Tuesday, October 06, 2015

 

Lego Dimensions

Lego Dimensions stands apart from most NFC Reader games in two important respects.  First, obviously, is the Legos.  (Yes, that's what I'm going to call the LEGO┬« Brand Interconnecting Toy Construction System Bricks.  That what everyone has always called them.  Forever.  Deal.)  See, most Lego video games involve smashing everything around you and using the pieces that explode out of them to build tools that help you advance.  So the Starter Set actually comes with a bag of Legos that you use to build the interdimensional portal that features as the central gimmick in the game, as well as a tiny Batmobile that you can take apart and rebuild into different configurations as you unlock/need them.

The portal is a long construction that really breaks up the pace of the game's introduction sequence, but it's also a really cool model.  And not to spoil anything, but the portal changes forms as the story progresses, and you receive on-screen instructions to disassemble and rebuild it from time to time.  It's a small detail, but it gives the game an agreeable sort of physical presence that you don't really get from most "toys to life" games.  And this is to say nothing of the appeal of integrating your own Legos into some sort of custom design of your own, or of having a Wildstyle minifig to use in your other Lego models.

The other thing that sets Lego Dimensions apart is the way it uses its NFC reader.  It actually has three separate pads -- left and right wings that accommodate three figures each, and a central pad for a single figure -- and each pad can light up in a multitude of colors.  As you progress through the story, you unlock different abilities for your toy pad.  For instance, one ability makes the three pads light up in three different colors, which correspond to three colored portals that appear in the game level.  By placing a figure on a colored pad, you warp them instantly to the corresponding portal.  Another ability allows you to make a character grow, shrink, or return to normal by placing them on the appropriate color on the toy pad.

Admittedly, it's not exactly an ingenious interface or anything.  Could it be done completely in software?  Sure.  And yet, when you're weaving your way through one of the test chambers of the Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center, it's satisfying to reach over and physically move your playable characters onto the magic glowing lights to engage your various puzzle-solving tools.  It makes the NFC Reader feel less like some sort of barbaric on-disc DLC software key and more like a ridiculous overpriced novelty video game controller.  And God knows I love me some ridiculous overpriced novelty video game controllers.

Still, this is a game that's banking on selling lots of NFC figures, so maybe let's talk about that.

Your Money And How This Game Eats It

The good news is that the Starter Set is actually a fairly reasonable value.  The main story campaign compares well with the size and scope of most Lego games even if you never buy anything extra to go with it.  Figure $50-$60 as the going rate for a console game, $20 for the toypad, and $20-$30 for the Legos and it doesn't really seem too bad.

But then you start getting into the extras and... what the hell?

The strength of this game is that you get the complete experience with nothing but the characters that come in the box -- Batman, Wildstyle, and Gandalf.  But that's also the game's weakness.  As in most Lego games, you have a party of characters that follow you around a level, and you switch between them as you encounter situations that require their specific abilities.  The trouble is that, since you don't need anyone besides your main three, any extra characters that you swipe in tend to get a little left out as you play through the story mode.  Of course I want to bring Chell into my game!  But then I walk a few steps and come to a switch that only Batman can hit, so I switch out.  This leads to a path that only Wildstyle can follow, so I switch again.  A few minutes pass, and I forget that Chell was even there.  After a while, I stopped bothering.  As awesome as it would be to pit Scooby Doo against the Daleks, it ultimately doesn't affect the game much.

The other side of the coin is the search for unlockable secrets.  In most Lego games, your first run through the game will have you run up against all kinds of little switches and pathways that require abilities that none of your characters possess -- you need to unlock the necessary characters and return with them to find all of the paths and collect all of the goodies.  The same holds true here.  As you play through the story, you'll find countless little nooks and crannies where only Superman or only The Doctor or only Benny can get past.  But instead of unlocking these characters, the only solution is to get out your wallet and drive over to Wal-Mart.  This game is a completionist's nightmare. The more I play, the clearer it is that the game has been designed to require every single figure if you want to collect everything.  And the worst part is, most of these characters aren't more generally useful than your three starters; you'll just need to keep them handy like keys on a ring and tap them as they're needed.

Of course, even with all that, there's one add-on that I couldn't possibly resist buying.

Lego Portal

I bought the Portal Level Pack before I'd even made up my mind whether or not I wanted the actual game.  After reading about that failed attempt to create an official Portal Lego theme, I lusted after a Chell minifig, complete with Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device.

And it's a great figure.  The portal gun is a bit rubbery, but I'd much rather have that than a stiff plastic bit with tiny little protrusions that snap off easily.  The sentry turret is a nice model, even if it's not exactly to scale, and, of course, the Weighted Companion Cube is beautiful.

And, y'know, the game isn't half bad either.

Yeah, it's changed to the same third-person perspective as the rest of the game.  And yeah, it's been simplified for the target demographic of 7-14 year olds.  And don't get your hopes up -- you aren't going to find a lot of places to actually use your portal gun in the non-Aperture game worlds.  But god damn, it's fun to be back at Aperture Science.  Even when you're playing through the Portal level in the main game and don't actually have a portal gun to use, it still feels like Portal.  The look is there.  The sound is there.  GLaDOS and her biting wit is there.  And even if you aren't using the portal gun or the colored goos, you still have your interesting key stone abilities to put to task, and some of the test chambers take a little thought to unravel.  And it's just plain great to see how GLaDOS plays off of some new test subjects for a change.

The Level Pack is a sort of side quest that can be completed using nothing but the figures it comes with.  This bit plays out more like Portal 2 than the levels from the main quest do, but even so, the places where you can actually put down portals are restricted to some very specific spots, no doubt to keep the game from getting too complicated for the kids.  Still, it's a fun, whirlwind romp that takes you through the Enrichment Center, down into Old Aperture, and then back to the surface.  And as long as Chell is on your gamepad, you can enter a free-roaming Aperture Science world with lots of nooks and crannies and things to explore that feels quite a lot like the bits from the Portal games where you escape from the test chambers and wander around behind the scenes.

All together, the main campaign has nine test chambers, three of which you can only reach with Chell and her portal gun, and the level pack gives you another seven test chambers.  Both sets of levels end with a different encounter with GLaDOS.  So is it worth buying this game just for the Portal content?

Ehhhhh, probably not?  But I'm a big enough nerd that I did it anyway?  And I enjoy it so much that I've been replaying it repeatedly and it may turn out to be worth it to me all on its own, but your mileage may vary??

So Yeah

Now that I finally have the last amiibo I'll ever need, I do at least have the option to start collecting some other NFC figure series.  Will I?  Maybe!  I picked up a Simpsons level pack for about a minute today before putting it back on the shelf.  Stranger things have happened.

I do at least admire Lego Dimensions for trying to break away from the pack.  Taking your minifigs off of their stands and actually playing around with them makes them instantly more interesting than the inarticulate statues that you get with Disney Infinity or Amiibo.  Using the toypad as a sort of fancy controller adds to the experience more than the tap-and-forget style of other games.  And just as a game, you'll probably never see such a mashup of disparate cultural icons and licenses.

I'm having an absolute blast with it.  God help me if I ever try to buy the entire set, but one or two more level packs?  I can see it happening.

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