Lego Of Tradition: On Traveller’s Tales

By John Walker on May 20th, 2011 at 5:58 pm.

They have a really weird thing about bananas.

It’s a mistake, in light of Lego Pirates Of The Caribbean, to accuse Traveller’s Tales of diminishing returns with their Lego series. I keep seeing that happening. It’s wrong. If anything the problem is the stability of their consistency. I’ve had a think about why.

These games are coming thick and fast, this year already offering us Star Wars III and Pirates, with the promise of more Harry Potter toward Christmas. I wonder if the more negative tone against this latest release is fatigue with the franchise, rather than the fault of the game.

Released in March, Lego Star Wars III was an absolutely joyful game – the finest implementation of the concept they’ve been making and making since the original, Lego Star Wars. Over many, many games. I think their peak is still last year’s Lego Harry Potter, and certainly their trough was the first Lego Indy. But each glows or fades not based on the barrage of new ideas they’ve thrown in, but simply the application of the same core ideas that have been there since the start.

Harry Potter especially shines because of the quite stunning use of Hogwarts as an ever-expanding hub. Rather than a series of levels, here you’re mostly in one place, but a place that grows larger and more interesting the more you play. LSWIII has the traditional division into separate levels, but each is a cheerful set of challenges, and an absolutely astonishing hub that feels like a game on its own.

Lego Indy felt like the simplest version, with repetitive, less inspired levels, spoilt by incessant, irrelevant combat. If they’d only limited the endless waves of enemies, however, it’d have been top fun. It was close.

Each game has such love and humour put into it, such detail that it boggles the mind how they make one every two years, let alone three a year (at the current rate). The animation is exquisite, and the cartoon action often genuinely brilliant.

But can they be accused of innovation? They came up with a stunning idea, and they’re repeating it extremely well. So while Lego Pirates lacks either Potter’s location, and LSWIII’s hub, it’s still an excellent production. The gags are so frequent, the mad joy of smashing everything as ever perfectly delivered, and this time there’s far more emphasis on applying individual character’s skills to solve puzzles. Perhaps not quite as interestingly as Lego Batman, with the different suits for the cast, but certainly in context with the films.

And this is what it becomes about. There’s so many games in this series now, and each is of such an enormous scale and depth, that you find yourself plotting it on a graph, rather than thinking, “What will they think of next?!”

Which leaves me wrestling with the question: Do they need to? A great sitcom in its eighth season doesn’t need to change half the cast and become a crime procedural drama. Few people told Picasso, “Can’t you just put their eyes in the right place?”

But then, it’s also not quite Picasso. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the Lego franchise is that as great as their games tend to be, they’re not getting especially greater.

The engine has recently hugely improved, with far more detail, a more interesting mix of Lego and real-world elements, and even physics as you charge through your detritus, and sometimes for when you solve puzzles. But the mistakes haven’t.

Every single Traveller’s Tales Lego game justifies the same criticism. Firstly, their refusal to let you swing the camera around at crucial moments means that every single one of them has tiresome sequences in which you can’t aim your jumps properly. There’s no reason on the planet why the camera can’t even swing itself around at these points, to let you look forward at your pathway, rather than trying to guess what’s where from a side-on view. That’s irritating to me, but when your game is aimed at broader audiences, families, younger players, and those not familiar with gaming, it must be utterly maddening.

All the games have glitches where characters get stuck on scenery, and it’s never noticeably changed. Pirates is proving far worse in this regard. And while the games will occasionally frustrate by overly guiding your through sequences, should you ever become stuck it will abandon you, unable to detect your lack of progress.

And what I wouldn’t give for a way to switch off the endlessly flashing message top right that informs you a second player can join in. It was bad enough in the arcades, it’s just silly on a home PC game.

Which brings us to TT’s biggest failing, and one that is getting ridiculous. The PC ports of their games are pretty offensively lazy. While they play very nicely when using a 360 pad – and some will defend the mouse/keyboard controls – it’s obvious the effort to make them fit on the machine is a little contemptuous. Of course there’s a “PRESS START” opening screen, followed by menus that have no mouse controls, and screen options that are a completely joke.

None has ever offered to run in a window, and anti-aliasing options will not do your graphics card justice. It’s very clear that PC is not a priority, as you pick a save slot and agree to let it save to it, and frantically Esc your way through menus.

