Playing with the Boy is a new column within VICE Gaming where I get to play games that are primarily aimed at children with one of my own kids, because they're great and I just can and shut up, OK? Expect to see some contributions from son number one every time. FYI, his answers this time around were given while he was actually dressed as Spider-Man. Thought you should know. And yes, it's a pun on the Kenny Loggins song from Top Gun.
I'm Batman. Not really, obviously. I'm not that fucked up in real life. In a game, specifically LEGO Dimensions, I'm Batman. And Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, and Wyldstyle who's very much not a DJ from The LEGO Movie. I'm Batman and those other blocky heroes, plus Scooby-Doo and Marty McFly from Back to the Future, who's brought his hoverboard with him, and I'm fighting the Joker in a level-ending boss battle. The Joker is inside a giant robot built in his image, a callback to the second LEGO Batman game, and it's pounding its fists down like crazy, trying to reduce this unlikely band of protagonists to itty-bitty pieces. We're battling in the still-aflame ruins of a very recognizable room. A few minutes ago, this was Mr. Burns's office; beyond the shattered walls, a square-edged LEGO Springfield, home to the Simpsons family and its various friends and neighbors, spills out towards the horizon.
A little later, Bats, Gandalf, and Wyldstyle—real name Lucy, of course (because you did see that movie, right?)—are in the Wild West of Back to the Future III, defending themselves against winged monkeys from The Wizard of Oz and lightsaber-twirling Star Wars sorts (who might be from the imminent movie) as Dimensions' big-bad Lord Vortech, gleefully voiced by Gary Oldman, summons almighty constructions to block our path to him: the Statue of Liberty, MetalBeard's ship, the Great Sphinx of Giza, the Kwik-E-Mart with a shitting-bricks Homer inside. Once we catch up to him, we tear open a fresh portal between otherwise disconnected LEGO worlds and the colossal Grond battering ram is rolled through from The Lord of the Rings to finish the job with Kragle-busting force. Vortech flees. Our surreal party congratulates itself and heads to the next challenge: overcoming the deadly puzzles of Aperture Science while GLaDOS herself chastises everyone for cheating.
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I don't exactly know what is going on in this game. It's completely out of its mind. None of it makes sense. And I love it.
If you have half an eye open and pointing at the contemporary happenings of video gaming culture and all the lovely money that flows into it from hapless punters who can't say no to junking their evenings on the same old shit they played last year dressed up in slightly nicer pants, then you know enough about LEGO Dimensions in strictly business terms. But just in case: This is the Danish mega-corp's turn into the dark side of crossover entertainment, their foray into what professional critical types like to call the "toys to life" market, which prior to LEGO's arrival was exclusively the territory of Skylanders and Disney Infinity (and, sort of but not quite, Nintendo's amiibo series). You know: You have a game, and the game is in a console, and the console's attached to a pad-device-scanner-thing, which you put toys onto, the bases of which are loaded with information that flows through the pad to the console and into the game and makes that toy, that character, appear on the screen, and you then control it. To an idiot, or a child, it's a kind of magic. I've not played either of those series, on account of not being five years old. But LEGO Dimensions is different.
Firstly, LEGO is obviously awesome. We all played with it when we were kids. Some of us still do—I received the LEGO Ghostbusters Ecto-1 (and figures) for my last birthday, my 35th birthday. It's the best building toy of all time, making Stickle Bricks look like loofahs that have gone bad in the sun and Mega Bloks a shameless rip-off of a far superior product. (Which they are, but when you mix a set with Proper LEGO this division in quality becomes all the clearer.) All of the toys you scan into Dimensions are Proper LEGO, which you assemble as you go using on-screen instruction manuals. Secondly, several LEGO games released prior to this one were pretty bloody good, so there's something of a precedent that's been acknowledged here. There were the early Star Wars installments, which were terrific, and LEGO Marvel Superheroes came along to light up 2013's family-friendly options, giving gamers of all ages an open-world Manhattan full of familiar comic-book faces from the X-Men to Mister Fantastic.
LEGO Dimensions follows the gameplay formula of everything that's come before it: You break objects into their individual bricks and use those pieces to build new, level-progressing contraptions; there is some light combat and no penalties for losing all your life hearts as many times as you need to (no one ever really dies in a LEGO game); and each character has unique skills and abilities that must be juggled to get the most out of every stage. There are shitloads of hidden collectibles, most of which you'll never get around to hunting down, and you simply won't care. I don't know anybody who ever goes after all of this mini-kit nonsense.
