If ever there was a time for parents to put their collective foot down and tell their young ones to choose one favourite toy to buy, this may be it. The toys-to-life market has never been busier as three huge brands go head to head, and LEGO Dimensions arguably - or factually, in terms of the toy market - has the biggest brand of all. Yet it's in a tricky spot - its game series has been around for multiple generations and fans are accustomed to many titles packed with characters and hidden secrets. What happens when you lock secrets behind the priciest real-world DLC imaginable?
Let's begin from the beginning, though. The plot introduces Lord Vortech, a delightfully camp villain that's both evil and lovable at once, making him perfect for a LEGO game. His ultimate goal is typically apocalyptic stuff as he aims to control all of the dimensions of the universe, or something dastardly along those lines, and naturally that causes realities to collide and intersect in lucrative ways. It's a fairly predictable setup, sure, but the story is told with some excellent humour and panache. The LEGO team at Tt Games has been producing these titles for so long that it's established a narrative style that rarely fails, and the writing team clearly had fun in mashing up some of the world's biggest franchises.
It's a lengthy storyline, too, which is sure to keep younger or less experienced players busy for quite some time. The experience is largely familiar, though, with many of LEGO's favourite mechanics being present - smash everything in brick form, occasionally build from destroyed scenery, and utilise character abilities for relatively simple platforming or puzzle challenges. Unlike its predecessors, though, you don't unlock new characters by clearing stages and progressing through the story; they're solely locked behind toys-to-life products as DLC. We'll come to that again later.
The gameplay's innovations - at least in terms of the franchise - come through the NFC portal and the compatible toys. The portal is a welcome twist on what's come before in rival franchises and through amiibo scanning on the GamePad or New 3DS, as it has a total of seven NFC input areas split between three distinct sections. For those with a number of the extra packs this allows for some potentially humorous character and franchise mash-ups.
This portal and the figures do play into what makes this rather unique in the toys-to-life space, as you actually build everything to use it. In theory you can cheat and the game knows no better - as each toy ultimately has a base with the chip inside - but that's against the spirit of the endeavour. After an introduction scene we spent well over an hour building the portal and Starter Pack characters + Batmobile, with prompts from the game providing instructions. That in itself was fun, and we fully appreciate that in the hands of young gamers with bright imaginations this has the potential to be truly magical. The way NFC technology is integrated into the game world - and vice-versa - is a strong point of the experience.
The puzzle aspects of the portal - and those distinct sections - are typically limited to colour-based challenges. There's a lot of repetition as you combine in-game actions with placing the relevant figure in a different zone, as the same three or four approaches are repeated multiple times. Nevertheless it is the most substantial attempt to utilise NFC in this way that we've seen, while the ability to upgrade and rebuild vehicles with fresh designs - all linked to the toy itself, once again - is another high point. In terms of immersing LEGO fans into both the toys and the game, LEGO Dimensions succeeds.
The Starter Pack's content provides a fairly robust package, which is fundamental considering the high price - at launch - that it commands. Buying into a series like this always has an initial wallet-busting hit, and the value here is just about justifiable, but could certainly have been a little less expensive. The toys themselves are typical LEGO, while the lengthy core campaign is joined by three Adventure Worlds right out of the box, essentially semi-sandbox areas that condense franchise worlds into a traversable space. In an adventure world you can find collectibles, complete simple tasks for Golden Bricks or just goof around, so combining the three worlds included with the campaign means there's a lot for players to do.
The inevitable 'but' comes with the other Adventure Worlds and also the locked off areas and items within the primary campaign. Dedicated LEGO game fans are accustomed to finding and unlocking characters and then replaying levels to access previously locked off areas and puzzles. The difference here is that you don't unlock characters through progress, at all, so as a result you see lots of shiny colour-coded walls or items that require specific toys or characters. As very few gamers are likely to splash out hundreds of dollars amassing all of the Level, Fun and Character packs flooding onto shelves, there's the reality that no amount of grinding will allow completionists to beat every level 100%.
That's the business model, ultimately, but the pricing of the packs and the abundance of reminders in the main campaign regarding characters not yet owned can feel rather tacky. We suspect parents in particular may feel it's a little excessive in how it's emphasized and communicated, putting a lot of pressure on them to go beyond the initial Starter Pack purchase. Despite this you do encounter and experience all of the main franchises in the story mode, which means that those only interested in the core game do get to enjoy environments and character cameos from the many included IPs.
In terms of how these franchises are utilised in the story, it's a mixed bag. Some stages seem sloppy in design and execution - such as The Simpsons - yet on the flipside others provide some fantastic moments and some of the best LEGO gaming we've ever seen. Later on there's a lovely section that retro gamers will surely adore, and the Doctor Who stage will live in this fan's memory for some time; other standouts for us included stages based on Scooby Doo and Portal. It's slightly uneven at times in quality, but the high points generally outweigh the mediocre moments.
On the Wii U, however, we do have some technical complaints. First, while local co-op play is nicely implemented (one player on the TV and another on the GamePad) it suffers from poor performance, with the framerate dropping as the Wii U tries to run two separate views. Matters improve - thankfully - in single player, yet there are still performance inconsistencies. Some levels ran smoothly when we'd anticipated issues, while others struggled badly despite there being minimal effects and draw distance on display. It feels, at times, that each level was tackled by a separate team, with a few not quite getting the most out of the hardware. Performance is never bad enough to be unplayable, but Wii U owners need to be prepared for a chugging framerate on occasion.
That aside this is a fairly handsome game, comparing well to the various other LEGO games on the Wii U. On top of that there's an all-star cast - albeit with some clunky old lines lifted from movies and TV shows of varying ages - and the music is fantastic. It's as big budget as would be expected.
LEGO Dimensions is well worth consideration for those happy to invest in a new toys-to-life platform. The core content of the Starter Pack gives you plenty to do, though tolerance is required for occasionally overbearing in-game promotion of expensive add-ons. There are moments of brilliance, a few modest levels and some disappointing sections where design is questionable and performance struggles. The positives do outweigh the negatives, though, and in addition to some high points this also sets a new standard in how toys-to-life can bring NFC portals and a video game together in new ways. These toys actually come to life, which promises much for the future.