LEGO Dimensions was kind of an inevitability. When Skylanders kick-started the "toys to life" craze, blending real life toys that, when placed on a special base, allowed you to play as that character in a co-op adventure game, it was never going to take too long for similar brands to follow suit. Disney released their take on Skylanders a year later with Disney Infinity - and it didn't take a betting man to see that LEGO wouldn't be too far behind. Perhaps the only surprising thing is that it's taken this long.
But LEGO Dimensions is also no cash in. While it would have been easy to just throw together another great LEGO game and charge extra for each character, LEGO Dimensions has clearly been a labour of love - and the product of one heck of a lot of hard work. While the core game remains the same drop-in, drop-out co-op block busting, baddie bashing, brick building adventure we've come to know and love, this is on a scale we've never seen before. Blending together levels and characters from so many different properties (everything from the Wizard of Oz to Portal, Batman, the LEGO Movie, Back to the Future, The Simpsons, Doctor Who and Jurassic World (amongst others!)) is one thing - but actually getting permission to have them all interact with each other, and gatecrash each other's worlds is something else. To put it into perspective, Disney Infinity won't let their characters jump into each other's universes - so Marvel characters can't go into Star Wars worlds, and Disney can't go into Marvel, etc, to preserve each franchise's sanctity. And they own all three brands.
And LEGO Dimensions even has a decent plot tying it all together. The game begins with a new baddie, Lord Vortech, looking to gain control of a number of rare items known as the foundation elements, which will let him take control of the entire LEGO multiverse. As it turns out, these foundation elements just so happen to be key parts of the other LEGO dimensions - the portal gun, the ring from Lord of the Rings, and so on - and so Lord Vortech opens dozens of portals to the all multiverses, in an attempt to find the elements quickly. The only problem is, all hell breaks loose. When Frodo, Metalbeard and Robin are sucked into the portals, it opens a gateway between various worlds, allowing characters (and villains) to mix - and so Batman, Gandalf and Wyldstyle set out on an epic adventure that mixes franchises old and new, as they try to find their friends, defeat an unholy alliance of villains, and put right the LEGO dimensions.
What follows is an adventure that gets off to the very best of starts, with a fantastic intro that'll have you (and your kids) laughing out loud. While the writing may not carry on at the same high standard, it does a more than fantastic job of setting the scene for what's to come: a heck of a LEGO adventure, and one that makes you feel like a kid on Christmas morning.
As with all toys to life games, LEGO Dimensions comes with a starter pack, which contains all you need to get going. In the box you'll find the LEGO Dimension toy pad base, plenty of LEGO bricks, the game itself, and three minifig characters - Batman, Wyldstyle and Gandalf. There's a huge range of expansions and add-ons available, and each and every character you buy can be used in each and every level of the game - there's no locking going on here, like in Disney Infinity. The fantastic twist here is that unlike the other toys to life games, what you're buying here is normal LEGO - and that means you have to build it yourself! From minifigs to vehicles to the giant portal itself, everything you'll use in the game has to be constructed first, with instructions for the portal included in the box, and instructions for the vehicles found in game - and there's another twist here that we'll get to a bit later on.
Once you've put your figures together, you're ready to begin your journey - and there's plenty to do here. The main LEGO Dimensions story will take you on an adventure through every single franchise that's featured in the game, with each getting its own special level - so even with just the starter pack, you can meet The Doctor, smash up Springfield, and roam the LEGO Movie's Cloud Cuckoo Land - and that's just to begin with.
If you've ever played a LEGO game before, you'll be familiar with what these levels involve. With full support for two player co-op, and the ability to drop in or out at any time, it's up to you (and a friend) to smash your way through fantastically plastic recreations of popular scenes, or locales from various films and TV shows as you try to track down the foundation element before Lord Vortech does. Along the way, you'll be beating up loads of baddies, solving puzzles, and smashing up plenty of LEGO, before rebuilding it into something more useful at the touch of a button.
What's new for LEGO Dimensions is how some of these puzzles work - but unfortunately, it's not a good change. Half the puzzles in the game use the standard LEGO logic we've come to know and love. With each character having their own set of special abilities, it's up to you to make use of each character's strengths and weaknesses to solve the puzzles. For instance, while Batman can use his batarang to hit distant targets, Gandalf can use magic to manipulate large objects, and Wyldstyle can use her agility to jump higher. In other LEGO games, these sort of puzzles were the game's bread and butter, and added hugely to the replay value - as each level had a number of areas that were locked off until you've unlocked a certain character, after you'd finished the game, you could play through it again, and have each level really open up for you and your full compliment of characters. Obviously, in LEGO Dimensions, that would make things extortionately expensive, as each character is sold separately - and so, the developers came up with a kind of compromise. They'd make use of the portal instead.
Unfortunately, these puzzles don't really work all that well. Around the levels, you'll find random LEGO toy pad switches, which let you use a special toy pad ability. There's five of these different toy pad abilities available, most of which involve you physically moving your figures from one side of the portal to the other in order to solve the puzzles. The toy pad's actually divided up into three chunks - two L shape sections, and one O in the middle - and many of the toy pad abilities use all three. Using a scale switch will turn one half of the toy pad orange, and the other half green, with your characters getting bigger if you place them on the one half, or smaller if you place them on the other - perfect for lifting heavy objects, or squeezing through small gaps, respectively. The shift ability, meanwhile, opens three coloured portals in the level, and makes each chunk of your base glow in the relevant colour - in order to go through the portals, all you have to do is plonk your character on the right section. However, there are two pretty big problems with this. The first is that the toy pad can cope with up to six characters and vehicles at any one time - and that makes for a rather crowded pad. When you have to switch your figures around to put the right ones on the right sides, it often involves taking other figures off - and when you do that, they'll no longer be available in the game. Even if you're just shuffling the figures around, it only takes a few seconds of the figure being off the base for it to be unavailable in the game, which is particularly bad if someone's playing as that character, as they'll often be unceremoniously swapped. The other big issue is that using the portal makes you take your eyes off the screen, and that means you often end up missing things.
