When Traveller’s Tales presented LEGO City Undercover, it was a promising first effort at creating an open-world. It spoke of perhaps one day resulting in a kind of LEGO Grand Theft Auto. LEGO Marvel Superheroes takes place in an open-ish Manhattan, but it is unfortunately a step sideways. Although there is a large enough city to explore, it is hampered by sluggish vehicles, unintelligent traffic and a lack of any impactful interaction (spreading unlockables around the map like cast seeds is hardly interesting). The city is simply a place to move your Marvel LEGO people through to get to the next stage.
Any explorative urge to zoom around the city, particularly with some of the characters capable of flight, is quickly doused by some of the most bizarre and ungainly flight controls I’ve ever encountered. Rather than take the logical route of using the second analogue stick to control your height, you must instead use buttons to go up or down. This is so clunky that it’s almost impossible to actually control where you are going.
However, this is but a small part of the game and, while annoying, certainly not a game-breaker. Elsewhere, LEGO Marvel Superheroes is a confident showing from a developer well-versed in its particular craft. It looks gorgeous, too, especially Thor’s introduction and the following jaunt through Asgard. This engine may be aging but it has certainly been worked on and improved over the years. The only downside to this is that sometimes (I played on PS3) the frame-rate can dip noticeably. Hopefully the Xbox One and PS4 versions fare better.
The overall structure may be the same – contained, puzzle-heavy levels through which you utilise specific characters’ abilities – but it all feels suitably fresh given the constant introduction of iconic Marvel heroes and villains. So quickly and thickly do familiar faces come that you don’t really have time to become attached to a favourite. This is a water slide through Marvel history, a shooting gallery of pop-up plots and nefarious netherworlds. Granted, a lot of the heroes do seem to have very similar powers – such as Hulk and the Thing, Cyclops and The Human Torch, Storm and Thor, Jean Grey and The Invisible Woman -- but some manage to stick out as quite unique, such as Mr. Fantastic, who is able to change into all manner of useful objects if you can find and build his appropriate platform. You’ll also notice familiar skillsets reappearing from previous games, such as Hawkeye sharing the same arrow-based moves as Legolas from LEGO LotR, or Cyclops, who shares Superman’s ability from DC Superheroes to burn through gold objects.
Each stage is long and involved, with many of them structured as elongated boss battles that range over several set pieces before a highly scripted finale. Combat has never been the strongest part of this franchise, and here it’s still fairly simple. However, it does feel more satisfying given the broader range of hero powers. There’s also a kill multiplier, which rewards you with 7x,8x,9x etc stud drops from enemies – the more you kill, the more you reap. The puzzles were rarely too taxing, apart from a few instances when slightly clunky mechanics made the intended action difficult to achieve. The secrets are well hidden, though, and I rarely found myself with more than one or two secret kits on the first run of each stage. As with every LEGO game, it’s all about finishing the game once and then unlocking all the Free Play characters to really wring each stage of its hidden pieces.
The structure of these games is starting to buckle beneath the weight of so many characters and abilities. Perhaps some kind of character wheel is needed during story missions, particularly when you’ve got four or five heroes to choose from and tapping Triangle to cycle through them can be tiresome. Other control-related frustrations exist, such as buttons that are meant to perform one purpose – say, build an item from smashed blocks – not registering as such because that button is also assigned to some other ability. These kinds of false starts add up over the 10 or so hours that the story mode lasts for.
If you can swallow the clunky combat, the usual platformer niggles and a few bugs (the game locked up on me twice and characters regularly got stuck or wouldn’t land on ledges) then LEGO Marvel Superheroes is very much more of what you would expect. Whether these games can keep using the same well-worn formula for much longer is now the question, with visuals and scope starting to overwhelm the content. A more deeply integrated city, a rethinking of the controls and broader options for solving puzzles would inject some extra life into the LEGO franchise.