Sadly this seems to have reached its worst point in Lego Pirates (if you can even find it for sale for PC), which has load times to make a Commodore 64 jealous. Ludicrous ones, in the middle of levels, where there’s time to go and make coffee. But I’ll go into more detail about that in my forthcoming review (should I live long enough to get through all the loads.)

The longer they keep repeating these same mistakes, the more egregious they begin to feel. They’re not necessarily worse, but their longevity begins to grate.

And I fear the same happens to the games’ consistent high points too. They’re generally the same high points. So I think it’s extremely important not to conflate the two aspects.

Those high points are so damned high. The jokes, the cutscenes, the set-ups, the puzzles, the visual gags as you’re playing (nothing has topped Jack Sparrow’s swagger), and the sheer unbridled joy of smashing everything in a fluid frenzy of crazed destruction, are wonderful things. That they keep doing the same wonderful things over and over isn’t by definition a failing. They’re getting better and better at what they do. It’s just, maybe they should now be aiming for more? Maybe they should be trying to do something else too?

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48 Comments »

  1. wererogue says:

    The camera is very much designed to facilitate the coop play – if they had it swing about too much, you’d be losing characters off the edge all the time.

    That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be a solution. Picture-in-picture or a nice splitscreen would be just the ticket.

  2. westyfield says:

    In before ‘Legos’.

  3. endaround says:

    Thoughts on the new way they handle split screen?

    • Sucram says:

      I’m glad they finally have split screen, but in LSWIII it has a number of problems: Not being able to aim at anything past the split, your character disappearing off the side and daft levels of zoom.

      It does feel like they are making these games at such a rate that they barely get the opportunity to stand back and properly evaluate them.

    • Hallgrim says:

      Yeah it seemed like you have about 2/3rds the viewable screen space if you were separated from the other player. Mildly frustrating when there are objectives high on the screen.

      The thing I found the most frustrating about the latest Lego Star Wars games were the sections where the two players were separated, and had to complete objectives on their own. I played these games with my young son, and the areas where we are split up usually ended with me doing each section, mine first and then his. Anyone know if the pirates game has the same “feature” in co-op play?

  4. Malcolm says:

    Some of the PC port criticisms sound a bit worrying, but WHY IS IT NOT AVAILABLE ON STEAM YET?

    I love Lego games me.

    • mechabuddha says:

      Probably because it’s Disney. All of the others were Lucasarts and Warner Bros.

    • Buzko says:

      You guys know there’s a demo, right?

      Looks like a quite decent port. You can customise the keys, bump the resolution way up, turn on AA, vsync, etc. No online co-op, but otherwise I couldn’t see anything worrying.

  5. whydidyoumakemeregister says:

    I really want to play these games just out of love for Lego, but it’s a shame the company pretty much only exists to service movie franchises now.

    • DrazharLn says:

      RPS made you register because of crazy spam problems, also, it seems to me that Traveller’s Tales always made movie games.

    • Xocrates says:

      I suspect he’s talking about LEGO. And while I recognize that they do a LOT of movie licenses, these seem to be in addition to what they did before, not instead.

      Looking at their website, they keep their own City, Medieval, Underwater, Adventure, and Space they have had since I was a kid as well as the more recent ones like Bionicle and Ninja, all of which are reinvented frequently, as well as other themes they keep adding and removing.

      Heck, my brother spends hundreds of euros in LEGO every year and the only license ones he regularly buys (bought?) are classic Star Wars.

      These themes don’t have as many videogame spin-offs and brand name recognition, but saying that licenses is all they do is a bit disingenuous.

  6. FunkyBadger3 says:

    One of my mates works for TT… so proud!

    Link between the smashing in Lego and the msashing in Minecraft?:

    Someone write that up.

    I’m done here.

  7. elmuerte says:

    I think TellTale Games’ games are ok. But they really could use some more puzzles.

    (gotcha…)

    I liked the initial Traveller’s Tales LEGO games, but now the whole gimmick is lost.

  8. trjp says:

    These games are so clearly aimed at kids and yet so relished by adults…

    TT deserve ENORMOUS credit for the tonne of character they’ve packed into those minifigs – all the games are busting with detail but I think the way they’ve made a minifig behave exactly like Captain Jack is their best moment yet!!

    Seriously tho – they’re games aimed at kids – stop complaining and just enjoy em :)

    p.s. I’m still thinking that Lego Batman is the best of the bunch with the Indy games just not working for me so far…

    • Urthman says:

      What is this, the school lunch theory of game development? (“Feed them crap, they’re too young to know the difference!”)