One of the worst offenders for this is the master builder sections. Here, a section of the portal will glow in a pinky-purple, and if you place a master builder character (like Wyldstyle) on it, it'll make an object appear on the screen. The only problem is, this often happens when you're looking down at the portal, so trying to spot what's changed when you look up again can be a bit tricky. It's also worth noting that there isn't actually anything in the way of guidance about what you need to do when you first come across these sections. Weirdly enough, your portal will just start flashing, and that'll be all the advice you get. While you can usually figure it out by experimentation alone, the LEGO games have always been famed for their accessibility, and this adds an extra (un-needed) bump in the road.
That all said, the toy pad puzzles don't come up often enough to be too much of an annoyance (although they're a bit too common for our liking) - but the positives more than make up for the down sides. Having all the franchises come together is like some sort of nerd's dream, and it makes everything feel totally unpredictable. One second you'll be blasting your way through the Portal level, only for Homer to come crashing in on a wrecking ball; the next you'll be watching Batman meet... Batman, in a meeting of his DC and LEGO Movie varieties, arguing over who the real Batman is.
One of the coolest things about having the toys made out of actual LEGO is the fact you can rebuild each one. While the vehicles are mostly optional in the levels (they just make getting around easier, and make you look cooler in the process), the odd vehicle variant will come with a power you can actually make use of - like a laser that can melt gold LEGO - and so you'll sometimes find yourself needing to rebuild your vehicle. The Batmobile that comes with the game can be rebuilt into three very different forms - the Batmobile, the Bat Blaster, and the Sonic Batray, while buying the Doctor Who level pack nets you a K-9 that can be rebuilt to be ridable, or fire lasers from its feet.
While you'll have to have a certain number of gold bricks to be able to rebuild, and the option for doing so is hidden away in a menu in the game, it's an incredibly cool feature, and one that really only LEGO could manage. And if you're worried about how it works, don't be - it's actually really simple. All you need to do is choose the vehicle you've built from the list, and it'll update the toy base to suit. So if you lose a few bits - or even the entire Batmobile - there's nothing to worry about, as so long as you have the base, you can carry on as normal.
In LEGO Dimensions, the main story is only half of the fun, as the game also comes with a variety of themed "adventure world" hubs for you to explore. As you'd probably expect, while there are 14 to unlock, there are only three you can play through with the starter pack - Batman's Gotham City, Middle Earth from the Lord of the Rings, and a great LEGO Movie set that takes in everything from Cloud Cuckoo Land to Middle Zealand - with each packed full of quests to complete, characters to help out, studs to collect, and with their own red brick to find. If you want access to the other adventure worlds, all you have to do is place a character from that franchise on your toy pad base - which does mean that in order to see everything LEGO Dimensions has to offer, you'll need to buy at least 11 add-ons - one for each franchise.
The scale of these adventure worlds is fantastic though, with so much to see and do. The only real issue here is that they don't actually work all that well in co-op. The issues here mostly revolve around the quest system, which seemingly was designed without taking co-op play into account. If one player accepts a quest (like, say, finding Mrs Scratchen-Post's cats), only that player can then solve it, as the cats won't be marked at all on the other player's screen or minimap. That's a pretty big downer for a game that's so much about playing in co-op. The other biggies here are that there's no map to set waypoints on, so if two players get separated, there's no way to set a waypoint to say "meet you here", and that the adventure worlds don't save your progress when you leave a quest mid-way through. As an example, the LEGO Movie hub has 10 gold statues of Lord Business you can destroy - but if you destroy 5, and then quit, you'll be starting from scratch the next time you come back. This is an issue we imagine will be fixed in a patch going forward (in fact, we imagine most of them will), but for now, it's worth flagging up.
Perhaps most exciting, though, is where the series is going to go from here. As the first LEGO game to require an internet connection, Warner have been explicit in saying that there will be no LEGO Dimensions 2 - instead, there'll be a series of updates (and presumably extra add-on figures) being released on a regular basis. That means LEGO Dimensions is more of a platform going forward than it is a yearly release - and it also raises some interesting questions. We know what figures are going to be released from here through until next May, but as for what happens after that, no-one knows. Will there be a series of new level packs, each unlocking a fairly substantial chunk of a game? Will there be a special story pack you have to buy, coming with a few figures and vehicles that unlocks another great co-op adventure? And what new franchises will be added to the game? One of the most encouraging things has been quite how quick off the block developers TT Games have been in listening to user feedback, only last week introducing a game changing patch that effectively removes the pressure to buy certain figures to do certain parts of the main game. Only time will tell what the future holds - but one thing's for sure. It's going to be a pretty exciting ride.
While it may have its downers, there are very few things that'll beat the feeling you get sitting down with LEGO Dimensions for the first time. While Skylanders SuperChargers may be more polished, LEGO Dimensions makes for the perfect Christmas morning game. With LEGO to build and play with, and an entire game waiting for you when you've finished putting the pieces together, this is a game that'll keep you - and your kids - coming back for more. Especially when they see all the add-ons they can buy...
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U