Alright look, here’s the thing about LEGO Dimensions: it was always going to have an ENORMOUS advantage in the toys-to-life marketplace. The “toys” part is being handled by LEGO; arguably the best toy brand on the planet. How anyone can expect plastic, immovable figurines from Skylanders and Disney Infinity to compete with actual LEGO sets for a kid’s attention is laughable. You want to know my theory? When LEGO Dimensions arrived on the scene (rather late in the toys-to-life genre’s existence), Disney took one look at it and pretty much bowed-out of the marketplace. Disney Infinity is dead; not even the largest entertainment company’s massive stable of franchises can stand up to LEGO. The fact that heaps of Disney’s franchises are already part of the LEGO brand (Star Wars, Marvel, etc.) is beside the point. Or maybe it’s entirely the point? Maybe Disney Infinity got canned because Disney knows they could just license LEGO Star Wars to Warner Bros. for the inevitable LEGO Dimensions sequel, and then sit back and let others do all the hard work while the cash piles up.
Marketplace segue aside, LEGO Dimensions is the new undisputed king of the toys-to-life genre. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either the safest new IP in the genre, or the most ingenious. Pessimists would say it’s a game that sells itself safely on the LEGO brand. While it does do that, it also turns out that the actual GAME is brilliant. It’s smart, hilarious, and it does new and very clever things with its portal.
LEGO Dimensions is a year old already, but it’s new to the South Africa market. We missed the initial September 2015 release for logistics purposes: this is the first title that Warner Bros. has published that has a significant physical aspect to it. They chose to play it safe and release the game slowly in different territories, which is why we’re a year behind the likes of the USA and EU. The wait was worth it, however, because LEGO Dimensions is some of the most fun I’ve had in a game this year.
The premise is silly but a suitable excuse for basically mashing together a whole bunch of different intellectual properties. In the game, all of these various LEGO versions of popular franchises exist in their own dimensions. There’s a Middle-earth dimension (“Don’t you mean Middle-Zealand?” Wyldstyle asks Gandalf; there are heaps of clever IP cross-references found throughout the game), a Simpsons dimension, a Scooby Doo dimension, etc. Within each dimension is a Foundation Element, which is normally some item that’s intrinsically tied to that IP’s mythos. So, for example, in the Wizard of Oz dimension, the Ruby Slippers are the Foundation Element.
It turns out there’s this new bad guy on the scene called Lord Vortech (who is voiced by Gary Oldman; one of numerous celebrity voice actors). Vortech has clearly taken a leaf out of Lord Business’s book, because he wants to collect each realm’s Foundation Element, so as to destroy them all and make one pure LEGO realm. I guess the message that the game is trying to send is “rigid uniformity is bad; let’s celebrate everyone’s differences instead”. Maybe Trump should play this game?
Enter a bunch of familiar characters from various dimensions to try to stop Vortech. The game’s story follows the exploits of Gandalf, Batman, and Wyldstyle who all come with the starter pack of the game. It’s an unlikely trio; one that you’d expect to find in a six-year-old’s Saturday morning LEGO game. The banter between them and the numerous other characters they encounter throughout the very lengthy campaign is one of the most wonderful aspects of this game. I was having hysterics during the Portal levels, with GLaDOS adopting her trademark bitchy passive aggression in all dealings with the trio. Most of the game’s humour is definitely aimed at older players, and there are references that no kid will pick up no matter how dorky their upbringing. GLaDOS meets HAL 9000? Yeah, that happens. It’s hilarious.
If you’ve played a Traveller’s Tale LEGO game before, then you’re going to feel right at home with LEGO Dimensions. However, the key feature that sets this game apart from the rest of the Tt stable is the portal. The portal has a number of functions within the actual game, on top of being a means to transport your LEGO toys onto the screen. There are many puzzle elements that require you to swap characters across the three platforms on the portal; there are also numerous puzzles that make use of the portal’s colour-changing LED lights.
This all adds a wonderful physicality to the gameplay. Early on I found myself scratching my head at certain puzzles, only to remember that the portal is key to most things in the game. There are some very clever puzzles happening here, and it provides a wonderful breath of fresh air for the toys-to-life scene.
