It all began in a galaxy far far away, when Traveller's Tales took it upon themselves to re-imagine George Lucas' iconic films in brick form - and since then, the Lego games have gone from strength to strength, and licence to license. Sticking to a tried, tested, but oh so good formula, film icons from Indiana Jones to Harry Potter have been given a slapstick LEGO makeover, but the team's latest conversion is an impressive feat, even by their standards. Covering not just a single film or franchise, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is instead a LEGO-y co-op adventure that lets you play as almost every Marvel hero you can imagine - from Hulk, to Thor, and even Spiderman, pulling off a feat even the Avengers film couldn't manage...
First things first though - I should probably apologise from the off for any fan offending mistakes in this review, as I'm not the world's most knowledgeable Marvel fan. I can identify Iron Man, Hulk and Spiderman, but that's about as far as I go. I even managed to call Mr. Fantastic 'Mr. Elastic' and 'Mr. Plastic' more times than I can count, much to the mirth of my co-op partner (although that is his own fault for having a name that rhymes with so many other things). But what I am is a huge fan of the Lego games, having smashed, bashed and built my way to 100% completion on every Traveller's Tales game since Lego Star Wars.
The story begins when the Silver Surfer manages to crash his surfboard and scatter powerful Cosmic Bricks all over New York and beyond, leaving them vulnerable to falling into the wrong hands - those of the Marvel villains. Wanting to avoid disaster (and annoy the baddies in the process), S.H.I.E.L.D's Nick Fury gets on the phone to every hero he knows, enlisting the help of icons from Captain Britain to Wolverine to help recover the precious bricks. A unique, non-film-inspired story that sees you journeying to the far-flung corners of the Marvel Universe, breaking into the iconic Stark Towers, bargaining with Loki in Asgard and paying a visit to Dr. Doom's castle to name but a few, this is a game that packs in more fan service than you'd think possible - and that's not including the huge hub-worlds of New York and the SHEILD's famous Helicarrier either. With an entire city to explore in-between missions, with citizens that need helping out, terrible drivers that need HULK SMAAAASHing, and gold bricks to be found, there's an incredibly amount of things to do here, with a whopping 150 characters to be unlocked, from everyone from favourite Avengers Hulk and Iron Man, to the popular mutants of Wolverine and Storm, as well as the odd obscure fan favourite, such as Rocket Raccoon, HERBIE and Howard the Duck making appearances along the way.
For the most part, LEGO Marvel offers the usual trademark LEGO mix of smashing stuff, solving simple puzzles and finding collectables, and much like the other more recent LEGO titles, the action's split between fifteen more linear levels, and the huge open world hub of Marvel-ised New York. Letting you bring a frined along with you for some split-screen fun, each section is every bit as good as the other, only with a slightly different take on the LEGO experience. The single player missions follow the various super heroes as they try to gather all the cosmic bricks, in levels that usually require a good mix of beating up bad guys, building piles of bricks into useful items and solving a few brain teasers along the way with the use of your super powers. Each character has their own special ability, from Iron Man's metal-destroying laser beams, to Hulk's super strength or Black Widow's stealth/invisibility - and most of your time in the levels will be spent chopping and changing between the characters in your party, using each one to get past different obstacles. One characteristic of the levels is that you'll often find areas that require a certain character to access - a character you won't have in your team if you're playing through in the story mode. If you want to find everything LEGO Marvel has to offer, you'll have to come back in the 'Free Play' mode, where you can switch between all your currently unlocked characters.
Moving on to New York, the city itself is chock full of stuff to do. A living, breathing city in as much as LEGO can live or breathe, the pavements are full of little LEGO people going about their daily lives, while the LEGO drivers speed around the city streets in their latest plastic cars. Of course, being the hero you are, you have the ability to commandeer any one of these vehicles at any time (after all - it's hero business) if you fancy going for a spin around the city - and better yet, your co-op buddy can hop into the passenger seat next to you! When you aren't terrorising the good folk of New York City though, there's plenty who'll need a hand with something - and you're the only person who'll help. Whether it's some people that want a hand finding their lost monkey, some guys that need to get to the station asap, or a granny that wants help reclaiming her handbag from a hoodlum, the residents of New York City need you. Completing each mission will net you one of the game's many unlockables, whether it's a gold brick, a new character or vehicle, or something even cooler, which you can then put to use exploring more of the city. You'll find checkpoint races that let you put your commandeered vehicles to good use, little mini-games, such as the boat-shooting target-practice game in the park, and tons more. While not as sprawling, there's also the SHEILD Helicarrier up in the skies, also full of hidden secrets - and nothing beats leaping off the side as Mr. Fantastic's teapot transformation, soaring through the skies as New York slowly comes into view (although a 'big fig' tends to be better if you want to grab all the bonus studs on the way down).
