hidden behind a wall or object in the hope you’ll activate the control panel you can’t see properly.
New issues arise too, with playable areas behind glass walls or tubes being very difficult to see properly due to opacity of the glass, character switching being seemingly entirely random in larger parties, and in a particularly rough vertical area, level design that meant running back through minutes of the game if you missed a jump rather than just dying and respawning right where you were, as in previous games.
Disappointingly, given the impressive soundtrack, the audio side of the game is otherwise lacking – character voices are often very similar, with the soundalike style used for Nick Fury and other Cinematic Universe characters not really working out. Stan Lee’s initially endearing cameos begin to grate due to the poor quality of the recordings, and overall audio mixing often leaves tutorials way too loud and important dialogue buried under environmental sound effects.
Scoring a game like Lego Marvel is difficult. To say that the annoyances and bugs are negligible would be inaccurate, and certainly the game lacks a level of detail and polish that you might expect from other £40 retail titles. Having said that, the game is a tremendous amount of fun, offers a lot of content (my first run-through of the story mode was around eleven hours, and if you’re wanting to collect everything you’ll need a second go through on free-play, not to mention all the side content in the New York hub), and – especially if you’re playing through in co-op – you may not even notice the issues amongst the explosions, coins and chaos. In fact, if simple joy isn’t your primary reason for playing games, I’d even knock a point or two off the score.
The other side of the problem is the same as with all the licensed Lego games: if you’re not a fan of Marvel, you’re probably not going to get as much out of the game as others. If you don’t know the characters, you might struggle to identify which are able to shoot fire/use telekinesis/freeze water etc. without reference, and you certainly won’t get the kick of seeing the references to the larger universe that litter the game. There’s still a perfectly competent and enjoyable game underneath, but unsurprisingly it is Marvel fans that will get the most out of the overall package.
Lego Marvel isn’t the most polished game you’ve ever seen, but it doesn’t pretend to be. Instead what you get is a fun action-platformer for young and old that is filled to the brim with Marvel fan service, offers tons of content and entertainment, and is a great latest instalment in what continues to be one of the most enjoyable couch co-op series out there.
PS3 version played.
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