Where Dimensions does differ, and makes good on doing more within its figures-on-a-tray niche, is that the Toy Pad (as the game calls it, and another thing that must be built from bags of tiny plastic blocks) plays an active role in gameplay, beyond its function as a magical-zapping-teleporter-thingy. There are color puzzles and portal puzzles, where characters must be moved around on the pad to either reveal new areas locked behind three-part color-coded displays or get sucked into the ground only to reappear through another portal based on the similarly glowing part of the pad. There's a neat little hot-and-cold treasure hunt mechanic, where the pad goes bright green when you're on the right track to whatever it is you need, or orangey-red when you're facing in the opposite direction; and an eat me, drink me status where putting Gandalf or whoever on the green part of the Toy Pad makes him massive, while the orange L-shape shrinks him down small. This makes Dimensions a game better played with two, and ideally with a kid who can appreciate the physical side of it, the building, and stare in wonder as what they've made pops onto the TV.
And it just so happens that I have one of those things, a child, in my house. I didn't kidnap him or anything. He's officially my son. I was there when he was born and everything. I have another one of them, too, but all he wants to do it put the instruction manual in his mouth. Son number one is four going on 14 judging by his sporadic teenager-like moods, but he's the very model of collaborative understanding when we're deep into a Dimensions session. And after one of them, I asked him for his opinion on the game.
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Why don't you tell me about the best model you've made for LEGO Dimensions?
Son Number One: I don't know what my favorite one was.
What about Emmet's extractor? Or the Batmobile?
No. I liked all of the game the same. I liked that you could build proper LEGO, and that you used magic to put the LEGO onto the TV.
You thought it was magic?
Yes. It whooshed onto the TV.
And is that better than any other LEGO game we've played together, then?
Yes. But it might have been good to have other characters in it. I didn't see Princess Unikitty.
No, that extra pack's not out yet. I think it comes out in November. Do you think this might get a bit expensive for daddy?
Yes. Because we need Superman, because we saw a lot of things that you need Superman for, but he's not out yet either.
Not until next year. You'll be five by then. But we need to get Superman?
Yes! I think LEGO Dimensions is much better with lots of characters, and not just Lucy and Batman and Gandalf.
So which one is your favorite character, from all the ones we have played as? I like Marty McFly, but that's because I like Back to the Future.
I don't know which one is my favorite. I like the velociraptor from Jurassic World. And I really like Homer Simpson. When can we build his TV?
Oh yeah, we'll get to that. We'll do the special Simpsons level. Do you like how all of the Simpsons characters look in the game? Because you've got quite a lot of Simpsons LEGO, don't you?
Yes. It looks just right on the TV. Talking about LEGO, I'd really like a LEGO Spider-Man set to play with, right now. So I could play with Spider-Man with all of my other LEGO, with Batman and all the other superheroes.
Do you think it would be cool to have Spider-Man in LEGO Dimensions?
Yes! And just to play with now... (walks off to play with his LEGO)
Is that it? Are we done?
What my son is so concisely highlighting here is the need to expand LEGO Dimensions (the starter pack for which is roughly $99.99) with additional packs, which can cost around $15 depending on what comes with them —sometimes just new characters to play as, vehicles, and at the top end special level packs which open up new playable missions that are not in the main storyline. We've got two of these level packs, The Simpsons and Back to the Future, and we've played the latter—it's basically a short retelling of the first movie, with original actors Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd reprising their roles. As we've played the main game, which does visit a great many incredible LEGO worlds, from a slightly creepy Doctor Who (with the bloody Weeping Angels everywhere, brr) to the spirits-infested New York of the Ghostbusters movies, we've stumbled across many unreachable areas, where we simply don't have the right character. It's usually Superman, who's not available in the US until March.
Will we want to go back to the game then, though, simply to find out what's hidden away behind these otherwise impossible-to-break blocks or to play the additional stages? I don't know. The boy will want to plug right back into it whenever a new pack finds its way to our front room, but I don't know how many of those dad will be bringing home. To do LEGO Dimensions properly, to see all it has to offer, even without collecting every single pack so far announced, will cost over $200, and to buy everything will add up to over $400, according to the excellent calculations of games writer (and sometime VICE contributor) Chris Scullion. That is one hell of an outlay, but as any parent knows, LEGO is eye-wateringly expensive at the best of times. The difference between the game and the blocks, though, is that the toys last forever, while Dimensions' longevity is in the hands of developers Traveller's Tales and publishers Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. If they were to fall out for any reason: goodbye future support. And that's before you consider the likes of DC Comics, the BBC, Universal Pictures, and Hanna-Barbera, who all have IP on show.
But that's a worry for then, and I'm fairly sure Dimensions is going to run and run —its sales have already raced ahead of its toys-to-life rivals. Right now, I'm a lucky man with enough tangible goodies here to keep the boy contently stacking brick upon brick to build a Scooby Snack, while yours truly giggles away at GLaDOS's Portal-accurate quips, every bit as blackly humored as Valve's "real" game. And they let kids play this? Well, they let their dads play it. Sons and daughters can wait their turn.
Thanks to Brown Betty/Warner Bros. for the provision of LEGO Dimensions sets used in this coverage, including the starter pack and a handful of extras.
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