Something very odd is going on at Traveller’s Tales. I’m not sure how, but in Lego Marvel's Avengers [official site] they’ve managed to release a game that actively goes out of its way to hide everything good about it. So much so that it was only after hours of snoring through its dull, phoned in story mode that I discovered, behind a completely obscure and unmentioned menu option, what was really on offer here. Here's wot I think:
Lego Marvel Avengers ploughs its way through the two main Avengers movies in a series of charmless vignettes that lack any of the joy or imagination that has made this extraordinarily prolific series so popular for the last decade. A combination of entirely the wrong sorts of films for the treatment, and a genuinely surprising lack of glee or humour in a lacklustre collection of repetitive levels and dreary cutscenes.
There are moments of exception. Banner’s transformation into the Hulk on the Hellicarrier is splendidly reinvented as a series of slapstick events. And the running gag of Hawkeye lugging around a wheelbarrow full of arrows is exactly the sort of fun-poking I’d hoped to appear throughout. Instead it’s mostly shockingly poor rubbish about waving bananas and surprise chickens that has no bearing on the scene nor spoofs the original material.
This is made all the worse by the self-imposed constraint of primarily using the film’s dialogue audio throughout, meaning not only are the levels all over the place, but they’re ridiculously restricted to just animating the original material rather than having fun with it. Sure, you get the illusion of Downey Jr and Johansson in your video game, but at the cost of so much that made the earlier Lego games magic.
The game stumbles its way through various scenes, weirdly confining what seem like interesting moments to cutscenes, fleshing out nothingness like Age Of Ultron’s early party sequence into a dull level, seemingly with the development mantra of, “Here we go again”.
Combat is far too dominant, of course always the weakest aspect of any TT Lego game. And like the weaker Lego Indy games, this is plagued by scenes of infinitely spawning enemies who get in the way of your having fun smashing stuff and looking for secrets. Further, unlike most of the series, there’s no unique hook here. There’s nothing like Lego LOTR’s RTS sections, or Lego Batman’s investment in specific characters and their abilities, or the Lego Harry Potters’ glorious secret-packed hub. With a lot of the work already done for them via 2013’s Lego Marvel Super Heroes, with the character designs, animations, abilities, etc all in place, and even large locations re-used, you’d imagine this would have been a head-start to allow something much more novel.
It obsessively steals the camera like a kleptomaniac in Jessops, yanking away controls so ridiculously often that at one point I had to walk across the same couple of metres of bridge three times before it stopped cutting away to, I don’t know, Iron Man flying past a window.
Most peculiar is the structure of what’s on offer. Rather than chapters of story mode, interspersed by a hub, instead the game just sort of has another scripted level between each level proper, with tasks, limited characters, even cutscenes and script. The difference is there aren’t all the collectibles, I guess. As a result, it really seemed like the most minimal offering in the series yet, even more desultory than the very poor Lego Movie instalment. Except, well...
I thought, before giving up, I should check out what “Go To Space” option means in the Esc menu, tucked between “Extras” and “Quit Game”. Seriously, in between those two, never mentioned, never explained. The game actually goes out of its way to keep it hush hush, keeping you in the perpetual story mode even between the two movies. But select it and suddenly you’ve got planet Earth in front of you, and the option to visit not only chapters you’ve already completed, but all those interstitial ‘hubs’ that briefly appeared. And this is enormous stuff. Remember Manhattan in Lego Marvel Super Heroes? The entire thing’s there, with hundreds of new yellow bricks to find, mini-missions to complete, and races to flail hopelessly around (yeah, the vehicle controls remain as dreadful and internally contradictory as ever). But then there’s also the Shield Helicarrier, Malibu, Washington DC (which features a mission in which you help Bucky fight robot unicorns and President Bear), Korea, even Asgard. Each has about an extra hour or so of things to do, too. And here the game is so much more fun, letting you switch between your ever expanding roster of characters to solve simple puzzles, or even simpler quests, to get more gubbins.
It doesn’t amount to greatness, the tasks being pretty hollow, but it’s certainly a lot more fun than the dolorous story mode. And it’s quite extraordinary that it’s concealed in a menu option you might never click on.
It's worth noting that TT have finally bothered noticing that the PC has changed in the last decade, and for the time time (that I've noticed) there are some decent PC options in place. You can even run it in a window (after a fashion - it ignored the resolution it was set to and sat too small in the middle of the screen, but a second adjusting fixed it), and it no longer knocks Windows down to 32bit colour! It also has online options, letting you add in DLC via purchases or a season pass. Goodness me, the Lego games have reached 2009.
There appears to be some original dialogue recorded by Clark Gregg and Cobie Smulders (or at least people who sound a lot like them), but little of it is witty. The rest is inserted generics saying weakly written lines that aim for sarcasm and generally hit weary disdain. For the most part, it’s just plastic characters saying, “I’ve lost all my spanners, can you run around picking them up?” and you do, and then you do another thing, because they’re all there to do. Dip back into the story for a bit, get frustrated by the controls barely ever being yours for more than a minute or so, stare in confusion as the on-screen prompt tells you to press the wrong button, then head back to Manhattan for a bit more. Notice that the cars don’t have drivers until the moment you try to get in one, get driven crazy by how poor the flying is, and then remember that TT have made literally a dozen better Lego games than this and you’re only 43% through any of them.
There’s loads to do in Lego Marvel Avengers, but only when you’ve found it. And of course the animation is well done, the ridiculous amount to collect relatively compelling, and if your kid 100%ed Marvel Super Heroes, then this will likely give them a new fix. But it’s a despondent entry in a series that perhaps TT are finally beginning to grow tired of making. For once we don’t know what three others they’re currently working on, but I rather hope the opportunity is being taken to sit back and ponder whether there would be more to gain from a new approach to the games, or at least a return to the joy and glee that infested the likes of Lego Star Wars and Lego Harry Potter. I’m not tired of the games - even seventeen entries in I look forward to each – but I’d love to see what else they could be. Lego Marvel Avengers is very much what they’ve already been, but with most of the magic missing.
Lego Marvel's Avengers is out now for Windows via Steam.