Gandalf, Batman and Wildstyle walk into the Aperture Science Enrichment Centre. Stop me if you've heard this one. Chances are you haven't, as up until now the only place you could have stumbled upon that particular combination is your wildest imagination (or perhaps the imagination of a fan fiction author.)
The LEGO Group is no stranger to harnessing the power of the imagination. They have been doing it for 83 years now, first with simple wooden toys and then graduating to interlocking plastic bricks in 1949. In 1999 the company began bolstering its original creations with licensed properties. Today, between company-created products and community projects submitted through the LEGO Ideas program, LEGO sets representing more than two dozen popular entertainment properties have been produced.
And so, thanks in large part to the iconic uniform design of LEGO's minifigures, it's not so hard to imagine characters from Jurassic World, Scooby Doo and LEGO Chima going on adventures together. It's been happening on a shelf on my desk for weeks now.
And with the release of LEGO Dimensions, Warner Bros. and TT Games' first entry in the expanding toys-to-life genre, it's happening on my video game console.
I've played a lot of LEGO video games over the years — LEGO Batman, LEGO Star Wars, LEGO Indiana Not Great As A Video Game, LEGO LEGO Movie and many more. No matter the quality of those games, I've always come away wishing I had the toys to go along with the action. Now they're required. Hooray! Hooray? Sure, we'll go with hooray.
It's definitely a hooray for the combination LEGO collector/gamers in the audience. Counting myself among that group, a video game pausing within the first couple of minutes and instructing me to rip open a bag of bricks and construct magical portal is about the best thing that could happen while sitting alone in front of a television.
Technically this is a screenshot.
It's an exciting new dynamic in toys-to-life. As lovely as Disney Infinity figures are and as creative as Skylanders can be, the characters all all statues with plastic bases. Want to play with LEGO Batman? Just pop him off his stand. Want to give Gandalf's beard to The LEGO Movie's Wildstyle? Knock yourself out. LEGO Dimensions inspires physical play on a level far beyond other games in the genre.
Mind you, you don't have to build the toys if you don't want to. The portal works fine without the mass of bricks on top of it. The minifigure bases are all it needs to read, and accessories like vehicles only require a rewrite-able blue "Toy Tag" base in order to function. But where's the fun in that?
I suppose the fun in that would be the video game portion of the program. Once the Starter Pack toys — Batman, Gandalf, Wildstyle and the Batmobile — are assembled it's time for adventure.
The evil Lord Vortech, voiced with appropriate ham by Gary Oldman, has discovered a recipe for an artifact capable of collapsing all existing dimensions into one, shaped by his hand. All he needs is to assemble the Foundational Elements, iconic items of great power from each realm — items like a nuclear rod, a solitary ring and a possibly hypothetical baked good.
Of course some characters are more attached to their Foundational Elements than others, so when Lord Vortech nabs Robin, Frodo and Metal Beard, our heroes form an unlikely alliance to get them back and save every dimension ever.
Thus begins the grand, 10-12 hour (depending on your ability to ignore collectibles) that forms the heart of LEGO Dimensions' Starter Kit experience.
It begins, as most LEGO video games do, with wandering an area smashing all the thing, collecting bits and searching for hidden gold bricks and mini-kits. If not for the mix-and-match nature of this particular fellowship and the promise of hilarious interactions between characters from different entertainment properties, it would almost be boring.
But it's definitely not, and soon enough the game adds an additional layer of complexity.
Interacting with other toy-to-life games usually involves placing a toy upon the portal and then sitting back until you feel like changing characters. LEGO Dimensions' portal doesn't play like that. It's not a simple interface. It's a game board.
Here's a screenshot from the first level's battle with a certain wicked green woman of the Western persuasion. She casts a spell against on of my characters, the one in the middle circular area of the game portal. I have to pick him up and move him or he'll keep losing health until disassembled.
It's not just a tool for villainous attack, either. As the game progresses special powers are unlocked. First comes the ability to open three coloured teleport vortexes that correspond to colours on the portal. Move a toy to one of those colours, and the character warps there. Another power douses each character in red, blue or yellow, after which they can be moved about the board to match specific colour combinations to activate in-game switches. Elemental powers, growing and shrinking, finding hidden portals to warp in items and characters from other dimensions — all of these use the game portal in physical space.
It's active, entertaining and downright ingenious, though the game's heavy reliance on those five powers gets a little frustrating towards the end of story mode. Then again I played through the game marathon-style for review purposes. Those taking their time to explore and collect shouldn't feel it that acutely.
Magical portal powers aside, LEGO Dimensions isn't a particularly complex or challenging game. You die, you come back immediately. There's no game over screen. The most difficult thing you'll do with the basic set is drive the Batmobile, and that's mainly because the driving controls — a single analogue stick to steer and move — aren't that great.
But, as proven many times in the past, the LEGO video game formula is the perfect venue for a character piece, and this is the character piece to end all character pieces, especially if you buy all the character pieces.
The levels start off fairly straightforward and contained. The Wizard of Oz is The Wizard of Oz, from the yellow brick road to the Wicked Witch's castle. Slowly the dimensions become more and more twisted. Enemies begin crossing over. Incredibly clever stage names are implemented.
This is bad.
It all comes to a satisfying if somewhat drawn-out conclusion, at which point you realise you've been smiling for hours on end with the occasional bout of panic. Then the game makes you smile even more. Happy tears may occur.
And this is all just the story mode. Each property in LEGO Dimensions has its own adventure world, free-roaming stages filled with places to explore, quests to accomplish, bits to earn and iconic locales to rebuild. As I mentioned yesterday in my spoiler-heavy Portal content impressions, I spent an hours wandering about one of these adventure worlds alone. These worlds, accessible to any character are long as they are accompanied by a themed chaperon, are where the imagination kicks into high gear. One cannot simply walk into Mordor — Batman has to use stealth to disable the security camera, then Gandolf drives the Batmobile in.
All it takes to unlock an adventure world is a LEGO Dimensions minifigure from that particular property. That means the $US99 starter gives you access to the story content plus the DC Comics, The Lord of the Rings and The LEGO Movie. There's a ton to see and do with in that initial purchase.
Of course that only makes the promise of additional content more enticing. Look at all of these portals. All of these worlds waiting to be explored.
In order to unlock all of the content available at launch — there are releases scheduled well into next year — you'll have to buy the starter kit, three $US30 level packs — Portal, The Simpsons and Back to the Future — each of which also come with standalone adventure levels, two $US25 team packs — Scooby Doo and Jurassic World and at least three $US14.99 fun packs — one Chima, one Ninjago and The Wizard of Oz.
On top of that there's another 12 fun packs available, each containing a single minifigure and accessory.
A complete collection of LEGO Dimensions wave one, let alone the remaining four waves scheduled though May of next year, is not inexpensive. But it's also not necessary. You do not need every LEGO Dimensions toy, just like you don't need every new LEGO kit that comes out. I'm pretty much just telling myself that at this point, but feel free to snag whatever reassurance you can. I'm pretty much a lost cause.
The LEGO Group has been producing toys that come alive in the minds of children of all ages for the better part of a century. TT Games has been creating LEGO video games for a decade. LEGO Dimensions is the perfect marriage of the two — the digital evolution of imagination play.
In closing, here is Jurassic World's Owen Grady battling orcs from The Lord of the Rings while riding a Portal turret.