Although the developer has perfected the core formula in its long-running LEGO-themed series of video games, Traveller's Tales can still exceed expectations. I thought the devs would have a tough time topping LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes from last year, but one year later, Traveller's Tales knocks it out of the park again with LEGO Marvel Super Heroes for Xbox 360.
The core concept behind this title remains largely unchanged from the other games in the franchise up to this point. You'll still manipulate diminutive "mini-fig" versions of iconic characters across a series of stages, set upon familiar Marvel Universe backdrops like the Baxter Building, Latveria and Stark Tower. You'll spend a lot of time smashing everything in sight, earning you tons of LEGO studs that add to an overall tally, which acts as both a score and currency to purchase unlockable extras.
Building upon the open-world elements found in LEGO: Lord of the Rings, LEGO City Undercover on Wii U, and LEGO Batman 2, LEGO Marvel presents an expansive bricked-out version of New York City for you to explore. It's hard to shake the feeling of a kid-themed Grand Theft Auto, complete with the ability to hijack vehicles and cause a certain mayhem as you smash through barriers, cars and trees. Parents need not be concerned with this particular element even if the comparison is somewhat apt, but it's clear there's some influence here from Rockstar's popular series. Even the minimap in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen has location markers and GPS-style guidelines that feel similar in execution.
The open-world element allows you to freely approach the various story missions that comprise the crux of the gameplay. The story begins with Silver Surfer, herald to world-eating Galactus, who's making his way toward Earth. Silver Surfer's cosmic surfboard shatters into cosmic bricks, which Doctor Doom sets out to collect with some help from other iconic villains, like Loki and Magneto.
The roster is pretty expansive, and while there are certainly some omissions, you'll have a tough time not finding a favorite character or two in the mix. The majority of the story missions put you in control of the big hitters, like Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thor, and a handful of X-Men. For unlockables, the content doesn't stop there. More X-Men, the Avengers, and cosmically themed characters are available, along with a whole host of villains. There are even unlockable costumes for certain heroes and a number of vehicles that allow you to travel through the New York City sky, streets and surrounding waters.
Each character has a set of skills to set apart him or her from the others, even though the unlockable characters tend to repeat abilities. Spider-Man, for instance, can use his Spider-Sense to uncover nearby anomalies that are helpfully depicted with sparkling red and blue particles. This causes something to be unveiled, typically a web-anchoring spot or a section of wall that he can climb. While standing on special floor markers, Mr. Fantastic can take on various shapes via his elastic powers. Heavy hitters like the Incredible Hulk and Thing can pick up giant objects, such as cars, trucks, and specially designated items marked with green handles. Other characters, like Iron Man and Thor, can fly through the air, activated by double tapping the jump button and allowing them a level of freedom not afforded to most of the roster.
What really stands out is how well Traveller's Tales juggles the various powers, and how well balanced the powers are so every character feels useful. This really stands out in the boss fights, where three or four usable characters can play a part.
One fight in particular stood out to me: an encounter with Juggernaut at Xavier's Mansion. For this fight, you control Beast, Iceman and Jean Grey. As the fight begins, Juggernaut launches objects from an unreachable height. You need to catch the object, a box, with Jean Grey's telekinetic powers and hurl it back at him. The box gets stuck on Juggernaut's head and brings him down to ground level, where he starts blindly charging around. You then build an object to distract Juggernaut, causing him to charge into a series of water pipes. Doing so covers him in water, which can be frozen by Iceman. Now that he's a solid block, Jean Grey can use her telekinesis again to hurl Juggernaut around and decrease his health bar.
Graphically, this is a pretty impressive effort from Traveller's Tales. The LEGO titles have never looked bad, but the scale and effects used here are some of the best in the series so far. It looks really good when you're flying around the skyscrapers of New York as Iron Man or web-swinging around town as Spider-Man. A battle with Magneto is a good showcase showoff the really solid work by the talented folks at Traveller's Tales.
Another element that propels LEGO Marvel Super Heroes to the top of the heap in LEGO games comes from the excellent character animations. This stands out a lot in combat, with each character given functions when fighting against nameless minions. Mr. Fantastic contorts and stretches his body to deliver each strike, Captain America mixes up his attacks between fist and shield, and Hulk snatches up puny humans by the leg and slams them into the ground, Hulk vs. Loki style. There's a lot of neat attention to detail for every single character, so it's a real treat for longtime comic book fans.
The only negative I can level at the game is in the soundtrack and voice acting, which both take a step back from LEGO Batman 2 and LEGO City Undercover. The soundtrack is similar in style to the one in "The Avengers" film. There's a generic attempt at creating epic ambiance that stems from the music that I don't particularly like. It helped that in LEGO Batman 2, there were some iconic themes to use from both Batman and Superman, but unfortunately, Marvel properties are somewhat lacking in that regard. This would have been a great opportunity to step up the musical pedigree and get a little inventive; instead, the game is content to copy sound from the Marvel Universe films.
The voice-acting, for the most part, is equally bland. There are a few solid attempts at mimicking the actual actors who portray these characters in movies; Nick Fury and Loki are the two standouts in that regard. The rest of the cast fall a little flat, and the delivered dialogue doesn't match the humor of the animations. I think the LEGO series didn't need voice acting to begin with because the cut scenes and portrayals were smarter and funnier when they were limited to miming. The poor delivery in LEGO Marvel Super Heroes justifies that line of thinking.
These are only two blemishes on an otherwise wildly enjoyable experience. I've almost always enjoyed the LEGO games, but I found LEGO Marvel Super Heroes to be the best yet. I really enjoyed LEGO Batman 2 and LEGO City Undercover, so that should be a testament to how great this entry is. The local co-op is still as fun as ever, but even when playing on your own, you'll find a lot to love here. It's a love letter to Marvel fans, and it deserves to be played by fans of all ages.
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