Lego Marvel Super Heroes does a remarkable job of capturing the spirit of its source material.
Or at least, the Marvel half of it. As with all the rest of Traveller's Tales' Lego [Insert Popular Franchise Here] games, it's not really very Lego-y at all. There's only a token amount of building and customisation involved, and that's fine.
There's one thing it does have in common with Lego the toy, at least in its modern incarnation. Lego Marvel is a great big toybox, filled with all your favourite characters. Or, to use a comics term, Lego Marvel is a great big crossover, an event drawing together a whole universe of superheroes against a single vaguely-defined threat. The game offers a playable dramatis personæ over 150 strong, ranging from A-List mainstays to, well, Squirrel Girl.
As in a crossover, many of those characters are just roughly sketched in – the game has a limited selection of power sets, which get mixed and matched repeatedly – but the scale of it is thrilling. There's a real geeky pleasure in watching Wolverine, Captain America and the Human Torch hanging out in Asgard, and in seeing your personal favourites depicted as adorable Lego minifigs.
Lego Marvel has a bit habit of leaning on that affection, though, and hoping you'll forgive the parts of the game that are messy or even outright broken. The controls are inconsistent, the four face buttons standing in for such a wide variety of actions that they're not guaranteed to do what you want. Steering characters around is awkward, especially thanks to a semi-fixed camera that often places scenery in the way of the action.
Playing it co-operatively with Imogen 'Underrated in the Game' Dale has been equal parts wonderful and frustrating. Wonderful because we've never really played a running, jumping and punching game together before and that stuff is great, simple fun. Because its missions are delivered in perfect three-quarter-of-an-hour chunks. Because the game lets players die as many times as they need to progress with minimal penalty, making it a level playing field for someone who has dedicated a considerable fraction of his life to games not too dissimilar to this, and someone who has never handled movement in a virtual 3D space before.
Frustrating because every time a button press doesn't do what she's expecting it to, or the game fails to explain a key concept, or obfuscates the solution to a puzzle so badly that I have to find a walkthrough on my phone, I imagine a situation where Imi, or someone like her, is playing this alone. And frankly, I struggle to imagine her not putting the controller down for good.
That's one half of Lego Marvel. The connective tissue between the game's dozen or so core missions is a New York hub level, which plays like a chunky kid-friendly GTA. It's a charming condensation of the city as it exists in the Marvel Universe, which makes it possible to fly between the Baxter Building in Manhattan and Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, apparently relocated from Westchester, in a matter of minutes.
This open world is stuffed with small side missions – chase down these goons before they escape, steer Iron Man through a skyscraper obstacle course, rescue Stan Lee from a pile of giant chess pieces – which reward you with new characters, vehicles or glowing gold bricks.
Here, you can switch freely between any characters you've unlocked, meaning you can hurtle through Central Park as the Hulk, chase down a sweet ride which you jack as the Punisher and drive it into the Hudson, before taking to the skies in Mk VII Iron Man armour.
In Marvel's comics, there's a long tradition of depicting heroes' downtime, whether it's the X-Men playing a super-powered game of baseball or the Thing's poker nights. The New York sections capture that feeling perfectly, letting you decide what superheroes use their powers for when they're not saving the world or battling the big bad.
Lego Marvel has a Tony Stark-like habit of coasting by on its charm. A lot of the game's pleasure rely upon a preexisting affection for these familiar characters, and an appreciation of the way their various screen and page incarnations are combined. As much good work as the game does to invite in new players, it makes too many stupid mistakes that render it as inaccessible as the competition.
But when that charm works – a side quest that has you jumping characters, psychic to fire to hulking tank, to solve a single puzzle, or a visual gag that has Mr Fantastic stretching himself into a gigantic pair of bolt cutters to break a tiny padlock – all of this is suddenly forgotten in a whirl of fanboyish enthusiasm.
Like I said, the 'Marvel' half of Lego Marvel is just pitch perfect.
Other games what I've been playing: