If an alien life form were to fall to Earth tomorrow – the Silver Surfer, say – it would be difficult to describe the subtle genius of the Lego-brand video game franchise.
“It’s a state-of-the-art digital game that you play onscreen, see. Only it’s based on these toy construction blocks invented in Denmark in the 1940s. And you don’t actually build anything with them, you adventure around and solve puzzles. And the heroes don’t have anything to do with video games or construction blocks. They’re expensively licensed characters from movies and and comic books and … never mind.”
Just in time for NC Comicon, the new “Lego Marvel Super Heroes” ($59.99, rated E-10) is the latest in a long line of Lego video game titles, and a serious contender for best game in the series yet. Previous Lego games have featured characters from fanboy franchises like “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings.”
As the title suggests, the new game digs into the vast universe of Marvel Comics, home to Spider-Man, the Hulk and the X-Men. The game features a main story mode, good for 8-10 hours of gameplay, plus the now-standard sandbox mode, in which players can wander around and explore indefinitely.
Sandbox mode this time around is New York City, very roughly speaking, including iconic Marvel comics locations like Iron Man’s Stark Tower, the Daily Bugle newspaper offices, and the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building. Players can also jet off to more exotic locations such as Doctor Doom’s castle in a fictional eastern Europe, a nearby asteroid belt, or even mystical Asgard – home to Thor and Loki.
Story mode concerns an effort to track down “cosmic bricks” left by, yes, the Silver Surfer – herald of the planet-devouring entity known as Galactus. Doctor Doom and his nefarious allies intend to use the bricks to build the redundant yet lethal Doom Ray of Doom. It’s up to Avengers, the Fantastic Four and an assortment of freelance heroes to save the day.
You’ll get the hang of it
For players new to the Lego games, it may all seem a bit overwhelming. “Heroes” includes more than 100 playable characters, including all the big stars – Wolverine, Captain America, Black Widow – plus a truly delightful assortment of obscure good guys and bad guys like Psylocke, Rhino and Squirrel Girl. (Yes, Squirrel Girl – she controls squirrels.) Persistent players will also get a chance to unlock Marvel comics godfather Stan Lee as a playable character.
The idea, as always, is to use the characters in various combinations to solve the game’s relentless assault of platforming, puzzles, minion swarms and boss fights. In story mode, you’re restricted to two or three predetermined characters, but you can always return in free-play mode to re-do a level with whatever characters you’ve unlocked.
The control scheme is fairly complicated, but it’s standardized over all characters. Regardless of who you’re playing, the same buttons always trigger a character’s primary weapon, secondary weapon, flight options, etc. Individual challenges might require you to throw Captain America’s mighty shield, then switch to Black Widow’s stealth technology or just execute the old Hulk smash.
Onscreen prompts provide help along the way, but newbies will almost surely get lost in the hectic action at first. It takes a little while to get familiar with the game’s visual vocabulary. Once you do get the hang of it, though, “Heroes” is a marvel (heh) of intuitive game design. And the pacing is just right, with battle sequences and puzzle segments alternating throughout.
My only complaint has to do with the Lego franchise’s famous cut-scenes, in which memorable moments from the movies or comics are played out in elaborate in-joke style. Previous games in the series elevated these jokey asides to high comic art. Some of the bits in the old Indiana Jones game were on par with golden age Looney Tunes.
The wit in “Marvel Super Heroes” isn’t quite up to snuff. I can see what the designers were aiming for – a kind of loose and campy comic book vibe – but too many of the one-liners fall flat.
As always, I ran this game past my home lab testing partners – ages 5 and 10 – and their assessment is unequivocal: “Just say it’s awesome.” We’ve been playing for a couple of weeks straight now, and the game does indeed hit that sweet spot for families. Older gamers and comic book fans will enjoy the clever puzzles and nostalgic references; younger gamers will run circles around the grownups in the fight scenes.
New This Week: The holiday season titles are starting to roll in: Look for “Batman: Arkham Origins,” “Call of Duty: Ghosts,” “Zuma Fitness World Party” and “Ben 10 Omniverse 2.”