Guardian games correspondent Keith Stuart visits Lego developer Traveller's Tales and takes his Marvel mad sons along to discover the studio's latest blockbusting adventure
"Has it got Spider-Man in it?"
I'm in the car with my sons on the way to visit Traveller's Tales, the developer behind the hugely successful Lego games. The company is holding a press day at its Knutsford office and I had this daft idea about bringing Albie and Zac along.
They've played pretty much every title in the series, from Lego Star Wars through to Lego Batman 2; it's how I introduced them to gaming. These are great parent/child titles because they're based entirely around two-player co-op, and while one player can just run around enjoying the destructible scenery, the other is able to really get engrossed in the puzzles.
It used to be me in the latter position, but increasingly it's them. Through completing trickier titles like Lego Indiana Jones and Lego Lord of the Rings they have mastered the structure and methodology behind these games. They know how the puzzles work, where they appear and the sorts of characters needed in certain situations. I figured if anyone can assess a new Lego title it's them.
Also, they know super heroes. I've been reading comics to them since they were babies; and by the time my oldest son was two, he could point to pretty much any mainstream character and tell you whether they were Marvel or DC. Indeed, thanks to a huge pile of comic book encyclopedias, their interests also extend beyond the big Triple A heroes. When Albie was three he asked for a Luke Cage action figure for Christmas – that was an expensive night on eBay …
So we're on the M6 and I've asked them to come up with some questions for the development team. "Has it got Spider-Man in it?" is the best Zac has managed so far.
"Of course it'll have Spider-Man in it," I say. "try to think of something else, something that they'll have to really think about."
There's a long silence.
"Has it got Ironman in it?"
I put the radio on.
At Traveller's Tales, the staff have prepared a demo room with a huge projector screen. It turns out Albie won't be able to watch because he's five and the game already has a Pegi 7 rating. Instead, someone takes him into the reception area and gives him a huge box of Technics lego, most of it already constructed into elaborate vehicles. "Is it okay if he tales these apart?" I ask. "Because he will take them apart." The staff member looks at a colleague. They shrug. "I think it's okay," one of them says. Then there is a crash: I look down and realise that Albie has made the decision for them.
Back in the demo room we're shown a level that's never been seen by the press before. Loki, the mischievous brother of Thor and the key antagonist of the game, has discovered a vortex that will take him back to the mythical Norse world of Asgard. He's here to take the Tesseract, the source of immense energy that has spent the last few years dropping in and out of the Marvel movies. "He is ever after only one thing: power," explains Thor in a scene-setting cinematic sequence. "And also helmets with horns. He's really into those."
From here, Captain America, Thor and Wolverine must pursue Loki and grab the Tesseract. After a sequence of the characters ascending space via the Bifrost, they're suddenly in Thor's world, which had been rendered into ice by Loki, who has the Chest of Ancient Winters to call on. There are Frost Giants to battle, models to put together and switches to pull.
Whatever happened to those heroes?
It's typical Lego gaming stuff, but with the massive allure of those Marvel characters – each of which boasts an array of individual powers.
Thor can call in lightning and charge himself up, giving access to a powerful laser beam attack. He can also fly and slam enemies with his hammer. The Human Torch can fly and flame on or off at will, shooting fireballs and melting ice barriers. Captain America can throw his shield to smash items, but also has a cover mode, which uses the shield to deflect laser beam and fire attacks. Wolverine has powerful melee attacks, but can also slash broken bricks to reveal new areas and his animal senses detect enemies as well as helpful stuff like hidden climbing walls. Interestingly, he can't be destroyed, so as he's injured, he's gradually reduced to an adamantium skeleton that has to slowly regenerate.
"One of the problems we had from a design perspective is that all of the characters are really powerful," says game director, Arthur Parsons. "We've had to ensure that while they retain all of their abilities, they're not overpowered."