You get to bring in a collection of other playable characters depending on which physical character packs you’ve purchased. Our review copy came with character “Fun Packs” for The Wicked Witch, Bart Simpson, Doc Brown, and Wonder Woman. Each of these characters has different abilities that can be used to solve little puzzles in order to find all the collectibles in each level. It’s a setup that will be instantly familiar to veterans of Traveller’s Tales LEGO games. This time, however, instead of swapping in-game LEGO studs to unlock characters, you’ve got to purchase the physical characters, build them, and then plop them on your portal to get them into your game. If it sounds overtly capitalistic that’s because it is. Or is it? LEGO Dimensions is the first game in numerous toys-to-life titles that I’ve played that actually allows you to swap in-game collectible currency (the aforementioned LEGO studs) in order to temporarily unlock a character that you might need to finish a puzzle, but not necessarily physically own. It’s a very fair compromise in my opinion. It is, therefore, entirely possible to 100% the campaign without purchasing a single additional, physical character pack. Once you hit an area that’s “gated” behind a missing character’s special ability, you’re given the option to “Hire-a-Hero” for 50,000 LEGO studs. This character then becomes playable for 30 seconds which is normally more than enough time to solve the little puzzle and grab the collectible. It’s a far cry from something like Skylanders Superchargers, which gates entire level sections behind R300 physical toy purchases. Basically, LEGO Dimensions is a toys-to-life game in which buying more physical toys isn’t 100% necessary to see most of the game; and yet, it’s the one game in the genre that I actually WANT to be buy more toys for, because LEGO is awesome.
There is, obviously, a catch. Each LEGO dimension has an open hub-world of sorts to explore, but that world is only accessible if you own a character from that particular dimension. Naturally, you get access to the dimensions for Lord of the Rings, DC Comics, and The LEGO Movie because of Gandalf, Batman, and Wyldstyle shipping with the starter pack. If you want to access, say, The Simpsons realm then you’ll need to go out and purchase Bart, Homer or Krusty. Honestly, these dimension worlds are fun to explore for a bit, but they’re not a patch on the scripted campaign in terms of engagement. That still didn’t stop me from purchasing extra Fun Packs and a Level Pack, but mainly because I collect LEGO and I wanted a LEGO Chell and Portal turret because OH MY GOSH LOOK AT HOW CUTE THEY ARE YOU GUYS, SERIOUSLY. Was it worth R450? There’s quite a bit of extra game content that’s added with a Level Pack, but unless you’re a diehard LEGO collector, it’s quite a pricy investment if you just want to access the new in-game content.
And this is one of the aspects that I found myself grappling with throughout my time with the game: perceived value. For many people, games in the toys-to-life genre are just games that have glorified physical DLC. I tend to agree with that for the likes of Skylanders and the now late Disney Infinity. You could purchase new characters for each of those games, and then if you’re extra dorky (like me) you’d display those characters on your desk or something. But with LEGO Dimensions it’s a little different. When you purchase a new Fun Pack or Team Pack or Level Pack, you’re getting LEGO, and that LEGO fits together with any other LEGO you may have. In that regard, I’ve found the perceived value and “toy” aspect of LEGO Dimensions to be vastly superior to the competition. My son has spent more time playing with the LEGO Dimensions toys these past two weeks than he has any of the Skylanders or Disney Infinity figurines. He had Batman piloting an enormous LEGO Chima mecha-gorilla, while Gandalf flew a LEGO X-wing. Because that’s the cool thing about the LEGO Dimensions toys: they’re actual toys, and not immovable plastic figurines. The fact that those toys ship with an incredible game is just perfect.
And LEGO Dimensions IS an incredible game. There is so much attention to detail in the various characters. Wyldstyle moves with the same janky, stop-motion animation that all the LEGO Movie characters move with; Wonder Woman has this sassy hip-wiggle and 1970s Wonder Woman theme that plays every time she starts flying; Batman from DC Universe meets Batman from The LEGO Movie, and their interaction is hysterical. I could go on; there are innumerable moments that made me laugh and smile and fall desperately in love with this game.