There was a time when you could sort of get Doctor Who Lego, and it was rubbish.
At least some of you had this, right? That cut-price, flimsy, second-rate Lego knock-off that wouldn’t stick together and wouldn’t stay together, with its wobbly platforms and barely-functioning mechanisms (and I ought to know, I spent an entire afternoon trying to build the bloody thing). The Dalek set was no better: poorly designed, tedious to put together, and filled with cheap-looking Daleks. I know that Lego have a patent on their particular brick design and that the plastic they use is generally higher quality, but really. Oh, I have stared into the abyss with you, Character Building, and I have found you wanting.
The figures themselves weren’t bad, of course: I bought a set of all eleven some years back, along with a few of those £2 mystery bags that theoretically contained one of seven or eight different figures but which almost invariably contained the Eleventh Doctor. The boys and I had great fun playing with them, but they occasionally came in useful for other things.
Didn’t we have a lovely time the day we went to Gallifrey? Despite the abundance of assorted fan creations all over the internet, this was – alas – the nearest we thought we’d get to actual official Lego Doctor Who. Until last year, when this happened.
We’ve been here before, of course. Lego Dimensions was an attempt to cash in on the success of Skylanders and Disney Infinity: collectible toys used to unlock new areas and abilities in an expansive open world video game. Even before launch, the tabloid outrage had started in earnest. It was easy to see why, if you did some elementary mathematics: a starter pack would set you back something between eighty and ninety pounds, while level and team packs cost another thirty. Even the fun packs (containing a single character and a gadget of some sort) were fifteen pounds each. “It’ll cost you £350 if you buy everything!” screamed various media outlets, neglecting to mention the fact that you don’t have to spend anywhere near that amount to get a heap of enjoyment from the game.
There’s a certain sense of moral hand-wringing at work here. How dare you – we seem to be saying – how dare you, Lego, a capitalist venture, try and make money out of us by selling us things we don’t have to buy? Never mind the fact that you’re not the first to go down this road. We thought you were different. We thought you were on our side, rather than the exploiting, money-grabbing bastards at Disney. We thought you were all about the creativity, which is presumably why you’ve been re-releasing the same set of bricks all these years and never making new ones. You see? When you put it like that, the whole argument is ridiculous. The real problem here is peer pressure, and if you’re succumbing to that, you’re just not parenting properly.
In this case, the peer pressure came from me. Our kids have too much screen time and know too many swearwords (all of which they learned in the playground, rather than the house) but we’ve done one thing right: by and large, they don’t whine for stuff. Keeping commercial television at a minimum helps – any exposure to the minefield that is CITV is tempered by the running commentary I keep up through the advertising breaks, pointing out misleading product claims or gender stereotyping, until we got to the point that I didn’t have to do it anymore because the boys were doing it for me. So when it came to actually investing in this, they were all reasonably interested, but I was the one that pushed for it. “Because it’s Lego,” I said, “and because it’s Doctor Who Lego.”
It meant upgrading the Xbox. It was due, anyway – that 360 isn’t going to last forever, and if we were going to invest in the Dimensions set then some sort of futureproofing was in order. I wanted a PS4 (I still do) but the boys’ friends seem to have gone the Microsoft route, and it’s only a matter of time before they start doing online gaming, so the parent in me won out over the gamer.
You wonder why you bother, sometimes. Minecraft was tremendous fun for everyone until Thomas discovered the concept of griefing. Last year I set them off on Lego Star Wars, thinking that it might be a good way to introduce them to the series before we eventually moved on to Dimensions, but had forgotten that this early instalment does not have a split screen co-op mode, which led to great frustration when the experienced player was trapped at the edge of the play area as the camera zoomed ever outwards, waiting for the younger player to catch up. So I installed Viva Pinata instead, thinking that a multiplayer gardening game couldn’t possibly do any harm, only to find that they were far more interested in bashing the in-game A.I. assistant with a shovel.