The Asgard level is structured around a series of confrontations with Loki – who, like the Joker and Two-Face in Lego Batman 2, just keeps getting away. At one point he fills the screen with holograms of himself to confuse Thor and his team, and at the end he uses his staff to gain control over the Destroyer, an enchanted armour monster created by Odin to battle a hostile alien race. The only way the heroes can defeat him is by using Captain America's shield to deflect the monster's heat attacks at Loki.
The game is structured similarly to Lego Batman 2. Missions are distributed from a single base location – this time the SHIELD heli-carrier, floating above Manhattan. However, almost from the start, players are able to leap down and explore the city, which provides a vast open world, filled with secrets and mini-quests. Apparently, these free-play tasks are all narrated by DeadPool who delights in breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the gamer, usually mocking them in the process.
A Grand old time
This will also be the location of some key campaign set pieces. Zac and I get to play a mission set at Grand Central station, with Spider-Man and the Hulk teaming up to bust their way into the iconic building where Sandman is holed up and causing havoc.
There's a lot of pulverising vehicles on the way in, with Hulk picking up abandoned cars and lobbing them aside. Later, when we meet lead animator, Andy Dolan, Albie tries out his selection of Hulk questions. "Can Hulk smash?" he says. And Dolan shows him how the green giant can jump into the air and slam his fists down on the ground causing major earth tremors. Hulk can also clap his hands together sending out a sonic boom to fell enemies. "Can he throw a car when there is someone in it?" asks Albie, warming to the theme. Yes he can. In the free-roaming NYC sections, he can throw a cab and then watch as the annoyed driver clambers out. Hulk can also transform back into Bruce Banner, giving access to more confined areas.
As with the Asgard level, this sequence also has its own mid-stage monster battle – this time, the Abomination. The development team thought it was important to feature the key Marvel showdowns, so Hulk v Abomination was always going to happen. But much of the fun is in the unlikely pairings.
"We wanted to partnerships that won't necessarily be expected," says Parsons. "So in the Grand Central level, we have two of the Avengers operating with Spider-Man. The second level of the game is a team up between Captain America and Mr Fantastic – throughout the campaign we keep this 'party of heroes' concept."
The question about Spider-Man is of course answered in the affirmative. He is here and it's a wonderful realisation, complete with tingling spider senses and the ability to swing across every location via web strands that disappear off the top of the screen. He can also shoot webs as projectile weapons and use them to pull over larger obstacles.
All of the 16 lead characters can also use their weapons with puzzles – Captain America's shield, DeadPool's swords and Hawkeye's arrows can all open locks and mechanisms. And as usual, certain scenic objects can only be manipulated by certain characters – so if you want to melt a gold object, you'll need the Human Torch – or Ironman if you have the Mark 42 suit …
There are lots of little nods to the fans, as well. The cinematic scenes often feature Damage Control, the specialist unit that comes in and cleans up after major Marvel battles – they'll sweep up in the background as the plot progresses. There is Loki's eight-legged horse; there is the fictitious Roxxon corporation. The visual gags are nice too; my sons love it when Mr Fantastic transforms himself into a teapot; and when Sandman becomes a sand castle, waddling around the screen. It's these touches that kids look out for.
Traveller's Tales has become adept at working in its slapstick eccentricities by now, but it also tests each game with children. Parsons usually recruits his nine-year-old daughter as a tester during the development phase. "With every level I just sit her down and say play this, tell me what's good, what isn't," he says. "And kids are so honest; they don't hide anything. But it's a joy to sit together to share it – and to see her reactions when she finds something new."
One important aspect is the character unlock feature, which lets players discover hidden heroes and then play as them on any completed mission. Traveller's Tales reckons it will have over 100 unlockable characters in Lego Marvel Super Heroes, and a key aim has been to make each one available as soon as possible after they're discovered.
