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?