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Wot I Think: Lego Marvel Super Heroes

Grand Theft Duplo

Lego Marvel Super Heroes is out in the States, but has then horribly drowned in the oceans, seemingly not released in Europe until the 15th November. Quite why Warner would go to such lengths to screw up the release of such an excellent game we're not sure. We've asked. I've been playing it non-stop for days, and despite being told I'm only 20% of the way through, feel ready to tell you wot I think:

This is the twelfth game in TT Games' astonishingly successful franchise. And that's not including the other six Lego licenses they've released in the same eight years. By all rights this should be a tired mess, because no studio can release eighteen Lego games (25 if you include everything else) in eight years and still keep things fresh, interesting and entertaining. Oh, they can. This really doesn't make sense.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes is bloody brilliant. I'm utterly hooked, have been playing for two days solid and am still a tiny percentage toward complete, enjoying epic set pieces that feel like worthy entries into the muddle of Marvel non-canon. It's a massive expansion of the usual formula, this time featuring a huge, open New York to explore, ludicrously packed with missions, quests, challenges and mini-games, with the main story quests launching from within. And oh thank goodness, TT are delighting in the vast array of nonsense to spoof and celebrate within the Marvelverse.

I've not checked to see whether this project has been designated with an official Marvel universe number. I'm declaring one anyway. Earth-1390. Let's all admit that's the best possible choice. It needs one, because TT have taken all the liberties you'd expect, if you've enjoyed their stunning Lego Star Wars or Lego Harry Potter series. While most of their leads have been taken by the film versions of most major characters, these guys are always made of Lego. It's their version, and it's not beholden to your lore. The best example would be Reed "Mr Fantastic" Richards, who when bored can turn himself into a teapot and then hop around. I'm pretty sure that's not in the books. The worst is that they deem Spider-Man as one of the non-genius characters, who can't use computers. I'm going to start protests about that.

The array of characters is dizzying. There's an emphasis on the Avengers (of the Whedon variety), but tons of X-Men, the Fantastic 4, Spidey, and a metric ton of baddies from every corner. As you might expect, there's a break-out at the Raft at the start, allowing Dr Doom to recruit an awful lot of familiar (and less familiar) evil faces to help him in his quest to... to... he's up to something.

The Silver Surfer gets kersplatted in a cutscene at the start, and his board gets shattered into blocks of "the power cosmic". Doom's after them, for what might well be "Doctor Doom's Doomray Of DOOM!". He's got Loki and Magneto in his frontlines, and then just about every baddy you can think of from Doc Oc to Mandarin, Green Goblin to Electro, MODOK to Rhino. Each becomes playable once you've defeated them, either in the open city, or in the Free Play mode as you go back through levels a second time.

The core missions generally provide you with a roster of two to four heroes, sometimes changing as you go through, usually in pursuit of a title baddy. And they are very familiar Lego Something are, which is to say, invariably brilliant. As ever, each is packed with secrets to find, gentle puzzles to solve, Lego enemies to break, and absolutely everything to smash. And as ever, all the same mistakes are in place - the horrible camera during platforming sections, awkward vehicles, and the endlessly infuriating pop-up tips that appear every single time you perform certain actions. TT clearly don't care about fixing this stuff, and that pisses me off. And then I play some more and I forget I was cross.

The open New York City is something else. Honestly, I've lost track of whether they've done something similar in a previous game, but this is a magnificent addition. And what an addition, making an already ridiculously huge game even massivier. The space is vast, quickly navigated by flying heroes like Iron Man or Thor, or best negotiated in "donated" vehicles used by grounded supers. (It's basically the same as GTA, except you don't punch the driver. Unless you do, of course.) There are a bunch of the 250 gold Lego bricks to get here, whether it's solving a bunch of puzzles, platforming your way to a goal, shrinking Ant-Man down to fit in peculiar rat mazes, or driving remote controlled cars around little tracks. There are a whole bunch of races to do in the unwieldy Lego cars, people to rescue, and dozens of other characters and vehicles to unlock. It's deeply engrossing, ridiculously so for someone who knows they really need to be getting on with the main quest for their review, but cannot run past a trigger spot for a Sentinel fight.

