So there’s this little film series that exists right? You might have heard of it once or twice at some point: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Did you know that once upon a time it was even a franchise of comic books as well? And for some reason the fine folk over at Traveller’s Tales decided that this tiny, hitherto unknown franchise deserved an adaptation into their hugely popular series of LEGO branded platformers. Weird, huh?
LEGO Marvel Super Heroes (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Switch, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One)
Released Oct 2013 | Developed: Traveller’s Tales | Published: Warner Bros.
Genre: Platformer | HLTB: 13 hours
To be honest, I’m surprised it took 5 whole years for a LEGO game based on Marvel’s massive roster of superheroes and villains to come about, given that the first LEGO Batman came out in 2008 and was already a big success, not to mention the sheer, monolithic, and all-encompassing presence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe catapulting heroes like Iron Man and Thor into every single person’s mind across the planet. By the time of LEGO Marvel Super Heroes’ 2013 release date, Marvel fever had well and truly gripped the world in the wake of the first Avengers film’s overwhelming success the year prior, so it makes it a little odd (but not in a bad way) that this first foray into the LEGO series of games doesn’t actually utilise a direct connection to the films.
Instead, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes sits in-between the comics and the films in terms of ideas and design. Some characters are very clearly designed based on their MCU counterparts; Tony Stark, for example, looks like a tiny lego Robert Downey Jr. complete with in-suit talking scenes where it’s just his head surrounded by digital readouts. Indeed, the vast majority of characters that had at this point made major film appearances show up in their MCU guises, from Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury leading SHIELD to Loki wielding his Tesseract-infused staff from the 2012 Avengers movie. However, other characters are far more comics-accurate, such as appearances from Marvel mainstays like the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man. This is presumably because of licensing issues given that when this game was made, Disney still hadn’t bought every media company in the world yet) and obviously there are plenty of characters who show up here who hadn’t or still haven’t made any kind of film appearance.
The general story is also a kind of massive Marvel medley. The Silver Surfer, herald of the world eater Galactus, is attacked and captured by Dr Doom, here presented in full villainous cackling form. As the Surfer’s board shatters, it spreads ominous glowing Cosmic Bricks across the planet; Doom has a plan to use these Comic Bricks to build an immensely powerful Doom Ray (of course) and so he enlists the help of a huge array of Marvel villains to gather the bricks. The game opens with Iron Man, Hulk, and Spider-Man having to stop an attack on Grand Central Station carried out by Abomination and Sandman and the pair of baddies accidentally clue the heroes into the existence of the Cosmic Bricks and the plot to gather them. Obviously all the various heroic teams are scrambled, with the Avengers getting assembled, the Fantastic Four forming up, and the X-Men gathering together once more in order to combat the legion of villains, track the Cosmic Bricks down, and defeat Dr Doom.
There’s also a wider subplot running involving Loki, with whom Doom has allied; naturally any Marvel Cinematic Universe fans can see the inevitable betrayal coming from miles away. I like that the Silver Surfer is in it from the start because that also can only ever mean one thing and that is the promise of an appearance from Galactus, one of my favourite comic book big nasties although in true LEGO game fashion his appearance here is very cartoony and kid-friendly: not that that’s a bad thing of course! One of the best things about the LEGO series is that they’re very clearly aimed at a young audience but are robust and fun enough to remain an enjoyable experience for anyone. Because of that aforementioned strange spot this game lives in, at times it feels like it’s trying to be a kind of direct-to-video MCU film, with some missions and plot beats that will feel very familiar to anyone who has watched a few movies from that franchise; stuff like Loki’s betrayal of Dr Doom and his relationship with bigger villains is almost beat-for-beat lifted from his interactions with Thanos in Phase One, for example.
It’s obvious that the then-recent release of the completed first phase of the MCU and the success of the first Avengers film had a massive impact on the game, and it’s definitely trying to capitalize on it by appealing to the same fans. It might make it feel a little odd that LEGO Marvel Super Heroes sits in its own continuity as it blends the line between the movies and comics and uses it to build a unique identity. That said, I’m thankful that it does since including non-MCU characters makes for a much more entertaining game, with an original story that is, frankly, far stronger than it might have been if it were just a rehash of already established films.
