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The genius of Lego Dimensions is that it feels like the kind of game a kid would make up. The crazy, cross-franchise mashup from TT Games and Warner Bros. Interactive is built around one idea: making a video game about playing with Lego. You've got a Lego Batmobile, so why wouldn't your Gandalf minifig hop in it to fight Daleks? (This actually happens.)
Lego Dimensions is driven by this joyful, relentless kind of kitchen-sink logic, throwing together characters from fan-favourite universes and incorporating physical Lego bricks into gameplay. The fact that it revamps both the stale puzzle-platform style of the aging Lego game franchise and the "toys-to-life" formula popularised by Activision's Skylanders and Disney Infinity is just the icing on the cake.
The story begins with portals opening in various, wait for it, dimensions. The portals suck through sidekicks and compatriots, which leads to Batman, Wyldstyle (from "The Lego Movie") and Gandalf joining forces to rescue Robin, Frodo and Metalbeard. These are the three characters found in the starter set, and along with the Batmobile, they'll be enough to get you through the game's story mode.
Players first get control of the trio in Oz (as in flying monkeys, not state prison). Right off the starting blocks, the game is about worlds colliding. The story keeps you dimension-hopping through levels all based on the various universes included in the game, from following the Yellow Brick Road, to DC Comics' Metropolis, to surviving an attack by Doctor Who's Weeping Angels and solving GLaDOS' test chambers from the Portal game series.
There are no less than 14 of these different universes worth of characters to draw from. Expect to see characters from "Back to the Future," "Ghostbusters," "The Simpsons," DC Comics, "Doctor Who" and "Jurassic World," among others. In addition to the starter set, there are dozens of other characters and vehicles coming out in separate packs both at launch and in later planned releases.
Every character has a particular set of skills, like Gandalf's magic or Batman's grappling hook that you'll use to navigate around the various stages and solve puzzles. If you've ever played a Lego game, you'll be familiar with the initial setup. But Lego Dimensions shares far more of its DNA with Disney Infinity and Skylanders than it does the previous games in the Lego series.
The "toys-to-life" concept is all about bringing a physical and collectible aspect to video games, and it's a match made in heaven for Lego. The basic idea is that by placing figurines with an RFID chip in the base on the compatible reader device, players can use those characters in the game world. Stand your Lego Gandalf minifig on the Toy Pad, play as the wizard in the game.
The Toy Pad is where things get interesting. It's already central to the whole toys-to-life experience, but Lego Dimensions builds on the basic character-swapping idea by having the pad function as a kind of second controller.
In addition to the three minifigs and vehicle in the starter set, you'll also get the Toy Pad reader device. The Toy Pad needs to be pieced together out of Lego, naturally.
Placing the Lego minifigs or vehicles on the Toy Pad makes them usable in game, but you'll also need to get creative with the pad to solve puzzles in order to progress. One kind of puzzle spawns three portals, all different colours, and the three sections of the Toy Pad will light up in blue, yellow and red to match. Placing one of the real minifigs on the blue section of the pad will teleport that character through the blue portal in the game, letting you access previously unreachable areas.
In another section, I was caught out by the Wicked Witch of the West. She managed to ensnare Gandalf in a paralysing spell. Frantically mashing buttons (my usual solution to boss fights) was no good. Instead, I had to pick up the Gandalf minifig and pop him down on a different section of the Toy Pad to free him from the curse, helpfully marked by the sections of the Toy Pad lighting up to mark the danger zone and the safe spots.
You'll also need to piece together the Lego Batmobile found in the starter set. Problem is, unlike the Toy Pad, there aren't any assembly instructions in the box. You can find them in the game itself with Batman, and then place the finished vehicle on the pad to pair it with the included RFID tag base. It's the same story for every vehicle you can get for the game. They'll each come with a character who can be used to find the assembly instructions in game, and each can be built in one of three configurations with different abilities and upgrade trees in the game. It's a great way to hammer home how closely related the physical Lego kits and the game world are.
