The LEGO series is one of the most prolific in modern gaming, capturing hearts way back in 2005 with the earliest Star Wars titles and since evolving into a hugely lucrative franchise. LEGO as a toy brand has arguably never been bigger, and with the IP muscle of Warner Bros. and the specialist skills of developer TT Games / TT Fusion the long run of games has never looked like stopping.
While LEGO Dimensions - released Fall 2015 - represented a flirtation with new ideas which was rather expensive to enjoy fully, LEGO Marvel's Avengers is a return to the old formula. Take popular films, throw in some pig and chicken jokes, design cute LEGO versions of the star characters and insert environmental puzzles. In some ways this particular entry on Wii U can't decide whether it's keeping it simple and old-school or dabbling with aspects of open world play, making it an enjoyable but peculiar experience.
Though this title lists multiple Marvel films as providing key content, the main two that are used for the storyline - predictably - are the two Avengers movies. There's some skipping around, as we start with the Age of Ultron opening, then effectively play through the first Avengers movie before returning to work our way through the remainder of Age of Ultron. At times the structure gets a little messy, with one example being a seemingly random Captain America: The First Avenger sequence used as a flashback, and another segment later on that we struggled to identify from any movie. If it was an 'exclusive scene', we weren't quite sure what was going on.
Despite this, once the story settles down it spins a fun yarn. Cutscenes have the typical LEGO humour mixed with lines from the movies and it works nicely. Production values do vary though, especially in terms of sound - some lines pop up during gameplay that have been crudely lifted from the films, and in some cases the volume balancing is off; this is to the point that plenty of lines are easily missed. It's hardly the end of the world and doesn't matter when you're spamming the Y and A buttons to crush foes, but provides a taste of the inconsistent presentation. Visuals are generally strong, however, with some nice design and environments to be found.
Once we get to the nitty-gritty of the gameplay there are certainly some positives. The story levels are - as we've said above - back to the core formula, as you tackle foes and solve relatively simply environmental puzzles; if in doubt you should simply smash every block in sight until objects can be built. Each Avenger has their own special abilities, so hopping between them becomes essential, while each level naturally throws up areas you can't reach in order to tempt you back in the unlocked Free Play mode; you'll only have a fraction of the collectibles when you first see the credits roll.
TT Games also had a little extra fun when working with the team of super heroes. When in the right proximity during a battle, for example, you can trigger special combo moves in which two characters unleash a deadly dual attack, while some puzzles and objects require two stacked characters to be operated. Beyond that the characters provide fun variety, from the brawling Captain America to the ability to fly with Iron Man and Thor, with more variations besides. Stage designs also shake things up sometimes, with some Galaga-style sequences thrown in among the usual batch of arena-style set-pieces. For fans of the films and the Marvel movie universe this has some hugely fun moments.
While some levels do hit their mark, others are either a little dull of downright confusing. In the worst instances a cluttered screen prompts the inconsistent framerate to take a dive, so you're scrabbling around seeking the means to progress while a juddering performance and irritating enemies suck away your life. We enjoyed the majority of the experience, but some sections were frustrating and awkward to play.
Unfortunately, too, this one continues the legacy of average TT Games ports to Wii U. Rather like LEGO Dimensions this is most fun - and more playable - in single player, and adding a co-op buddy slows everything down. You do have the option of two split-screen types - don't use the dynamic split, it's bizarrely awful - or to have a player on the GamePad screen and the other using the TV, so that's nice. On the downside the framerate sometimes slows to a crawl, and an extended co-op session left us feeling worn out and slightly irritable. Sadly on Wii U this is a solo game for the best experience, then, and you may need the game on stronger hardware if you want smoother co-op. This writer is happy playing LEGO games in single-player, but the performance drop is an important point to consider for those seeking co-op gaming.
All told, LEGO Marvel's Avengers has plenty to offer. On Wii U the GamePad provides a handy means of swapping characters or off-TV play, and this is also a very rare instance of having DLC via a Season Pass - there are extra characters and missions to grab for the biggest Marvel fans, though the PS4 version seems to have some extra exclusives. Despite this we felt we had our fill through the core campaign, and after the credits roll there are extra unlocked stages that pick up story elements from the likes of Thor 2 and Iron Man 3; on top of that there are a few open world segments. It can be relaxing to run around a mini Manhattan or one of the other open areas looking for collectibles, and that'll add some life to the game for completionists.
LEGO Marvel's Avengers is a mixed experience on Wii U. In solo play there's plenty of content and typical LEGO-style fun to be had, with the extended Avengers cast well used for a variety of gameplay styles, combat moves and environmental puzzles. The Wii U version suffers from poor performance in co-op, however, with some dips and rough edges also to be found in solo play; these factors take some of the shine away. Fans of LEGO games and the Avengers movies will find plenty to like, but technical shortcomings mean it falls short of its full potential.