The Lego Video Game Conundrum

It's a mistake, in light of Lego Pirates Of The Caribbean, to accuse Traveller's Tales of diminishing returns with their Lego series. I keep seeing that happening. It's wrong. If anything the problem is the stability of their consistency. I've had a think about why.

These games are coming thick and fast, this year already offering us Star Wars III and Pirates, with the promise of more Harry Potter toward Christmas. I wonder if the more negative tone against this latest release is fatigue with the franchise, rather than the fault of the game.

Released in March, Lego Star Wars III was an absolutely joyful game-–the finest implementation of the concept they've been making and making since the original, Lego Star Wars. Over many, many games. I think their peak is still last year's Lego Harry Potter, and certainly their trough was the first Lego Indy. But each glows or fades not based on the barrage of new ideas they've thrown in, but simply the application of the same core ideas that have been there since the start.

Harry Potter especially shines because of the quite stunning use of Hogwarts as an ever-expanding hub. Rather than a series of levels, here you're mostly in one place, but a place that grows larger and more interesting the more you play. LSWIII has the traditional division into separate levels, but each is a cheerful set of challenges, and an absolutely astonishing hub that feels like a game on its own.

Lego Indy felt like the simplest version, with repetitive, less inspired levels, spoilt by incessant, irrelevant combat. If they'd only limited the endless waves of enemies, however, it'd have been top fun. It was close.

Each game has such love and humour put into it, such detail that it boggles the mind how they make one every two years, let alone three a year (at the current rate). The animation is exquisite, and the cartoon action often genuinely brilliant.

But can they be accused of innovation? They came up with a stunning idea, and they're repeating it extremely well. So while Lego Pirates lacks either Potter's location, and LSWIII's hub, it's still an excellent production. The gags are so frequent, the mad joy of smashing everything as ever perfectly delivered, and this time there's far more emphasis on applying individual character's skills to solve puzzles. Perhaps not quite as interestingly as Lego Batman, with the different suits for the cast, but certainly in context with the films.

And this is what it becomes about. There's so many games in this series now, and each is of such an enormous scale and depth, that you find yourself plotting it on a graph, rather than thinking, "What will they think of next?!"

Which leaves me wrestling with the question: Do they need to? A great sitcom in its eighth season doesn't need to change half the cast and become a crime procedural drama. Few people told Picasso, "Can't you just put their eyes in the right place?"

But then, it's also not quite Picasso. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the Lego franchise is that, as great as their games tend to be, they're not getting especially greater.

The engine has recently hugely improved, with far more detail, a more interesting mix of Lego and real-world elements, and even physics as you charge through your detritus, and sometimes for when you solve puzzles. But the mistakes haven't.

Every single Traveller's Tales Lego game justifies the same criticism. Firstly, their refusal to let you swing the camera around at crucial moments means that every single one of them has tiresome sequences in which you can't aim your jumps properly. There's no reason on the planet why the camera can't even swing itself around at these points, to let you look forward at your pathway, rather than trying to guess what's where from a side-on view. That's irritating to me, but when your game is aimed at broader audiences, families, younger players, and those not familiar with gaming, it must be utterly maddening.

All the games have glitches where characters get stuck on scenery, and it's never noticeably changed. Pirates is proving far worse in this regard. And while the games will occasionally frustrate by overly guiding your through sequences, should you ever become stuck it will abandon you, unable to detect your lack of progress.

And what I wouldn't give for a way to switch off the endlessly flashing message top right that informs you a second player can join in. It was bad enough in the arcades, it's just silly on a home PC game.

Which brings us to TT's biggest failing, and one that is getting ridiculous. The PC ports of their games are pretty offensively lazy. While they play very nicely when using a 360 pad - and some will defend the mouse/keyboard controls - it's obvious the effort to make them fit on the machine is a little contemptuous. Of course there's a "PRESS START" opening screen, followed by menus that have no mouse controls, and screen options that are a complete joke.

None has ever offered to run in a window, and anti-aliasing options will not do your graphics card justice. It's very clear that PC is not a priority, as you pick a save slot and agree to let it save to it, and frantically Esc your way through menus.

Sadly this seems to have reached its worst point in Lego Pirates (if you can even find it for sale for PC), which has load times to make a Commodore 64 jealous. Ludicrous ones, in the middle of levels, where there's time to go and make coffee. But I'll go into more detail about that in my forthcoming review (should I live long enough to get through all the loads.)

The longer they keep repeating these same mistakes, the more egregious they begin to feel. They're not necessarily worse, but their longevity begins to grate.