TT have plundered the Marvel vaults with glee, as the game blurs the canons. All the familiar locations pop up - X-Men Academy, Latveria, OSCORP, Asgard, and so on. Although oddly you end up on an island with dinosaurs, rather than going to the Savage Land. And they do it with the lack of reverence that makes their best games shine. So encounter T'Challa (Black Panther) and you're on a mission to catch some bad guys who stole his milk.

It's not without its flaws, most of which - as I mentioned - are entirely predictable at this point. Alongside the incessant tip-giving, it sometimes tells you to press the wrong button to activate something, far too frequently takes control away from you to painstakingly show you something you need to do next, as if it weren't already too obvious, and of course isn't able to run in a window. All are excusable, especially in exchange for the astonishing detail and care that's been poured into everything else. The animations are just exceptional, from every hero and villain having their unique traits exactly captured (Iron Man's leg and arm swishing as he flies is perfect), to the breathtaking Technic Lego constructions that build themselves throughout. That, and the gorgeous humour with which distinct Marvel themes are realised in Lego form.

But there's one larger issue that I think has grown from the mammoth size of the series itself. This is a game aimed at a family audience, and it's the rare exception that actually realises that goal. It's entirely suitable for young children to play (and has FAR more strong female characters than any other game I can think of right now), and yet absolutely compelling for adults. But damn, it's confusing.

I think TT are so entrenched in their series that they've forgotten what's not instinctively known. And even as a frequent player of the Lego franchise, I've often felt lost as to what's going on. The open world isn't available from the start, and that's a mistake - the game's first couple of hours are pretty bland - and then the city's introduction is perfunctory, and suddenly overwhelming. Here you can change which two characters you have playable from those unlocked, but it doesn't tell you that. And doing it is a pain in the arse. (Made worse by selecting certain characters who are unable to use the interface to change back, meaning you're stuck with them until you start a scripted mission.)

Of course a key part of these games is encountering things you're not able to do yet, or finding certain areas of levels locked out to the roster of characters you're currently playing. But this time it's far more obfuscated than ever before, the game's mad pop-up tips refusing to ever explain some coloured sparkles, while insisting on telling you that you need Hulk to lift heavy things every ten seconds. It leaves you bemused as to whether you're missing something. And this time that's much, much worse in the open world. People offering quests ask you to do something, and the game directs you to where it's done, but doesn't tell you at all if you simply can't do it yet. It's daft. I spent forever trying to figure out why I couldn't help a guy frustrated with people who wouldn't stand in line, because I'd yet to encounter the mysterious pink sparkles in a mission, so did not know it required telekinesis.

It's a mistake to say, "And so this is too difficult for kids," because kids are damned good at figuring things out. But I think this time it may apply. And blimey, a screen like this is daunting:

The voice cast is interesting. I can't help but feel this might have been one of the Lego games enhanced by their just making silly grunting noises, letting the animation take the strain, but all involved do a good job. It's just the jokes aren't that strong, and with the words in place, there's less effort put into the visual gags. Compare to say the Star Wars games, these cutscenes can end up feeling a little wanting.

Nearly all the voices are provided by those who serve on the various TV cartoons, so should be familiar to many. The game also gives prominence to Agent Coulson, who is voiced by Clark Gregg. That's ace, because he's the guy from the movies. But has the counter-effect of reminding me of the continued existence of Agents Of SHIELD each time he pipes up, and then I have to feel sad for a while.

It ends up being a game that's going to please an awful lot of people. If you've not enjoyed the best of the series in the past (Star Wars and Harry Potter games being the top) then no, you won't like this one either. But then that's because you're a being of hate who must be destroyed. For Marvel fans, this is going to tick so many boxes, and makes up for the disastrous mess of this year's Marvel Heroes. For people wanting a genuinely excellent game for their kids to play, and indeed to play with their kids, I can think of no better. And then everyone else, too, because you'd have to be mad not to enjoy diving into a deep, daft and ceaselessly entertaining game.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes is out now on Steam in the States, and mysteriously not out for a couple more weeks in Europe. We're trying to find out why.

Disclaimer: Kieron Gillen, one of the owners of RPS, writes comickybooks for Marvel. That didn't influence this review at all, but I did ask him to remind me of MODOK's name at one point.

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