"We do a lot of focus testing with kids and their favourite bit is playing as characters who aren't in the main story," says Parsons. "When they unlock a favourite, they just want to play as them straightaway. That will be especially true with the characters we have in this game – everyone is going to want to play as Venom, everyone will want to try Sandman. The cast for the villains is epic and we want to make sure people can try them really quickly."
While I chat to Parsons, my own sons are watching Dolan as he calls up a series of character models and goes through their special moves. All animations are hand-keyed in the art package Maya then exported to the game engine, complete with moveable faces, capes, etc. Dolan shows Albie and Zac a range of the facial expressions available to each character and they laugh at every one. It's easy to forget about how these little moments of humanity can amaze and delight children – I'll never forget when Zac first got Sackboy to wave his arms around and look up and down in LittleBigPlanet – he was awe-inspired; he laughed so much he had hiccups all day.
But with Lego Marvel Super Heroes, there is also a desire to get the drama of the comic universe into the game. "As we design levels, we write an emotional timeline of what we want the children to experience or feel," says Parsons. "In this one we've managed to stick a couple of scares in there – not night terror scares – but when you have characters like Venom … in his level, as the player is exploring we flick the lights on and off and you get Venom moving toward you until eventually he appears right at the screen. You have to do it in the right way, but you can have shock moments like that."
The script is mostly put together by the staff at Traveller's Tales, but the studio has worked with Lego and with Marvel writer Mark Hoffmeier (Animated Adventures of Spider-Man, Super Hero Squad) to get the tone and references just right. This consultation process extends to the models in the game. Every vehicle or larger character that appears in the series is initially built using Lego bricks by the in-house modelling team: every prototype must abide by Lego's strict 'laws' on how pieces can be connected.
"Lego wants us to ensure that if someone pauses the screen on something, they have a chance of replicating the model they see," says lead Lego artist, Charles McNair. Marvel must be consulted too, so models can take a while to perfect: The Destroyer took over a week to build, adapt and get signed off. "It's a complex example," says modeller Carl Greatrix. "We had to get all the articulations just right …" I quickly position myself as a safety barrier between my sons and the intricate working Destroyer model that Greatrix is showing us.
Behind McNair and Greatrix there are rows of Bisley drawer units filled with carefully segregated Lego pieces. Apparently, around 3,000 pieces are kept in circulation at any one time, with older obsolete pieces regularly removed and newcomers added.
Traveller's Tales models don't have to abide by some of the rules of the consumer play sets – they don't have to take durability, playability or ease of construction into consideration; but they have access to exactly the same raw materials as amateur builders. The pieces that get used most are the smaller ones; hinges, headlight bricks.
"It's very rare we actually get to use regular bricks," says Greatrix, "especially with the smaller size of vehicles we're going down to; it's nearly always plates and tiles. But if we go to something like Asteroid M, that's almost all slope bricks. There are thousands of parts in that."
Indeed, the complexity of all the models and landscapes has increased enormously since the original Lego Star Wars title. Back in 1999, the team at Traveller's Tales was around 16 staff, now it's 120, and there's a separate studio working on handheld conversions. But there is a consistency to the quality here; while some see a production line of near-indistinguishable platform adventures, others welcome the chance to return again and again to this bright, blocky landscapes. Lego Marvel Super Heroes looks to have some beautiful locations and a great handle on the unique capabilities and attractions of every character. It looks like a lot of very familiar fun.
Back in the car, on the long journey home down the M6, I ask the boys, "did you enjoy that? Did you learn anything?"
"Hulk can smash!" says Albie.
"I forgot to ask about Ironman," says Zac.
But later they relay a lot of what they were told to their mum, and we talk about the 30 animation sequences that make up each character, the 70 minutes of cinematic sequences – the way Hulk can drop kick enemies. I'm impressed with how much they've remembered and I'm pretty certain they now understand some of the processes of development. We just need to work on those questions.
• Lego Marvel Super Heroes is due out this autumn on PS4, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC and 3DS