And I fear the same happens to the games' consistent high points too. They're generally the same high points. So I think it's extremely important not to conflate the two aspects.

Those high points are so damned high. The jokes, the cutscenes, the setups, the puzzles, the visual gags as you're playing (nothing has topped Jack Sparrow's swagger), and the sheer unbridled joy of smashing everything in a fluid frenzy of crazed destruction, are wonderful things. That they keep doing the same wonderful things over and over isn't by definition a failing. They're getting better and better at what they do. It's just, maybe they should now be aiming for more? Maybe they should be trying to do something else too?

John Walker is a writer for Rock Paper Shotgun, one of the world's best sites for PC gaming news. He knows more about Canadian police dramas that you've had hot dinners, or something. He is also handsome. Follow him on Twitter.

Republished with permission.


Comments

    I have one major problem with the LEGO series, and that's the stud collecting. Having to collect a set amount of money in each level has always been a chore that artificially lenghtens the game. I was sad to see it back in LEGO Pirates.

      That's not unique to LEGO games though, you can rip through the story in about 10-15 hrs and you can leave it at that if you wanted, but if you want to 100% then, it's just like a GTA and 'hidden packages'

      The game might already be over, but it's your choice to 100% it, but in saying that, you just save up and eventually you will find a multiplier bonus and getting "True Pirate/Adventurer/Jedi" becomes as simple as loading up a level, spend 5 secs in game and then Pause > Save & Quit and it's done.

    In terms of target audience, I'm not sure the current LEGO games should really be treated as a single franchise. Harry Potter, Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc. are all franchises in their own right, and their fan-bases don't necessarily overlap. It's only over-saturation if you happen to be a fan of every one of these series'.

    The LEGO games have actually become something of a genre unto themselves, more a means of treating the subject matter than a franchise.

    I have only been interested in 2 Lego games.

    Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean.

    Pirates is the only one I find myself still playing after the first story....

    Also I'm playing on PC, the load times aren't that bad and the collecting coins (stubs)is an extra too collect characters you actually don't need but only to 100% the game.

    I have bought Lego SW III and will start it after I finish Pirates, I'm up too about half way through "At worlds end".

    I've always had a bit of a love/hate thing going with the Lego games. I love the concept but hate how much wasted potential there is!

    The original LSW was perfect due to the blocky interior level design, but LSW2 bothered me a little with the organic outdoors coupled with the wonky physics. My problems with the level designs are twofold; firstly there is no longer enough Lego - what I mean by this is comparing all the little Lego embellishments in the LSW ship interiors and even the abundant foliage in LSW2 and LIJ to the non-Lego brickwork in LHP and LPotC. With technologies like parallax mapping it should be easy to make entire levels look like they are made of Lego blocks, or at least all structures. My other gripe is that the current non-Lego design misses the opportunity afforded to titles like Pikmin and Little King's Story where levels could be designed to look like you're running Lego mini-figs around a diorama in someone's backyard. This would have been a fantastic use of all the engine's rendering updates for lighting and shading, not to mention justifying all the non-Lego components of what should otherwise be a Lego world!

    But one of the biggest wasted opportunities I think relates mostly to licensing restrictions. Considering the near identical functionality coupled with HDD installation available for console games now, if companies could concede to another Roger Rabbit style IP crossover it would have been fantastic if every Lego game worked as an expansion for the others - select your game hub (Hogwarts/Cantina/Bat Cave/etc.) from a main 'Lego Collection' menu and make all characters and bonuses available for all games (imagine Mace Windu Vs. The Joker... Yoda Vs. Voldemort... Batman and Ron Weasley Vs. the Nazis from LIJ where everybody has the moustache modifier enabled...) - being able to do that with mods is partly why the original Unreal Tournament never got old and boring even years later!

    I had some brief fun with Lego star wars but in general these games have bored by to death (that’s right, I now type to you from beyond the grave).

    There is a little humor and the occasional puzzle that has held my interest but overall I think if it didn't have the Lego gimmick then the entire series would be rated at the same level as the average rush-job movie tie in. The movements are generally slow, jumping is imprecise and each game is basically a linear tunnel of coin collecting with the occasional room with some generic baddies or a set piece and boss fight.

    As I said there are moments I have really enjoyed but overall I think we are forgiving too much because of some mass hallucination that virtual Lego must be as awesome to us now as real Lego was when we were six. I've played with the virtual lego constructor kit, it doesn't compare well.

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