As I’ve noted about other Lego games, your enjoyment of Lego Marvel Super Heroes will largely depend on your enjoyment of the fictional world it recreates in block form. Fortunately for developer TT Games, Marvel’s film franchises continue to bring in gobs of cash while introducing a mainstream audience to its wacky comic universe. Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie grossed more than 1.5 billion dollars. So yeah, the new Lego Marvel game can get away with a couple shawarma jokes.
The Marvel universe, with its earnest, self-effacing, fourth-wall-breaking ethos and prodigious roster of colorful heroes and villains, is a terrific fit for the Lego game series. Whereas the DC universe always seemed to take itself a little too seriously, Marvel has never had a problem embracing its silliness. That’s perfect for the Lego games, which thrive on the same kind of self-aware slapstick. This time around, instead of “citizens in peril,” you rescue Lego-fied Stan Lees trapped under cars or suspended from wires. “Sometimes I think I make these cameos too easy,” the Marvel figurehead says once he’s safely back on terra firma.
It’s this kind of nod to fans—and there are plenty of such moments throughout the game’s story levels and sandbox New York City—that will make Lego Marvel Super Heroes a delight for Marvel acolytes. Winking references to age-old comic plotlines bump shoulders with one-off gags riffing on Marvel’s popular films. The cast of playable characters is massive, featuring multiple costumes for many heroes, as well as some truly obscure deep cuts (Ronan the Accuser? Squirrel Girl?). Most characters even have nifty custom animations, good for a chuckle.
The array of powers at your disposal is similarly impressive, although not substantially different from prior games. Familiar Lego mechanics return: Oversize characters like The Hulk can move big objects; web-slingers like Spider-Man can pull special handles; beam-shooters like Cyclops can melt gold and ice. Finishing a story mission opens up Free Play mode, where you can go back with an expanded roster to collect all the goodies you missed. The “items” system of Lego Lord of the Rings, which felt superfluous, is excised here. Yet aside from a few tweaks, there’s nothing significantly altered about this latest Lego title’s systems. This is iterative design, folks: These games have found their formula, and they’re sticking to it.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. The joy of Lego games is switching between characters to solve puzzles and defeat enemies, and while Lego Marvel’s 15 story levels and unlockable bonus missions give you plenty of opportunity for satisfying brick-breaking, there’s much more to discover in the sandbox hub of New York. Unlike the inky, crowded mess of Lego Batman 2’s Gotham City, NYC is beautifully bright, easily navigable and dense with stuff to do without feeling claustrophobic. Loading up the game starts you off in the floating S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier (a mini-hub world in itself), and each trip to the city below begins with a fun little skydiving session. Once at street level, you’ll have an easier time getting around thanks to an improved mini-map and waypoint marker system. Bystanders’ incidental dialogue ranges from grating (you’ll hear that Midnight Cowboy “I’m walkin’ here!” line over and over) to refreshingly self-aware (“You ever think there’s more to life than collecting gold bricks all day?”). There’s greater variety in the sidequests, as well, although many do tend to be of the fetch variety. A more impressive improvement is that for the first time in recent memory, the framerate of this Lego game stayed consistent, even with lots of activity on screen.
Unfortunately, Lego Marvel Super Heroes does suffer from a number of technical flaws that severely disrupt the play experience. I’m not talking about the wonky camera placement, which often forces one co-op player to drop out temporarily so the other can aim at an object. Nor the atrocious driving and flying controls, which have somehow gotten worse over the course of the past several games. Driving a car inevitably devolves into a series of Austin Powers three-point turns, while Iron Man and his flying compatriots are about as agile in the air as bricks with construction-paper wings. Godspeed to players who feel compelled to 100% this game—most of the races I attempted were comically futile.
Other bugs—bugs my co-op partner and I were depressingly familiar with from previous Lego titles—added to the frustration. One player dropping out sometimes caused the level to freeze. Often, the game would switch which player was controlling which hero after a cutscene, for no discernible reason. On occasion, objectives would randomly disappear mid-puzzle; a grate Mr. Fantastic could normally slither through, for example, would inexplicably become impassible. If one of these bugs occurred during a puzzle embedded in a story or free play level, we’d have to exit and restart the entire thing. The worst offense was that the game caused my Xbox 360 to hard-lock roughly once per 90 minutes of play—a ratio I’d expect from a Kickstarted indie alpha build, not a major release in a long-running franchise.
Still, the Marvel license goes a long way toward absolving Lego Marvel Super Heroes of its technical sins. And while none of the puzzles will tax your brain overmuch, you will feel that familiar satisfaction bumping up that completion percentage with every gold brick collected and character unlocked. Maybe it’s too much to hope for a Lego game to take any big risks. You could probably say the same about Marvel.
J.P. Grant is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Gamers With Jobs and other outlets. He blogs about games at Infinite Lag and is also on Twitter.