Split screen issues aside, the main problem with the Lego video games – as anyone who has followed the series will tell you – is that they’ve become increasingly complicated. This isn’t an issue if you’re a gaming veteran who’s used to upgrades and abilities and an increasing number of collectible items. Lego Indiana Jones 2 was the first to feature a large, fully interactive hub that made you actually hunt for the next level. Harry Potter featured an obscene number of items to collect, as well as game-breaking bugs that prevented you from doing just that. (Even after all these years, things have sadly not improved.) Lord of the Rings actively splits the gameplay so that in some levels, one character is teleported to an entirely different location and forced to do various things while someone else is having their own story, which rather spoils the effect of co-op.
It’s a far cry from Lego Star Wars – which, eleven years later, still holds up beautifully, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it is surprisingly minimalist. There are ten canisters per level, all used to build different vehicles that sit nicely in the cantina outside the hub. There are seven character types for accessing inaccessible areas (Lego Dimensions has 31). Characters you don’t unlock automatically may be purchased for a reasonable number of studs. There is one secret level, accessible when the main game has been completed, in which you get to stomp all over Princess Leia’s consular ship as Darth Vader. There are no gold or red bricks. Purple studs have yet to make an appearance. There’s not even any building, for heaven’s sake. There is just hours of unadulterated entertainment as you run through swamps and starships, hitting things and occasionally using the Force to move stuff.
Lego Dimensions – as you’ll know if you’ve played it – features gold and red bricks, upgradable vehicles, hidden characters in need of rescuing, stuff to buy, stuff to renovate, minikit canisters, and…I stopped looking. I can’t keep up. The much-coveted 100% goal has eluded me since that second Indiana Jones game and I’m not inclined to try and reach it now. It is the proverbial bunch of grapes dangling tantalisingly out of reach of the hungry wolf’s mouth, and I am inclined to find it sour. There’s just too much: an absolute wealth of Easter Eggs, secret levels and other hidden delights. It’s information overload. The between-levels hub, at least, is pleasantly minimalist, consisting of a single, multi-floored area with a computer that takes you in and out of the different game levels. Shame it’s all so…blue.
I didn’t mention the toy pad and its circular, geometrically intricate hub, which took almost an hour for the kids to build and approximately thirty-five seconds for their two-year-old brother to destroy. The pad serves as an extra layer of gameplay: dropping minifigures on different sections takes them in and out of the world and allows access to new abilities and previously unavailable platforms and rooms, thanks to the puzzle design. If you have extra figures that can access hidden areas, dropping them onto the pad will bring them into the game (and if you haven’t bought them, you can purchase their abilities for thirty seconds at a time using studs you’ve collected). Keeping minifigures attached to the plastic base that functions as an identity chip therefore becomes absolutely vital if you don’t want to become hopelessly confused (although swapping them over is a great way to prank your children). It also necessitates storing them in a safe place, which has only failed to happen once. I wouldn’t mind if we ever got to play the bloody thing, but Traveller’s Tales have an annoying habit of doing this whenever I turn on the Xbox.
I appreciate that they want to update things (although I’d appreciate it more if said updates actually fixed the bugs that made us play through that ridiculous Back to the Future Level again) but seriously, can’t they give us a choice? And yes, I’m aware that the always-on setting would allow an automatic update, but our carbon footprint is already through the roof and I’m not inclined to raise it any further. On the plus side, this made me all nostalgic for the days when I’d visit a friend’s house and he’d put the Chase HQ tape in his Spectrum cassette player, and then we’d go off downstairs and get a snack or something while it took ten minutes to load. Of course, these days it only takes two hours.
Lego Dimensions levels vary in quality. There’s the very good (Portal, Scooby Doo, Doctor Who), the good (Ghostbusters, which is curiously satisfying despite a general lack of atmosphere), the passable (The Simpsons) the irritating (Midway Arcade, which emulates Gauntlet very nicely but insists on splitting the screen when there’s more than enough room for two players at once) and the utterly dire (BTTF). The designers’ attempts to vary artistic style are largely successful – the land of Oz hums in glorious Technicolor, while the cel-shading in Scooby Doo is top notch.
