If there's one thing we'll never quite understand, it's how they get these LEGO games out so quickly. Being as packed full of levels, characters, and all sorts of goodies as they are, it's a wonder we get one a year, yet alone the 3 we've had in the space of the last 12 months. First it was the great LEGO Jurassic World, then LEGO's first foray into the "toys to life" space with LEGO Dimensions, and now, LEGO Marvel's Avengers - a follow-up of sorts to LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, which was an Avengers game in all but name.
If you've played a LEGO game before, you'll know what to expect here - a gigantic co-op adventure, with an added helping of slapstick comedy. If you've played LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, you'll be in even more familiar territory - only this time, the game follows the events of the films directly - and not just the two Avengers flicks. While the vast majority of the levels included here take you on a trip through the two Avengers films, there are actually six Marvel films covered in the game - The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: The First Avenger - although the latter four films are represented by just one level, and one small hub world each.
For the majority of the game, then, it's the Avengers films you'll be playing through, as you smash your way through levels based on each film's most memorable scenes. Whether you're fending off the Chitauri invasion of earth at the end of Avengers Assemble, chilling on Hawkeye's farm, shooting around on a motorbike as Black Widow, or saving the entire nation of Sokovia from the evil Ultron, if there's a bit you remember from the films, the chances are it's here - and that's both a good thing and a bad thing.
Not wanting to fix something that isn't broken, the game plays out in much the same way as always - with a co-op partner under your wing, a friend can grab a controller and join in the fun, as you smash up anything that looks vaguely plastic, beat up baddies, and rebuild the broken components into something more useful at the touch of a button. There are rudimentary puzzles to solve, plenty of baddies to HULK SMASH, and hundreds of characters to get to grips with. And we mean hundreds.
In actual fact, the sheer breadth of characters is one of the best parts of LEGO Marvel's Avengers - because there's so, so many characters to choose from, there are dozens of hidden gems. While the first time through each level, you'll usually be playing as a small group of just two or three characters (usually only those that appeared in that bit of the film), playing through a level for a second time in free play mode lets you play as whatever characters you want - and that alone can lead to some crazy situations. So Ultron can kill Ultron, Guardian's of the Galaxy's Ronan can gatecrash the Chitauri party - anything you want, you can do. And there are so many great characters to choose from.
From Captain Britain to Lou Ferringo (who played Hulk in the 1960s TV show), from Hawkeye to around a dozen different Iron Man suits, from Scarlet Witch (who actually seems to have a personality in the game) to the incredible Squirrel Girl (who's genuinely one of the best characters here, being able to super jump, and summon her own squirrel mech), it's well worth trying everyone out at least once, just so you can find your favourite. Personally, we're torn between Agent Coulson, and Agent Coulson (shades), who we're assured are two totally different people.
In traditional LEGO way, rather than being carbon copies, each of the characters has a different selection of powers, which can be used in levels to unlock secret areas, and uncover collectibles. Hulk has super strength, and can tear anything with green handles off its hinges; Thor can control electricity, and power generators; while Hawkeye can fire arrows at special points in walls, which let you turn them into beams, and swing across to reach higher ground.
So, that's the good bits. One of the biggest problems LEGO Marvel's Avengers suffers from, though, is that a game is only ever as good as its source material, and in the case of LEGO Marvel's Avengers... well, the last two Avengers films weren't very good. Avengers Assemble had its moments, but Age of Ultron was 90% a snore fest, and that does show through in the game. It almost feels like there wasn't really enough stuff that happened in the film for the developers to create levels around, so they've simply had to try and make do with what they've got. On the plus side, the team at TT Games have actually done a better job handling the story of both films than Hollywood did, as the plot actually works better in the game - with the famous LEGO humour, the characters have more character, the story's easier to follow, and everything flows a lot better. If anything, it makes you realise how badly done Age of Ultron was in the cinemas.
What's perhaps most frustrating, though, is that while the LEGO games are unashamedly great, and while we'll spend dozens of hours ploughing through each one to get to the much vaunted 100% completion, it's somewhat upsetting to see the very same issues appearing, game after game. One of the biggest features in LEGO Marvel's Avengers is the addition of multiple hub worlds - now, not only do you have the entirety of LEGO Manhattan to explore, solving crimes, completing quests, and even saving the odd Stan Lee in Peril as you go, but you have smaller worlds, based on the other Marvel films to visit too. These hubs are usually incredible time sinks - providing a vast, open world to explore, they're packed from top to bottom with collectibles, quests, and things to see and do. Manhattan, especially, is absolutely gigantic, and "borrowing" a school bus to tear up and down the streets, as you head from A to B never gets old. The only problem is, in co-op, the hub worlds don't work as well as they really should do.
For starters, it's a well known fact that the LEGO games were built from the ground up for co-op play. In fact, they're one of the games that really popularised the whole idea of split-screen co-op. That's why it's more than a little bit surprising that the quests can't actually be completed in co-op.
If you go up to a character and accept a quest in one of the hubs, only one player will actually be able to do that quest. If you're trying to find ten cats who were the result of an accident with a cloning machine, only player one can see the dots on the map, showing you the vague location where you can find them, and only that one play can actually go and grab them. And for a game that prides itself on its co-op play, that's more than a little bit rubbish. There's also nothing in the way of co-op vehicles - if you go and get yourself a bus, a little triangle will pop up above the head of the second player when you drive close, suggesting they should be able to jump in, if they press it, nothing happens. And that may not sound like much, but with a city the size of LEGO Manhattan to explore, being able to take your co-op partner with you would make your life a lot easier.
Still, the lack of co-op vehicles may just have been a bit of a disappointment if there was any other way to co-ordinate where you're heading with your co-op partner, but, somewhat unbelievably, in LEGO Marvel's Avengers, there isn't... While you have a mini-map in the bottom corner, there's no way of opening a bigger map, and setting a waypoint for both players. You can't say "meet me here", and have a stud trail appear for them to follow - you simply have to try and find each other, then stick together as you move from A to B - something that's easier said than done in a world that's so large, and with so many shiny distractions... It's a real faff - and one that's made all the more frustrating by the fact that a proper map would have been so much help. One of the things we've been trying to do recently is to unlock as many of the characters as we can in Manhattan. A proper map would have been so helpful here, as we could have brought it up, had a quick scan, and set a destination to head to the next character quest. But we can't. Instead, we have to fly around almost aimlessly, keeping an eye out, waiting for a picture of a character to pop up on the mini-map. It's nowhere near as easy as it should be, and that's something that's all the more disappointing for a game like LEGO Marvel's Avengers, that's always prided itself on accessibility.
And seeing as we've mentioned it so often before, we should probably give a special shout-out to LEGO Marvel's Avengers' "dynamic" split-screen mode, which, unfortunately, tends to be more of a hindrance than a help. The whole idea here is that when you're sticking close to your partner, you'll play together on the same screen - and when you split up, the game will dynamically launch into split-screen, with the divide in the middle of the screen being angled to show you where your partner is - if you want to get back together, all you need to do is run towards the "centre" of the screen, and you'll find them. It sounds simple enough, but in practice, it's a bit of a mess - and it has been for several games now. Sometimes, you'll need to try and target a switch or something with Captain America's shield - but just as you go to aim, the screen will randomly switch, or rotate, and you'll find you can't move your reticule onto the other player's side of the screen, so you can't target the thing you're aiming for. It's a nice idea, but in practice, it ends up being one big faff. To be honest, we'd actually prefer it if the LEGO games ditched the split-screen all together, and went back to the same screen goodness of the earlier titles - keeping two co-op players together by force really wouldn't be a bad thing, especially as at the moment, it can often it can feel like you're not really playing a game "with" someone, as they spend most of their time on the other side of the map. Luckily, you can set the screen to be split permanently vertically, which solves most of the problems - but does occasionally end up causing a few of its own.
Still, for all it faults and foibles, LEGO Marvel's Avengers is still a game we find ourselves going back to - and that speaks volumes of what a good job the team have done with the core of the game, and what a magic formula they've found. While it may not be quite as good as LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, the LEGO take on the Avengers is a lot better than the films was - and with the same incredible range of things to do, collectibles to find, characters to play as, and laughs to be had, LEGO Marvel's Avengers is still well worth picking up. We just hope developers TT Games iron out the few issues the LEGO games have picked up over the years, as they really take the shine off what are otherwise consistently some of the best games money can buy.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U