Among the many reviews of Traveller's Tales' Lego Dimensions, one sentiment rings more truly than any other. "The only surprise," The Guardian noted, "is that it's taken so long for Dimensions to arrive." With revenue across the "toys-to-life" category now in the billions, that position leaves virtually no room for disagreement. Commercially, Lego Dimensions already looks like another hit in a long-running purple patch for Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. Critically, the atmosphere is similarly euphoric, though with a one major caveat to which almost every major outlet has devoted a handful of hand-wringing paragraphs.
With Lego Dimensions, The Guardian observed in its 4-star review, Traveller's Tales has added a new and bewitching layer to the toys-to-life concept, drawing on a long history of parents and their children sitting down to build things with Lego. "Very quickly, the unique strength of Lego reveals itself. While other toys-to-life games like Skylanders and Disney Infinity have mostly provided players with static action figures, this is a game that wants you to really play with the toys."
"It should all result in a bewildering soup of influences really, but the Lego bricks provide a neat levelling effect"
The admiration flows from Polygon's 8 out of 10 review, too. With both Skylanders and Disney Infinity 3.0 enjoying unqualified success in the marketplace, it was tempting to categorise Lego Dimensions as an also-ran. Instead, it emerges as the best-in-class, largely due to the way the physical and digital Lego experience blurs together. Indeed, both the Lego figures and the portal on which they are placed have to be constructed by the player, the instructions on how to do so woven into the game itself.
"The game has you building every Lego thing you'll need as part of the game," Polygon said. "The game's required portal starts as a sizeable rectangle of plastic that plugs into your console. Shortly into the game, you're asked to build a Lego portal on top of this plastic base. That portal matches the one you see in-game and in fact, gets modified by you as you play through Lego Dimensions. Much more importantly, though, the portal lights up in different ways and is used as a way to solve puzzles, power-up your minifigs and even hurt them.
"Where other toy-to-life games use their portal as a sort of transitional metaphor, the glowing thing that transports your toys into the game, Lego Dimensions' portal is a toy itself and a huge part of how you play the game."
And that one innovation has a trickle-down impact on the rest of the experience. Aided by typically strong, witty writing, Lego Dimensions is able to draw in characters from Batman, The Lord of the Rings, The Simpsons, The Lego Movie and so many more, with up to seven characters from those wildly different worlds able to share the portal at any given point. For Eurogamer, Lego Dimensions "rejoices" in its "rich jumble of IP," but is always smart enough to make that mixture feel rewarding and relevant.
"It should all result in a bewildering soup of influences really, but the Lego bricks provide a neat levelling effect, and allow seemingly incompatible properties to sit next to each other without looking out of place... Where rival titles are content to let the toys simply sit lifeless on top of their platform, Lego Dimensions uses them as ad hoc control inputs. The effect is an absolute joy, and the game doesn't really care how and when you mix up the characters either. Unlike Disney Infinity, which segregates its characters into their own story missions, and only allows crossovers in the freeform Toy Box mode, Lego Dimensions lets you use anything at any time."
You can almost hear the champagne being popped in the Traveller's Tales offices, but there is a nagging caveat dragging on these gushing plaudits: Lego Dimensions is expensive, even by the standards of other toys-to-life games.
"Skylanders and Disney Infinity have mostly provided players with static action figures, this is a game that wants you to really play with the toys"
Destructoid, which gave the game 7.5 out of 10, insisted that the Starter Pack - which includes the basic game, three characters, the portal and a small model batmobile for £80/$100 - stands on its own as an experience that offers both satisfaction and value. However, once you start exploring the range of individually priced Level Packs, Fun Packs and Team Packs, it becomes clear that Lego Dimensions is, "one of the most expensive propositions in all of gaming right now."
"No one ever said Legos or figure-based games was a cheap hobby," Destructoid noted, "and now they've been Frankensteined together."
Given how enthusiastic Destructoid was about the content of the game, it's reasonable to assume that price had a negative impact on the final score. The same could be said about many other prominent outlets, so many of which suggested that Lego Dimensions is perhaps Traveller's Tales finest work to date, yet stopped short of awarding 9s and 10s. The Guardian praised the game's original use of physical toys, but those same toys also bring, "Dimension's capacity to irritate."
"Unavailable areas, hidden items and other concealed elements lurk in each and every level. Many can only be accessed by certain characters or vehicles not included in the starter pack, which must be purchased in the real world for real money.
"Although this is a standard feature of this genre, it's still a bridge between the physical and virtual that most parents could probably do without - especially as the extra sets do not come cheap. Available in various arrangements that each provide new Lego models and game content - including entire new missions and levels in some cases - the packs are certainly of a quality equal to the base game. But it is Dimension's habit of constantly suggesting the introduction of these new elements that is bound to put pressure on parental wallets."
The Guardian's estimate for the cost of experiencing everything Lego Dimensions currently offers is, "hundreds of pounds." That's steep, even if the additional packs do effectively double up as small Lego sets. Eurogamer's reviewer admitted to a similar internal conflict, sowing that seed of doubt at the very start of his article. "As both a parent and a gamer," he said, "I'm torn by Lego Dimensions." In one sense it's an excellent game, and the latest on a long line of similarly quality products, but those other games were built around repeating the experience with new characters, all of them included under a single price.
You can finish a playthrough of the game with the content in the Starter Pack, but, "to go further than that...you'll need to start buying more toys, and it's here that the shift towards physical toys really starts eating into the genius design of the Lego games of old. If you ever got stumped in those, you always knew you'd unlock a character with an ability that would solve the problem later on. Now, all of those objects and interactions that you pass in the story mode are no longer invitations to jump back in for a second playthrough. Come the end of the story, you'll be no closer to having the characters or the abilities needed to tackle those mysteries - unless you make another visit to the shops, that is.
"No one ever said Legos or figure-based games was a cheap hobby, and now they've been Frankensteined together"
"In the game's defence, Skylanders and Disney Infinity aren't any different in this regard. Such limitations are, sadly, part and parcel of this kind of experience, and Lego Dimensions does go some way towards justifying its additional purchases by virtue of the fact you're also getting actual Lego kits to play with. Any parent who has a Lego-mad kid will know the wallet pain of buying even the smallest of kits these days, and there's a good chance you'd end up paying this much for Lego over the next year anyway. The constant reminders that you haven't got the toys you need still sticks in the craw though, especially given the generous expectations set by Lego games of the past."
This notion of the "expectations" set out by previous Lego games is arguably the most telling, and it called to mind a comment made by WBIE's Greg Ballard in an interview with this very site earlier this year. The company was embracing the free-to-play model on mobile, he said, but Lego is, the exception."
"With that brand, and how carefully guarded it is - not just by Lego, but by Warner on behalf of Lego - we want to make sure that, if we ever go down that path, we are extremely careful in how we do it... We won't make as much money on Lego titles as we do on free-to-play titles, but we do just fine. In the meantime, we continue to build that brand in a way that serves Legos interests and our own interests."
Now, Lego Dimensions is a console game, and the toys-to-life model is by no means free-to-play, but WBIE must now reckon with exactly the kind of discussion around Lego that it has apparently been working to avoid. By most accounts, Traveller's Tales has made an very good game, but it's hard to ignore so many mentions of the same fundamental concern.
"Dimensions may be the best Lego game yet," The Guardian concluded. "But like the sweets at the supermarket counter, or those tantalising extras in the latest free-to-play smartphone game, it might prove most talented when it comes to causing friction between parent and child."