Oh yeah - the big figs. A first for the LEGO games, LEGO Marvel lets you take control of the aforementioned larger figures, which is every bit as much fun as it sounds. Whether you're playing as Hulk, Abomination, or Juggernaut, the big figs are a riot to play as - especially when you get up to speed. Start running around New York City, and nothing will stop you, as you smash through bus stops, lamp posts, and even cars with ease - and they're all brilliantly animated, too. Hulk even smashes enemies around like he did with Loki in The Avengers, which is bound to raise a smile.
The only problem is, there's more than a few glitches here that put a bit of a downer on the experience. Over our years of playing many Lego games, we've come across the occasional bug here or there - but with Lego Marvel, the bugs, breaking and missing bits seems to be more frequent than usual. Instead of one or two instances across the whole game, we're nearing having one or two each time we've played it. Whether it's flipping a fountain over in the park to reveal what should have been the Fantastic Four Flyer but was instead nothing at all (leaving us with a trip back to the title screen to reload), a little quest to help a lady get up a fire escape to her apartment with several ladders that didn't fall down like they should have, or having to completely restart a level because the Thing got himself jammed in a doorway, the bugs are by no means constant, but they do tend to send you back to the main menu to reload. Perhaps an even bigger issue is that the split-screen co-op just doesn't work as it should.
For as long as there have been Lego games there has been the option to have a friend drop in and lend a hand, solving the simple puzzles that had been designed for two people to solve. In more recent games, when your characters wandered too far apart, the screen would split in half, which caused a few headaches, but at least didn't cause too many problems - in fact, some puzzles required you to split up and go in completely different directions to proceed. Yet when it comes to Marvel, splitting the screen causes more than a few glitches - on multiple occasions we found ourselves being completely cut off the screen, with our character literally nowhere to be seen on the TV, making doing anything rather awkward. Worse yet was when this happened in levels where the game takes control of the splitting and forces it to be split straight down the middle. If the game's decided how the screen should be split, you'd at least expect it to work, but often it actually cut off the switch, button or whatever we were intended to be using. For example, in a level where we visited Dr. Doom's castle in Latveria, we needed to deflect a particular laser beam on to a satellite, using Captain America's shield, yet playing in two-player, the satellite dish was cut off the screen completely, making it much trickier than it needed to be, and our redirection nothing more than guess work. Another level saw us become completely stumped for a good few minutes, only to find we needed to pull an off-screen, non-indicated switch to proceed.
We've also found the signposting in levels is a bit off too, as the lines that pop up to give you a clue as to which character you'll need to use are nothing if not misleading. While older games simply used to pop up with a picture of the character you needed to use, LEGO Marvel instead has lines appear at the bottom of the screen. The only problem is, they don't actually help. When the game tells you you need to use a "web-slinging character", who do you think it's telling you you need to use? Spiderman? Nope - playing through in story mode, we didn't have him on our team. Any others? Venom? Nope. Actually, the "web-slinging character" in question was that well known spidery hero, Hawkeye. You know, the one that uses a bow and arrow. A similar prompt that told us we needed "Captain America's shield to deflect beam attacks" was equally useless, as Captain America wasn't on our team. What it means was we needed the Invisible Woman, whose pink shield-y aura could solve the puzzle. It's more than a little bit confusing, especially if you don't have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the different Marvel characters' skills, and is perhaps a sign of trying to cram too much stuff into the game.
On a related note, the LEGO standard 'code-breaking' puzzles have been reworked slightly too, so the usual 'press the icons in the same order they lit up' tasks have been replaced by all manner of different things, which often aren't all that obvious, and aren't actually explained. Whether it's asking you to move a ball around a maze or fit together a number of pipes, pipe-mania-style, it often isn't even obvious you've taken control of the in-game monitor, yet alone what you're supposed to do. While the added variety is a plus, it seems odd that a game that usually gets accessibility so right could make so many missteps.
And it's a shame, because the rest of LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is so good. You'll have an incredibly amount of fun playing it, with plenty of laughs to be had - it's just there'll be several annoying bits to keep your spirits that little bit damper than usual. Few things can compare to leaping off the Helicarrier as a Hulk wearing a Christmas hat, parachuting down to the New York streets below, before going on a smashing spree, and few games raise a smile anywhere near as often. But it could have been much better, with just that little bit of extra polish.
Format Reviewed: Xbox 360