Back at a gaming conference in 2011, when Team pX first placed a Spyro figure on a portal and made him come to life on the screen, it was clear that Activision were on to a winner. Even still, we couldn't have predicted the massive popularity that "toys-to-life" games like Disney Infinity and the various versions of Skylanders have achieved in the last few years. It is unsurprising then, that Traveller's Tales have entered the fray with Lego Dimensions, a game that takes the tried and tested Lego formula and mixes up its many franchises into one big puzzling, building and platforming multiverse that will delight young and old alike.
For anyone who has dabbled in this genre before, there can be a real concern around cost and value for money when purchasing such titles as this is a financial commitment that can quickly spiral out of control. Such is the case here too, as there are three types of price-bracketed add-ons available for purchase with further waves already planned and announced for 2016. There are "Level" packs, which offer a new game level, character, vehicle and gadget, "Team" packs containing two characters and two gadgets or vehicles (usually one of each) and the basic "Fun" packs which contain one character and vehicle/gadget. The good news is that only one figure from each universe is required to open up that particular portal, so a savvy purchaser can limit their spending by purchasing selectively. While playing, you will regularly be reminded what you are missing out on. With only three world portals accessible from the starter pack, the locked portals are a glaring reminder of the other items that can be purchased. The lack of subtlety in its sales techniques is something that really lets the game down at times, which is why we're reviewing the Lego Dimensions Starter Pack as a standalone experience.
The Dimensions Starter pack contains everything that is required to play and complete the main story of the game and each item must be built before it can be used. Well, one could skip the building and simply throw the base onto the portal as that's where all the data is stored - but where's the fun in that? We'd recommend starting your build while the game installs, as it's a fairly long install. There's a point in the instructions where you're told to play the game before building your portal, and purists should follow this route, but we imagine most will be eager to continue as they wait for the progress bar to reach a point where the game can be started. There's approximately one to two hours of physical building and rebuilding (dependent on age and skill) in the pack as it includes the portal, Batmobile, Batman, WyldStyle and Gandalf.
The story begins with Lord Vortech (the villain of the piece) formulating his scheme to control the entire Lego multiverse by gathering together the foundational elements, each unique to their universe and, when combined, possessing the power to rule them all. Tearing a hole in the very fabric of the multiple realities, Lord Vortech may have created the instrument of his own undoing when the unlikely adventuring trio of Gandalf, WyldStyle, and Batman is formed as they are ripped from their worlds and thrust together on a quest to stop Vortech's evil scheme.
Gameplay takes place across a multitude of universes, each one paying service to its fanbase with great success whilst remaining accessible to those who may be unfamiliar with the deeper cuts in the humour. Worlds are designed beautifully, with the art style, music and sounds all being tailored to match the theme. You'll also notice that the minikits are specific to each universe, which is one of many small details which adds extra depth and detail that it would have been easy to exclude. Quests, missions and level design often reflect the genre of the licence being presented. The Portal level was a highlight for us due to its puzzle based test chambers, Back to the Future has Huey Lewis playing in the background in the open world and the Weeping angels made us jump more than we'd like to admit. The whole thing just feels really well thought out and meticulously presented and you'll no doubt find your favourite nod within the world of your fandom - be it The Simpsons, DC Comics, or one of the other many licences you'll be whisked through on this whistlestop tour of franchises and potential future level pack purchases.
Within this richly populated world you'll make use of familiar Lego game mechanics using puzzle solving and platforming skill alone or in local co-op. Characters, vehicles and gadgets are simply placed on the portal to add them to the game and can be quickly swapped out as required, though multiple items can be in play at once. A new mechanic is the regular interaction with the Lego figures that is required. Squares on the portal will glow red when a character has been trapped by an enemy and the minifig must be physically moved to escape their grasp. Puzzles include matching colours on the portal by dropping the characters on screen in paint and then moving the physical figures to the correct portal square to match an image in the game. This can make boss fights very frantic and means that you'll never want to be out of arm's reach of the figures. Occasionally these mechanics are overused (especially in those boss fights) but often the next level will focus on a different gameplay style and you'll forget all about how stressed you were flinging figures across the room just moments before.
The interaction between the real and game world continues throughout the story, with players being asked to deconstruct and rebuild items they built earlier as they change within the story. Also, vehicles and gadgets can be upgraded in the game world and then rebuilt to reflect that upgrade in the real world. There is some ingenious building here as new items use the exact same blocks as the original items, which is an elegant bit of planning that avoids the potential loss of small pieces.
Hub worlds exist for all the licences that have been announced so far and can be accessed by using any minifig that originates in that universe. The hub worlds are similar to those found in Lego Batman 3 as they are themed areas, containing several quests, puzzles and collectibles which are great for completionists, but they're also just a fun little area to play around in when you don't feel like getting heavily involved in a level and just want to kick back, destroy some blocks and look for cool little nods to your favourite geekdom.
Lego Dimensions is easily the best Lego game so far. The interaction between the physical Lego toy and the game beyond the portal really sets Dimensions apart from other toys-to-life games and each build, level and vehicle seems to have been carefully thought out. Sure, there are areas where mechanics are overused, or mission types are recycled (after all it's a Lego game - we've seen the core gameplay before) but these moments are far outweighed by the delight at its more surprising elements and the joy of seeing your favourite characters from TV, comics and film explore new territories with a motley crew of unlikely sidekicks.
The starter pack provides a rich gaming experience which is worth the asking price alone, hopefully taking the sting out of the purchase of add-on packs which are an optional (if often touted) extra which will serve to broaden the player experience, but the lack of which isn't a showstopper.