      I don’t want my kids wasting their time getting killed by poor camera placement any more than I want my time wasted that way.

    • trjp says:

      The objective with these games is fairly gently puzzle solving and a bit of low-risk combat – the camera doesn’t really matter so much, they’re not twitch shooters…

      The fact they’ve steadily improved the formula is notable anyway – they could easily have ‘done a Pokemon’ and just released the same game with slightly changed sprites :)

    • aerozol says:

      I fully agree, the animation/ personification of the figures is perfect, and Travelers Tales does a good job.
      But… There’s such a thing as too much. Just one amazing game a year would be so much better than three good games. That’s what RPS is saying in a very reserved way I think.

  9. Creeping Death says:

    Seriously, how long is it going to take for them to work out the rights for a Lego Lord of the Rings game?

    I want a little lego hobbit already!

  10. Zogtee says:

    Screw Potter. I want Lego Aliens and Lego Terminator. Then we’ll talk.

  11. RagingLion says:

    Jack Sparrow’s swagger is quite something to behold in this game. I’ve seen a section of the game being played and they’ve absolutely nailed it.

  12. lokimotive says:

    Lego Star Wars III was a huge disappointment for me. Most of my ire was directed at the absolutely obnoxious battles that formed such a huge part of the third part of the game as well as a large part of the extra content. Controlling your troops was frustrating in the extreme because of how restrictive the camera was. Also, the time limits for the bonus battles was unexpectedly harsh. I didn’t even bother tackling most of them until I had invincibility, and at least a couple score multipliers. And then it just felt like cheating.

    Often times my favorite Lego game is left out of discussion: Lego Indiana Jones 2. To me, this is where the hub worlds really came into sharp focus. They were huge affairs, offering vastly different playing fields for each movies. Additionally they finally felt tied to the levels that they introduced, rather than just a place to wander around it. Also, rather than just rehashing the first three movies, the second game offered a very bizarre mirror world twist on them, playing around with plot elements and re-exploring the environments. Finally, the Crystal Skull levels were vastly superior to the movie (this is not too hard to do).

    Harry Potter improved on hub world, and I’m looking forward to second game (or, really to the complete set), but for anyone who dismissed Indiana Jones 2 because it seemed like a cheap cash in and rehash, I urge you to look again.

    • Cradok says:

      I totally agree with you on LSW3. The RTS-type levels were interesting the first couple of times, but they got boring long before I was done with the story mode, and having to do them over and over for the ground missions later was just soul-sapping.

      Having said that, I loathed the hub levels in Indy2. Great idea, but navigating them was so difficult, and finding exactly the right person for a level sometimes took me half an hour.

  13. Ricc says:

    Finally, Lego midgets.

  14. malkav11 says:

    I can respect complaints about sloppy PC ports. Certainly it’s an issue that usually irritates me. But for me, the Lego -insertnameofmoviefranchisehere- games are so thoroughly, intrinsically local coop games that I pretty much am obligated to get the 360 versions.

  15. bill says:

    While TV shows can repeat the same formula for years*, they don’t usually ask you to shell out 40 quid each time. TV is consumed in a much different and more passive style from games too.

    I think they need to be careful of falling into the Tony Hawk (and guitar hero?) trap of repeating the same thing too often and too much. The Tony Hawk games were awesome – yet now almost everyone has negative opinions of the franchise because people remember the ending rather than the beginning.

    Yet the Tony Hawk franchise is also a warning against crowbarring “innovation” into games for the sake of change. In some ways it never changed – but the developers seemed aware of that and so kept trying to hide it by introducing new gimmicks or “storylines” that tended to just make things worse.

    You may be right that they can continue for a long time – but fatigue will almost inevitably set in after a while. It happens with everything, even Happy Days. (yet strangely not Eastenders or Corry).

    *but most tv shows tend to get worse with age. 24, Buffy, Battlestar, Heroes, Mork & Mindy, etc.. That’s probably ok for tv shows where we’ll still watch a bad version of 24 because it takes little effort and we like the characters. But we might not go out and pay for a new game if it has similarly declined. (I still watch 24, but i stopped buying the dvds around season 4 or 5).

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      but most tv shows tend to get worse with age

      Mm. I’d argue that the good ones tend to both start and finish poorly, peaking around the second or third year. That’s not a universal rule, though; the second half of the last season of Angel (from the “birth” of Illyria to the series finale) is probably my favorite bit of television ever.

