HULK SMASH LEGOS! THEN HULK BUILD LEGOS!
I had only played LEGO games in passing before sitting down with Marvel Super Heroes, but I had played enough to know the general premise: You’re LEGO characters from top-tier pop-culture franchises. You break LEGO things. You build LEGO things. You do some platforming. You solve some puzzles.
I was excited about Marvel Super Heroes because I knew last year’s LEGO Batman 2 represented a transition of sorts for the LEGO games, finally adding full voice acting (as opposed to using preexisting audio). And I had heard good things about the voice acting in Batman 2.
Moreover, although as a nerd I appreciate all the pop-culture stalwarts of prior LEGO games, Marvel is by far my favorite. I generally relish any new opportunity to spend time with Spider-Man, Deadpool, Doctor Strange, Gambit, Thor, and others in the lengthy roster.
Taking all these factors into consideration, I was expecting Marvel Super Heroes to be some cross between the comedic puzzle-platformer formula of the LEGO series and the build-your-team action-adventure formula of Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. And from what I gather, the console version delivers such an experience. But the portable version for 3DS is quite different from my expectations.
Most notably, the 3DS version plays primarily like a platformer. There doesn’t seem to be as much LEGO-building as in other LEGO games. In fact, I played through the first three levels mildly confused because I didn’t have to assemble a single item. Had I missed something? Was I playing the game wrong? This air of confusion dissipated on the fourth level when I finally encountered a couple of the standard assemble-this-thing-in-order-to-advance tasks.
The assembling tasks become a little more frequent as the game progresses, but really it remains a platformer. Each phase of the story is composed of three levels; these effectively become the ‘worlds’ common to platformers. The third level of each world involves a boss battle of some sort. Each level has a set of 10 ‘achievements’ (beat the level in a certain time; collect so many studs; defeat so many enemies; find this or another special item; destroy all of this thing; etc.) And you need a particular number of achievements to unlock the next world.
I don’t play a lot of platformers; the last one I played substantially was Rayman Origins. And that game came to mind as I settled into a routine in Marvel Super Heroes.
Each level requires a few different playthroughs. I would usually start with the ‘thorough’ playthrough: break everything to collect the maximum number of studs; kill all the enemies; explore the level for hidden items and secrets. Then once I knew how the level played out, I would do a speed-run to get the time-based achievement. And a lot of times there are elements that require revisiting at a later point in the game, with a different character or after a particular ability has been unlocked.
Once I adjusted to the gameplay and honed my strategy, the game became oddly addicting. I know not everyone likes the achievement/trophy systems on Xbox and PlayStation. But I do. And although the in-level achievements of Marvel Super Heroes aren’t the most compelling achievements I’ve come across, I definitely found myself trying to get as many achievements as possible, even when I had already unlocked the next world.
Coupled with the achievements, the large Marvel roster adds a hefty amount of content to this portable game. There are dozens of characters to unlock (many of them unlocked as additional rewards for achievements).
Unlocking a character usually still requires you to buy him/her from the in-game store, using the studs you’ve collected as currency. And once you’ve completed a world you can replay its levels as any character that you’ve unlocked. Often, there are achievements that require playthroughs with alternate characters. For example, on the level where you first play as Wolverine, there is a cracked wall that ‘requires a big character, like the Hulk’.
All these elements work together very well. You’re collecting studs to unlock achievements, and also to spend in the store. You’re getting achievements to advance through the story, and also to unlock characters. And then you’re using unlocked characters to get more achievements. These aspects of the game design all fit together like...well, like LEGO pieces: duh.
As exciting as the idea of playing as dozens of Marvel characters is, the execution doesn’t quite live up to the anticipation. That’s because all the characters feel pretty much the same. Sure, Spider-Man shoots webs, while Hawkeye shoots arrows, and Captain America throws his shield. And Iron Man can fly, while Reed Richards stretches into a parachute to float on wind currents. And Wolverine can climb walls with his claws.
And Hulk smash.
Nonetheless, playing the game as Spider-Man doesn’t feel much different from playing as Iron Man or Hulk. All the characters move at the same speed; their attacks all do the same amount of damage. I know I shouldn’t hold a LEGO game to this standard, but I couldn’t help compare Marvel Super Heroes to Batman: Arkham City. In Arkham City, you can feel the difference when you play with different characters. Catwoman feels lighter and more agile than Batman; Robin’s staff somehow makes those hits feel even more brutal than Batman’s fists. That qualitative difference doesn’t exist in Marvel Super Heroes.
Ultimately, melee and projectile attacks all feel pretty much the same. It doesn’t feel different when you punch with Spider-Man as opposed to Iron Man, or when you shoot as Hawkeye as opposed to Black Widow.
Where the substantial Marvel roster shines, though, is in the story. It’s a LEGO game, so you’re not getting Coen Brothers or Aaron Sorkin writing here. But the dialogue is clever and funny in its own right. And the writing does a good job of incorporating elements from the vast Marvel canon, both in the jokes and in the story. In all honesty, the part I enjoyed most about beating a world was getting the cutscene that would introduce the next. And it’s a great move on Tt’s part that you can go back and watch the cutscenes on their own.
Unfortunately,the video quality of the cutscenes is noticeably poor. As much as I loved them, the cutscenes look like standard definition video on an HD screen: very grainy. This is perplexing, because the gameplay looks great. I wasn’t blown away by the 3D, but even with 3D turned off, the levels have a lot of depth. And although I was underwhelmed by the experience of playing as different characters, the Marvel roster certainly looks cool in the game. The level of aesthetic detail in character design is excellent.
Overall, although it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes works well as a portable entry in the LEGO series. The level-world formula makes it easy to consume in short bursts, but there is plenty of content and replay value to keep you busy, and possibly even get you addicted. Clever writing injects the humor you’d expect, in a way that both kids and adults can appreciate. My primary complaint is that the gameplay doesn’t fully realize the substantial Marvel roster.
Nonetheless, playing all your favorite Marvel characters in LEGO form is plenty fun.