What also makes it strong is that it’s a game of lovely detailing, especially with the minifigures. Take everyone’s favourite angry Canadian, Wolverine, for example: as he loses hearts he turns into a skeletal version of himself and then slowly fades back to normal to show his health regeneration. Hulk’s attack animations include his whorl of ground slamming which he did to Loki in the Avengers film – there’s even an achievement for recreating that very moment in the game. By far my favourite is Venom; across his long and storied history in the comics he’s been both a stacked Spider-Man style character and also a huge beefy mega-monster, and here he gets to be both. He starts as a normal minifigure with a bevy of Spider-Man-esque powers, but press the transform button and he literally tears his body apart in a gloriously goopy mess and a Big Fig version of Venom rips his way out. It’s that kind of detail that marks the entire game; it’s been made with a love of the source material that is clearly apparent, and that can go a long way into making a game enjoyable.
LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is built on the same framework as basically every other branded LEGO game. It’s a light and irreverent platformer which relies on a slapstick sense of humour that is very kid friendly, but also kind of suits the style of comedy that the MCU uses; that is to say it’s inoffensive and accessible. Each level puts us in charge of a handful of characters, all with unique powers and ways to interact with the environment. A lot are similar to Traveler’s Tales’ other forays into superhero territory, which isn’t terribly surprising given the crossovers and similarities between Marvel and DC. With that in mind, you can expect things like needing Big Figs like the Hulk to heft huge chunks of scenery, laser-equipped characters like Iron Man to burn through gold plates, and folk with some sort of extendable appendages like Mr. Fantastic or Spider-Man to grab hold and pull distant objects; a handful of characters have new interactions, like Captain America throwing his shield to open special locks, or psychic characters like Jean Grey getting to freely move around and build stacks of marked LEGO blocks, but the vast majority of the game is stuff we’ve seen before. Pretty much every level ends with a boss fight of some kind, most of which are very simplistic; the usual pattern is that you have to wait around dodging attacks until the boss stuns themselves or otherwise enters a vulnerable moment, letting you get a hit or two in. It’s easy to parse, which makes sense given the target audience, but it’s not always the most exciting.
The game doesn’t end after the campaign’s credits roll though. As is par for a LEGO game, after beating the story, you get the opportunity to replay all 15 stages in Free Play, letting you flip at will between any of the 180-odd unlockable characters, many of whom are necessary in order to help you collect the game’s various doodads, such as gathering all 10 of a stage’s hidden minikits or rescuing tiny LEGO Stan Lees from whatever perilous situation he’s found himself in. The postgame also features a series of short side missions that can be accessed after the main story and are unlocked based on the amount of collectible gold bricks you’ve accrued; these side missions are narrated by Deadpool, played manically by Nolan North, and each feature various heroes and villains in suitably silly situations.
Collecting the aforementioned gold bricks is more time-consuming than you might think as many of them are scattered around an impressively big open world in the form of New York City. This is actually the source of probably my biggest bugbear with LEGO Marvel Super Heroes. I remember thinking back when I played LEGO Batman 3 that although the campaign was a bit lacklustre, the sheer volume and depth of the open world and its sidequests and collectibles more than made up for it, and expanded the experience into one that was hugely entertaining. LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is kind of the opposite of that; I genuinely enjoy the campaign but I find hoovering up the collectibles an utterly grinding experience. That’s not to say the work hasn’t been put into making New York a lively and fun city; there’s some wonderful attention to detail, such as being able to find locations like Dr. Strange’s home or the X-Mansion, not to mention the SHIELD Helicarrier hovering over the skyscrapers from which our heroes parachute down to start exploring the city streets, but while that makes the city feel characterful, it doesn’t help the cycle of collection feel any less tedious. That, admittedly, is only a consideration though if you care to shoot for 100% completion; if you’re just into going through the game and maybe diving into a few of the Deadpool missions, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes should, I think, offer a great time.
As for how it fits into the wider sea of quality next to the other LEGO games, I’m perhaps a little more lukewarm on it than the contemporary critical reception to it, but maybe that’s down to me playing the LEGO games in no kind of order. While I do find the push for completion a misery, I don’t know if that’s how most people would experience this game and if you take that away you’re left with a really strong campaign and a wonderfully unique sense of identity.
5/7 – GREAT.
Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.