Tuesday, October 04, 2016
Further Thoughts on Lego Dimensions
I've reviewed Lego Dimensions, performed an analysis of its cost, and done a little musing about why NFC toys are so appealing. You'd think the subject would be out of my system by now, but here I am, sitting on my couch with a pile of Legos spread across my coffee table, still trying to make sense of it all. Why this game? Why am I still so completely hyped on a game that continues to ask me to buy into it?
Well, let's start with the fact that it's a Lego game, and Lego games are pretty damned awesome. Traveller's Tales have come up with this formula that has pretty much universal appeal and application. Let the player wander through scenes from their favorite movies -- or completely original scenes based on their favorite franchises -- and let them smash everything in sight, compulsively collecting shiny, shiny studs. Give them a huge cast of characters to play as, each with abilities that can be used to solve puzzles and open new areas in those levels, and make those characters collectible and easy to switch between on the fly for maximum ease of gameplay. Tie the whole thing together with hilarious and quirky Lego-ized cut scenes, and you've got all of the makings for a romp. These games are easy enough that children -- the target audience -- can play them start to finish without much frustration, but complex and entertaining enough that adults can enjoy them too.
And Lego Dimensions really shows off the flexibility of their formula by making a game that's been pieced together from such disparate franchises as Doctor Who, The Simpsons, The Lord of the Rings, Portal, Back to the Future, Adventure Time, Scooby Doo, Harry Potter, and on and on. Every world that you visit in the game has its own flavor, and yet they all feel like they fit together.
Of course, the difference between Lego Dimensions and other Lego games is the fact that you have to pay for every playable character that you want to add to the game, putting content like collectibles, hidden areas, levels, and explorable open worlds out of your reach unless you pony up the money for it. And gamers are right to feel a little resentment about this because, frankly, this shit is pretty expensive. The idea of tripping through the Lego multiverse with a wild and ludicrous cast of characters sounds amazing, but it takes a significant investment to make you feel like you're getting the complete experience.
I can't really argue against that. If this is more money than you're willing to sink into a game, that's pretty much the end of the argument. But I think I'm fine with it, and I can tell you why.
Probably the most significant reason, to me, is that this is a game that was designed with the intention of being expanded upon and bringing compatibility forward. So instead of buying a whole new disc or Starter Set every year, they've kept the game in development. This year they're releasing as many new levels and adventure worlds as they had last year as free downloads that you can activate by buying the appropriate characters, and plans are to do the same thing next year. This is really awesome. It's great for consumers because it makes them feel like everything they buy for this game is a piece that they're adding to this giant world, and it's great for Traveller's Tales and Warner Brothers because they can add a license to their game without having to worry about renewing it for a sequel disc a year later. (Unless they do? I don't know what the licensing for this game entailed; it seems like it would be a nightmare.)
And really, let's talk about the licensing. I mean, you can see that Warner Brothers has really favored licenses that it already owns, like the Harry Potter movies, the DC Universe, The Lord of the Rings... But the fact is, they've really reached out to places like Universal, the BBC, and now Sonic Team and Cartoon Network to get them on board with this idea, and the game feels so much richer for it. And maybe the extra money we have to sink into the game is just the price we have to pay to live in a world where Jake and Finn get to go adventuring in Middle Earth.
There's also the question of the kind of content you get. Owning a character in a franchise gives you access to that franchise's open-exploration Adventure World, where you can roam around at will looking for missions to complete and just plain enjoying the experience of being in Lego-ized versions of your favorite franchise worlds. I find these to be kind of hit or miss -- some of these worlds feel much too small to accurately represent their franchises -- but I have to admit, I will spend hours in these things, just hunting around for secrets and new things to do. These worlds might be the strongest feature of the game as a whole just because they do give you more opportunities to play as your favorite characters for long stretches of time without having to switch out to cross obstacles designed for specific characters. And it just plain does a better job of recreating the feeling of playing with toys.
But as much as I enjoy that sort of open, undirected play, the new levels are probably the premium content here. The first couple Level Packs felt a little shallow to me. The Simpsons and Back to the Future were the worst, neither of them being particularly action-oriented, which made it seem like they were over much too quickly. But the levels have gotten better over time. Ghostbusters was a pretty decent adaptation, and Midway Arcade actually added authentic emulated arcade games into the mix, and Year 2 started off with a bang with excellent Adventure Time and Mission Impossible levels.
