The LEGO effect has benefited many a popular fiction franchise since 2005, from Star Wars to Jurassic Park to Harry Potter. Throughout that time, though, there’s arguably been no better fit for the Danish toy brand than Marvel.
With the comic giant’s peerless roster of colourful characters, developer Traveller’s Tales has the perfect canvass on which to paint. It can’t hurt that many of those characters have been revitalised through recent TV and cinema treatments, either.
All of this feeds into the tasty pop culture gumbo that is LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2, in which you can swing around Manhattan as Spidey, clobber Surtur as Thor (male or female), and manipulate time as Dr Strange from within a single open world environment.
The driving force behind this Marvel-lous mash-up is an invasion by Kang the Conqueror, one of the earliest big bads from the Avengers comic books. Kang has been tinkering with the space-time continuum again, which results in a number of disparate Marvel universes from various periods combining into the bespoke realm of Chronopolis.
Dashing, flying and swinging around this condensed hub world is one of the main joys in LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2. You can dart from the Sanctum Sanctorum to K’un-Lun in less than a couple of minutes, and it somehow makes perfect sense. Because comic books.
Despite the presence of this impressive hub world, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2’s humour-filled story is told through a succession of linear levels. You know the drill by now: run through constrained 3D environments, bashing up henchmen, trashing level furniture, solving basic environmental puzzles and hoovering up a steady stream of studs.
It’s the same basic formula as every LEGO game from the past dozen years, though that’s not to say that developer Traveller’s Tales hasn’t tweaked things in that time. Each category of hero is able to affect specific level elements, and the required interplay between each of your team mates is often very clever indeed. She-Hulk can smash through weak walls, Thor can charge up motors, Black Panther can slash through vines, Cap can bounce his shield off multiple strike points, and there are all sorts of uses for Star-Lord’s gravity grenades. All characters, of course, know how to build LEGO, and there’s a timeless joy in smashing up one level object and using the pieces to build another.
It’s not just the usual big hitters who get to show their mettle here, either. Yes, the likes of Cap, Spidey, Thor and Iron Man stick around for much of the story, but TT has wisely incorporated new heroes from the wider Marvel lore. Noteworthy playable highlights include Ms Marvel, who delights with her body-morphing abilities and lolloping gait, and her own hero Captain Marvel, whose takeoff and flight animations are enough to get anyone excited for her big screen debut.
As before, much of the fun here (at least for the completionists among us) lies in coming back to ostensibly completed levels and grabbing all of the trinkets you missed the first time around. After each initial run-through you unlock Free Play mode, where you can hand pick from that extensive character roster and go back in for a closer look.
There’s always been a curious paradox to the way LEGO games actually play. They’re often cited as the most accessible, welcoming games around, yet when viewed from certain angles they can be rather clunky and downright esoteric.
We were reminded of this fact when we were joined for some multiplayer co-op by a gaming-literate adult who had never played a LEGO game before. They found the experience to be completely baffling and unwieldy, failing to fall into the ‘smash everything’ rhythm of play and missing the tiny prompts that the rest of us take for granted.
It’s difficult to argue against that viewpoint when LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 still sees you repeatedly falling to your death because of imprecise and overloaded controls, or because you can’t see what’s going on. The game also veers between spoon-feeding you directions to occasionally being too vague about your goal, leaving you running around confused. Precision flying, meanwhile, is a dark art that this particular writer has yet to master.
LEGO games have always somehow gotten around this clunkiness through their super-forgiving respawn mechanic and general slapdash tone. LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 is no different, but it’s worth highlighting that there’s still bags of room for improvement in the way these games actually play.
Those who’ve been following the progress of LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 will know that Switch owners are getting the same core experience as the other consoles. This is an impressive technical feat in itself, and it looks great for the most part. However, you can see hints of compromise in the form of a disconcerting heat mirage-like defocus effect when looking across a particularly vast area. We also noted a few performance stutters - even in the cutscenes, bizarrely - whilst loading times in between story missions can be uncomfortably long.
Still, it feels like something akin to magic being able to play this sprawling, vibrant game on the go, and the game doesn’t disgrace itself when you blow it up onto your TV either.
We’ve only touched upon the multiplayer side of things a little so far, but there’s a reason for that. LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 isn’t as a fun as it should be with multiple players. Part of that is down to its awkward split-screen nature, crudely hacking the action down the middle and severely constraining the view for both players. This Switch version’s already downscaled visuals really don’t benefit from being diminished further.
Besides which, the already-busy action turns into chaos with a second hyperactive player involved. There’s also a stand-alone multiplayer mode for up to four players, which pitches your favourite characters into arena battles for territory or Infinity Stones. The rudimentary nature of the action means it’s pretty inessential, and is unlikely to take you away from other far stronger multiplayer experiences on the system.
It sounds strange given the series’s approachable ‘jump in’ heritage, but this particular masked hero works better alone.
LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 offers the kind of warm-hearted knock-about action the series has become famous for, all wrapped up in a truly impressive open world package. It’s a shame that the underlying mechanics remain so defiantly clunky, while the controls seem a little haphazard in places. Multiplayer is curiously inessential, too.
Ultimately, though, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2’s generosity of spirit and lightness of tone mean that it’s likely to win over a whole new generation of fans.