These are frequent occurrences, so make sure that the Toy Pad is kept within arm's reach as you're playing. It's not an occasional swapping of figures as it is with Infinity or Skylanders. You'll want to be able to interact at a moment's notice. It's not an ideal scenario if you're more likely to be sitting on the couch than in front of a table. I wound up playing on the floor with the Toy Pad to one side. Luckily, the included USB cable is quite long, so there shouldn't be too many issues if you can be a little flexible.
It's absolutely worth a little fiddling, though, since the Toy Pad adds new a breadth to the kinds of puzzles. As a result, the game is far more satisfying, and playing it can be a frantic (and very entertaining) cooperative experience, especially if you're playing with friends or family.
Jumping from the controller to the physical bricks is a smooth experience thanks to clear prompts on screen and from the device itself, and it means you'll need to pay as much attention to the physical Lego bricks as you do the virtual ones. The physical presence of minifigs and Lego kits gives you a real sense of playing a game about Lego, rather the Lego predecessors, which felt more like games that had been given a Lego-ish coat of paint.
Unfortunately, Dimensions also drops some of the things previous Lego games got right. One of the biggest draws of the Lego range was a huge roster of characters. Take Lego Batman 3, with its roster of 150 playable characters, or the 180 from Lego Marvel Super Heroes. The move to "toys-to-life" means that you're only getting extra characters if you buy the physical minifigs.
It's not a deal breaker, since Lego Dimensions is meant to be a "toys-to-life" game. As a sweetener, you'll find a couple of exclusive Lego figures like The Doctor that you can't get elsewhere, and you're able to complete the story mode with nothing more than the characters included in the starter set -- not the full game, mind, just the story mode. But it's worth flagging if you were expecting a cast that numbered in the hundreds right out of the box.
There are currently four waves of characters announced, and they come in three kinds of pack. There's a "fun pack," which holds one character and a gadget, a "team pack" which gives you two characters, a vehicle and a gadget, and "level packs" which give you one character, one vehicle, one gadget and a new level to play in the game.
The bigger issue is knowing just which characters you need to buy. As I mentioned, every character has a few skills available to them, and you'll need to make use of the different skills to progress through the game. It's a more opaque system than Skylanders, which relied on buying new elemental creature types to access certain areas.
Lego Dimensions borrows obstacles from previous Lego games and introduces a few new ones, and as with other "toys-to-life" games, you'll absolutely need to pick up some extra characters if you want to totally complete everything.
For instance, there's no way right out of the box to access areas blocked by silver or gold Lego bricks, so you'll need other characters to take care of those. Likewise, only Unikitty can deal with rainbow bricks, and Venkman from "Ghostbusters" is the only character who ain't afraid of no ghosts, so make sure you pick them up when they're released in November if you want to clear those sections. The best advice is to either pick up the characters you like and not worry about doing every last thing, or track down someone who has the specific skills you need on the Dimensions wikia page.
The other kind of gated content is in the form of huge, open-exploration "adventure worlds." To access these, you need a character who belongs to that universe. Shaggy will get you to the Scooby Doo world, a flying monkey will get you to the Wizard of Oz world, and so on. Note that these are in the starter set, and separate to the levels included in "level packs." Don't worry, it took me a little while to work that out, too.
The adventure worlds are enormous, though, and it's worth picking up a character or two to experience them. You'll get access to three in the starter set (DC Comics, Lord of the Rings, "The Lego Movie"), and the free-roaming experience is a great flipside to the linear story mode.
Lego Dimensions' starter set is more expensive than Infinity or Skylanders, but Warner Bros. Interactive insists that it's the core set for the game, and there won't be yearly updates, like you see with its competitors. There's a huge amount of content to experience, and doing some quick napkin math, you'll wind up spending about the same amount of cash as you would on Skylanders to hit 100 percent completion.
While previous Lego games like Lego Star Wars might have dabbled in nostalgia, Lego Dimensions is a master class. The obsessive attention to detail makes this a game for fans, by fans. The original voice cast is returning in almost every instance, down to drawing from BBC archival footage of the various actors in Doctor Who's 50-year run. Lego Movie characters move in stop-motion style. The Back to the Future adventure world takes place over three time periods.
Lego Dimensions is clever, inventive and, if you haven't guessed already, it's a blast to play. After all, where else can you see Batman and the Doctor caught up in a stable time loop or the Riddler riding on a Balrog of Morgoth?