Beyond Nintendo’s Mario and “The Legend of Zelda” games, one could argue that the sweetest of the long-running series of family-oriented games is the Lego franchise. There are times when I actually enjoy the Lego games more than those lauded Nintendo games. This is one of those times. Kind of.
Lego games have been published since 1997’s “Lego Island,” an odd offering that had the frowning, stubble-faced Brickster using the mere smell of pizza to disintegrate the lock on his prison cell. The Lego releases became more admirably complex when England’s Traveller’s Tales took over in 2005 (with, you guessed it, a Star Wars game). At that time, the characters didn’t even talk. They just made silly, quirky noises full of emotion (which somehow worked if you believed, as I did, you were playing inside an almost-silent movie).
Compared to other Lego games, “The Force Awakens” is a larger, more open world offering, expansive in the way some games for adults are. But there’s a tried and true formula — sometimes magic, sometimes banal — to the Lego games catalog. “The Force Awakens” doesn’t stray far from this blueprint, but those who believe playing is like downing candy are trying too hard to be pretentious. The blocky characters exude humor, from signature winks to the ardent-but-lunking way they pad about. Add some nifty, Pixar-style satire for adults, and you have a Lego game.
There was pressure to get this one right because last year’s “Disney Infinity 3.0 Star Wars The Force Awakens,” also made for kids and families, was generally awesome. (And it’s a complete shame that Disney recently shuttered the studio that made these toys-to-life games.)
Traveller’s Tales and TT Fusion have shown their research chops by going back to the source. Lego toys, the ingenious Danish invention which means ‘play well’ in English, are about building things. So in Lego games, you collect pieces called studs, you find piles of things to construct which, when they are released through controller button taps, turn from pieces into machinery or vehicles. These help you solve puzzles and move from one level to the next.
With “Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” you can play 200 characters from the film in a game that follows, in close approximation, the movie’s plot. All of the actors involved in the movie, including Harrison Ford, recorded lines for the game (although Daisy Ridley sounds as if she recorded her muddled Rey bits on a cell phone).
Once inside, I enjoyed seeing two Ewoks on a tree limb, tuning up on a trumpet and horn, readying to play the Star Wars theme. Happily, I figured out how to employ a band of Ewoks to help me push logs onto a pesky Walker below. I had a choice of two or three things to build and I constructed a turret gun and a ladder in the right order to move ahead in the verdant forests of Endor. Then, just as Han Solo tossed an enemy one-handed from a vehicle, something awful happened, something that had never has happened to me in my history of playing Lego games. It was worse than that moment in Lego Jurassic Park when a character was eternally stuck jumping, trying to leap out of a crevasse. This time, the game crashed. I lost all of my progress — along with much of my good will, and had to start the game all over again.
Had I stopped out of frustration (and I was indeed annoyed), I would have missed an emotional Darth Vader, sniffling and shedding tears when presented with Luke Skywalker’s childhood drawing of daddy Darth as a stick figure. I would’ve missed BB-8 playing soccer and basketball during a blazing battle. And I would have missed rubber ducks appearing for no reason whatsoever. Seeing them on Jakku was pleasurable in a weird way.
“The Force Awakens” is the biggest of the Lego games, and while that hugeness can add to its epic, space opera nature, the narrative sometimes loses the pace needed to sustain an action adventure. During long battles there’s a distinct lack of that signature humor making it, at times, feel more like Halo or Gears of War with Lego characters. And, if you want to replay levels to find the gold blocks you missed, it takes even more time.
But, if you’re patient, you’re rewarded with the momentary joy of esteemed actor Harrison Ford asking for “Wookiee cookies for Chewie.” If you’re an enduring Star Wars fan, you’ll uncover the heartrending story which explains why C3PO has a red arm. And the curious fan will find out how Han and Chewbacca got those creepy Rathar monsters with octopus-like tentacles, giant maw and razor-sharp teeth onto the Millennium Falcon.
Despite the amount of original content, there is too much leaning on past successes. The Lego recipe hasn’t changed much, so the collecting of studs and gold bricks — searching high and low in every nook and cranny in this vast world to find them — becomes repetitive. And since so many around the world already know “The Force Awakens” story through the movie (and last year’s Disney game), you wish the developers had gone the extra mile with even more levels and plot points that move beyond the theatrical offering into the vast treasure trove of Star Wars lore.
Ultimately, it’s a beautifully animated action-adventure game with occasionally spectacular views from space and of magnificent landscapes on various planets. When the humor is present, it’s even better. But there should be far more of it. And what’s there certainly isn’t irreverent enough. It’s one thing to respect the source material. It’s another altogether to honor it as if it were a religion. In this Lego game, there’s just enough comedy to get you by.
Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair, Boys’ Life and elsewhere. His narrative history of games is “All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture)” Random House. He’s the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.
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