With each year of parenting comes new challenges and, it seems, a new video game craze to spend money on. After Skylanders, Disney Infinity and amiibo, this year we also have to contend with Lego Dimensions.
As you've likely seen, this offers a Toys to Life experience with one big difference: actual toys you can play with rather than inanimate plastic figurines. It also comes at quite a price, so with dust settling and more details emerging I'm taking a close look at what Lego Dimensions has to offer Nintendo owning families.
Nuts and bolts first. Like other Toys to Life video games, you need to buy a starter pack for Lego Dimensions. This being Lego, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that it is a little more costly, but still the near-£100 asking price tips this from a casual game purchase into something needing considerable commitment.
The starter pack - scheduled for September 29th (27th in North America) release - includes the game, a Lego Toy Pad reader and minifigures for Batman (with Batmobile), Gandalf and Wyldstyle. This suggests that it will provide the Batman, Lord of the Rings and Lego Movie areas of the game from the off.
The game can then be expanded upon with a variety of different packs.
- Level Packs (£29.99) contain new mission-based game levels unlocked by placing their minifigure, vehicle and gadget toys on the Lego Pad.
- Fun Packs (£14.99) extend the line up of character but add no levels. Each one contains one minifigure and a related vehicle or gadget.
- Team Packs (£29.99) are for those after an expanded collection but again doesn't expand the levels. They offer both a pair of minifigures and a vehicle or gadget for each with unique in-game abilities.
The language here of "mission-based" expansions for the Level Packs suggests that like Disney Infinity, there will be open world creative areas of the game alongside the more story-driven adventure pack offerings. Unlike Disney Infinity though, you can take a franchise character and play with it in both the open world and mission levels.
This ability to mix and match at will does away with any kind of compatibility chart, something that Lego Dimensions is keen to tout. However, these types of game are generally simple in their first outing, so time will tell how uncluttered and transparent an experience Lego Dimensions can offer going forward.
Also, promises are often made at the outset that you will buy one Portal/Base and use it year-on-year. However, Skylanders has strayed from this rhetoric with its yearly tech innovations and Disney Infinity requires players to buy the new game (and Base) to play the new adventure levels in 2.0. Families will no doubt be hoping that Lego is better at sticking to its guns.
As you'll already see, the biggest pill to swallow for parents here is the price. The starter pack and expansions are not cheap. Like Lego sets in general it's quality over cheapness here, the value being found in the longevity and play-depth of each set rather than a low retail price point.
While it's easy to criticise Lego for squeezing already pressed families finances, Lego Dimensions is the first of the Toys to Life console experiences to truly offer both a playable toy and video game. The Lego minifigures and brick building aspect are a vast improvement from the collectable toy lines of plastic figurines seen elsewhere. My children will get more ongoing value from the physical side of all this I'm sure - but we will be paying more for the privilege.
Looking in more detail at how the Toy Pad works uncovers other aspects of Lego Dimensions that may prove beneficial (and potentially costly) to families. In a demonstration for the Press Association it was revealed that the pad can accommodate seven NFC toys. Looking at the box this seems to suggest six mini figure characters and one vehicle. This is a higher number than either Skylanders or Disney infinity, which both support three toys at one time.
Reading between the lines, this leaves the door open for the Holy Grail of family gaming: four person multi-player. If not that, it certainly offers more interactions with the toy figures, bringing in the characters as both player and non-player characters.
The vehicle slot on the Toy Pad seems to be slightly raised, however nothing is confirmed on whether it "reads" how you have built the physical toy. The trailer seems to suggest the game is aware of this physical customisation but the tech revealed so far doesn't look like it accommodates this — it would need a camera like was seen in Lego Fusion. This can seem like a minor point but managing this kind of expectation well is key for keeping parents on side, rather than making a purchase only to discover all is not quite as it was advertised.
This brings us onto the toys themselves. The minifigures can be detached from the NFC bases it seems, to ensure you can play with them like other Lego - something Soren Laursen, President of Lego for Americas, was keen to emphasise when I spoke to him about the Toys to Life genre:
We believe the digital gaming space is a huge amplifier of the physical play experience, but we don't want the digital play experience to cannibalize the physical play. We continue to explore many different digital opportunities as we are doing right now.
However, this separation to preserve the physical play is in danger of breaking the "magic" of the toy itself being the site of interaction with the game.
Lego suggests you need to have the minifigure back on the base to use it in the game but it still feels odd to be able to detach the two.
By far the best approach to this is found in Nintendo's upcoming amiibos for Yoshi's Woolly World. These fabric amiibo would not sit on the usual NFC base so it is included inside the toy. For the first time this offers a plush Yoshi figure that is also NFC-enabled. A proper toy that also works with the game, rather than a collectable figurine. For kids, this is a huge difference.
I had hoped that a smart Lego mini-figure would have followed this approach. While I'm no technical expert on the ins and outs of NFC, it seems not unfeasible to house the components inside the figure and have them sit on the Toy Pad in some way. I suspect I'll be forever losing the bases in my house and hunting them down to unlock characters.
Possibly this is part of the reason why the game states an "Internet Connection" is required on the box. If it registers the minifigures you have used in the game previously, this could mitigate the ability of young players to loose Lego in the strangest of places.
One downside for families who've not yet upgraded to a Wii U is that there is no Wii version of Lego Dimensions. The Wii was dropped a little while ago from the other Lego video games and although Skylanders still offers a Wii option in the Toys to Life space, it's unlikely we'll see that from TT Games.
Either way, my kids have been getting excited about what Lego Dimensions might offer. They've even been making their Lego portal in advance of the official release and seem keen to try out the game proper — particularly if it has four player and open world modes.
The other aspect of the game keeping them guessing is which franchises will be added as time goes by. Along with more from the DC Comics universe it seems likely that Lego Scooby Doo and Lego Elves will pop up. The latter, a spin off from the popular (and much maligned) Lego Friends line, even includes its own Lego Toy Pad style portal in the biggest set and has a video game key collecting play mechanic.
My suggestion is for families to choose one Toys to Life product and focus spending on that. For Nintendo families this is made a little easier as they can pair some amiibo purchases with the other game they choose. Let us know if you'll be jumping on Lego Dimensions in the comments.