      Babylon 5 also had a great run starting in season two and only getting better and better, until they finished up the main story arc, shifted gears completely for the last season and fell apart.

      Buffy fits the rule, peaking in S2-S3, with “Passion” probably the best single episode of anything.

      I’m a big fan of episodic gaming, such as it is. Telltale haven’t quite gone far enough with any one series to make judgments; I’d really like to see what would happen if they had one team doing nothing but Sam & Max or Monkey Island for a few years.

    • bill says:

      True, but they tend to peak quickly, and then often get dragged out for way too long.
      that’s probably true with many games series too – Tony Hawk 1 was groundbreaking, but flawed. It was TF2 and 3 that polished the formula. Then dragged out… The Lego games also peaked after a few games, imho.

      But sometimes, even if they don’t actually decline with age, the appeal declines with repetition and over familiarity.

      PS/ That reminds me that I’ve had Angel series 4 on dvd for about 6 years now, and never watched it. I should get around to it.

  16. Jon says:

    Having never played any of the Lego games, which would be a good place to start?

  17. Tams80 says:

    trjp,
    But the camera is still annoying. You’re suggesting, even if unintentionally, that something that could be fixed shouldn’t, which if you haven’t already sensed I completely disagree with. All TT need to really do is fix it once and then all their subsequent games can use the same code.
    Not that camera angles was the main jist of the article.
    Damn, forgot to click ‘Reply’. x) Ah, well, I’ll resist posting again…

    • trjp says:

      You make it sound like getting a third-person game camera to work is easy – it’s not, in fact I think it may be impossible.

      Every 3rd-person game will sooner or later have someone complain about it’s camera – it’s the nature of the format, you cannot read people’s minds, you cannot always offer the level of control people want.

      Take the recent ‘Epic Mickey’, slammed for it’s camera (amongst other things) it’s (veteran) producer, Warren Spector, slid-around all over the place making excuses for it (mostly rubbish ones) but if he can’t get it right, I’m not sure anyone could.

  18. bill says:

    I rather feel like they should quit making games and just make Lego-Everything cgi movies.
    They have awesome animators and a good sense of humor and timing…
    …but personally I found the games rather shallow and dull.

    I always wished they’d include some actual CONSTRUCTION in my lego games… something like that weird new game from the pathologic guys…

  19. Isometric says:

    I wasn’t even aware that Lego Pirates was out yet

  20. MythArcana says:

    I hate to say it, but it’s a child’s software title aimed at said target via their preferred medium; consoles. The goal of the franchise is simple capitalism in action; use blockbuster movie themes in a stylish Lego universe and repeat for as many license rights one may obtain. To ask for PC options of any measurable complexity is going completely beyond budget for what the scope of these projects represents; a quick cash grab aimed at kids.

    There really shouldn’t be any mystery as to why there aren’t Civilization-like options in these games….Hell, even Civilization is becoming dreadfully close to being ruined by the misguided console priority conundrum.

  21. lokimotive says:

    I’ve been playing this all weekend instead of doing what I should be doing, and I’m probably about 60% finished.

    From what I can tell so far this is perhaps Traveler’s Tales smallest game since the first Star Wars. I suppose that’s not too surprising given that this was released the same day as the fourth movie. But it’s kind of disappointing. It doesn’t really seem like there’s much bonus content besides free play, though, as usual each level offers some unique areas the second time around. Compared to the ridiculous amount of stuff available in Star Wars III and Harry Potter, it seems tremendously sparse. I wish they had left out the fourth movie if it meant the could devote more time to bonus content. Considering they’ve already optioned a fifth movie and quite possibly a sixth, it seems like that should’ve been the way to go.

    I’m hoping this indicate a lack of dedication for the next Harry Potter. I somehow doubt that’s the case.

    Still it’s pretty fun, and the wacky pirate setting really works well with the inherent Traveler’s Tales humor. I just wish they allowed for more of it.

  22. GallonOfAlan says:

    Harry Potter is their nadir, surely. Incomprehensible plot unless you’re familiar with the books and movies, endless traipsing round Hogwarts on spell tutorial missions, too puzzle-based, few big expansive levels. Yuck. Star Wars III is far better.

    And on the subject of future games, could there be a more suitable franchise than Doctor Who ?

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