Of course, what I really love is the new Story Pack idea. There are going to be three of them this year, starting with Ghostbusters 2016. Not only do you get an Abby Yates figure, an Ecto 1 Mark II build, a complete six-level adaptation of the movie, and a new adventure world, but you also get a completely new build for the portal that resembles the new Ghostbusters headquarters from the movie. The new portal build looks awesome, it has a working sliding door -- I just love it to death. It really makes Lego Dimensions feel like it's this sort of pseudo-platform that they're developing a complete game for, while at the same time mixing in with the rest of the world of the game -- you can take Abby out to the other worlds, and you can bring everyone else into her game. I really look forward to seeing what they do with the other Story Packs they release in the future.
You also have to take into account that you're not just paying for software -- you're getting Legos. Each new set that I collect gives me the opportunity to sit down for five minutes and put together a tiny Lego set. It reminds me of the Lego sets that came in Happy Meals back in the 80s -- they're just these little bite-sized activities. And when you're done, hey! You've got a tiny Delorean! Or the Mystery Machine! Or BMO! Or a Weighted Companion Cube!
Now, at this point I would love to argue that Lego Dimensions is a better toys to life concept because you get actual Legos that you can actually play with, but let's get real. I'm not going to take these models apart. I'm not going to mix them in with my Lego collection and make other things out of them. These are my COLLECTIBLE MINIATURES. And although the game gives you the option to upgrade these models by taking them apart and putting them back together in different configurations, I'm not going to do that either. Those variations on the Weighted Companion Cube or the Tardis are nowhere near as cool as having the official model builds. (Although I am pretty happy about upgrading the Delorean into a hovercar.)
And let's address one point of absolute, brutal honesty. Lego Dimensions positions itself as being a better value than other NFC games because every figure also comes with a little build -- a vehicle, a gadget, an animal companion, etc. And while it's really cool to see some of the iconic vehicles and props that are associated with these characters, there isn't a lot of difference between one vehicle or another. I keep the Batmobile handy, and that solves most of the problems that I would need a vehicle to solve. And not every character really needs this sort of extra. Like, Legolas comes with this giant crossbow car because... that's what he had in the movie, right?
But even with all that said, these toys are just gorgeous. They have the sort of detail that normally goes into the Lego Creator line, where pieces have been chosen quite creatively to add texture to every model, and a surprising amount of thought has clearly gone into every design. Cyborg's power suit has several points of articulation. The ghost trap actually opens up. The doors on the Delorean open in the iconic spread-wing style. Even if you treat these toys like sterile collector's items, they're still posable and cool and just fun to play around with.
And that's probably the reason why this game has been so successful at drilling past my defenses and getting into my brain. Because I love Legos. I've started collecting and building sets again as an adult hobby, and I love it. And I would love a Portal Lego set. But Legos are pretty pricey. The Lego Portal set of my dreams would need enough pieces to actually build some test chambers that I could play around with, not to mention a fully articulated GLaDOS. That would cost hundreds of dollars, easily. A Lego Dimensions pack is kind of a reasonable compromise. For thirty dollars, I get some physical pieces that I can build and interact with, a small, playable Portal level, and a huge explorable Aperture Science Adventure World. It's as if every tiny Lego Dimensions box was a whole playset.
The last thing I have to say about Lego Dimensions -- until I figure out something else I want to say about it -- is how much I just adore the physical nature of it. I love the little ritual of setting up the portal and getting out my figures when I want to play it. I love setting out the characters that I'm going to need for the scenario that I have in mind. I love switching between heroes on the fly as I'm playing, and the need to make the most of the limited space you have on the portal -- several puzzles require you to move characters around, and if you aren't smart about how you're using your space, you'll end up fumbling around and possibly being attacked by enemies. It's something that I've loved about this game from the beginning, the idea that the portal is this sort of extra novelty controller that gives you something else to keep track of while you're playing.
Year 2 of Lego Dimensions is going to tear my wallet apart. There are so many new franchises coming in that I want to get just for the pleasure of owning these characters as minifigs -- who wouldn't want an E.T. or a Gizmo? I might be a little more sore about this if there was anything else I wanted to spend my spare time and money on, but as it is, I'm enjoying the ride.