And what of the Doctor Who level? Well, those of you who know your video games will be aware that there are two of them: a standalone level pack, ‘The Dalek Extermination of Earth’ – which I’ll write about when I’ve actually got round to playing it – and ‘A Dalektable Adventure’, the Who-themed level in the game’s central campaign. In the latter, Gandalf, Wyldstyle and Batman encounter Cybermen, Daleks and Weeping Angels. ‘Bad Wolf’ is scribbled on the walls, and overhead TV monitors replay the oh-god-it’s-coming-out-of-the-screen moment from ‘The Time of Angels’. The Doctor’s role is brief, although those of you who have played the rest of the campaign will be aware that he takes a much bigger role in the finale.
Some of the best moments in Lego Dimensions are the little moments where you open up a tear in reality in order to pull through an object of use from another dimension (something they shamelessly nicked from Bioshock, although I’m not complaining). It leads to moments like the scene in the Portal level where you clear obstacles with the help of a screaming Homer Simpson, clinging to a wrecking ball. But the game speaks to anyone who has mashed up universes in creative play. In his bedroom, I’ve watched Daniel bash up Uruk-hai with Ninja Turtles and Spider-Man: in Lego Dimensions, GlaDOS has a conversation with HAL from 2001, the Joker stomps all over Springfield, and General Zod appears on the roof of the Ghostbusters’ firehouse. It’s a fanboy’s wet dream, but it’s more than that: it’s a testament to the power of creative thought. It’s also a cynical marketing stunt, of course – Lego have spent years shrugging off criticism that their current sets are too rigid and unimaginative, and eventually decided to fight fire with fire. It started with The Lego Movie, which embraced the concept of hybrid, non-linear thinking, and Lego Dimensions (despite the cataclysm that results when Lord Vortech starts fusing worlds) is a natural extension of that.
None of this would count for zip, of course, if the game wasn’t any good, but thankfully it is, despite the bugs. It encourages teamwork, perseverance and a certain degree of lateral thinking. Em and I enjoyed it very much. And of course, when the boys started playing it, they fought like tigers on heat. I had to referee. And then I had to supervise their sessions, ostensibly to lend a hand when they got stuck and were too busy arguing to work out the solution, although this only made things worse.
Oh, that’s another thing. I didn’t mention this, did I?
It’s brilliant. I always wondered how you’d handle the Angels in a third-person game, and the intermittent power failures fit the bill nicely. What this video doesn’t show you is what happens when you allow them to get too close, which leads to a bunch of close-up shots with gaping mouths, vicious-looking fangs and those soulless white eyes. It would have terrified Daniel, but he was already watching the thing from outside the room anyway, leaving the others to manage without him: not easy when you have to move the figures around the toy pad while you’re trying to move Gandalf around a disintegrating platform.
It came to a head one Sunday afternoon, the boys stuck in the first half of the Doctor Who level. “No, no,” I said. “No, you need to use the earth element on that. Josh, put him on green. No, GREEN. No, hang on, you’ve – Thomas, why did you deactivate the switch?”
“Well, it was on, and now it’s off, and you were standing by it! Turn it on. That’s – no, look, you only need to press it once. Once! Now do it again. Daniel, what are you doing?”
“I’m bashing up the Batmobile.”
“You need the Batmobile to get over that ramp. That’s it. Reverse. Rever- no, look, just turn round. That’s it. Right round. Further! Now, go for- no, you need to slow down or you’re going to – see, you’ve gone over the edge.”
“I can’t do it.”
“You can do it, you just need to aim properly. No, right, right, RIGHT! Oh, look, give me the controller. There. Now, just drive straight over it. Thomas, have you turned the switch back on?”
“Look, if you don’t turn the switch on you won’t be able to clear that swamp and we’re never going to be off this level. Right. Now, aim down at the – NO, NOT AT HIM! NOT AT HIM! LEFT! LEFT!”
From the dining table, Emily looked up from her painting. “You know who you sound like?” she said. “One of those soccer dads.”
I left the room, saturated with self-loathing. She was right, dammit.
But there are times – rare, shining moments – that they work together. Having discovered Clara Oswald stuck in a glass case, it was decided that they should spend fifty thousand of their hard-earned studs in order to hire the hero they needed to rescue her. This is a high-profile and important mission, so the task of actually breaking open the case within the thirty second time limit was entrusted to me, because the likelihood of me screwing it up was minimal.
So I freed Clara. There was much whooping and rejoicing. Then they spent the next five minutes chasing her round the base, kicking the crap out of her.