Like a typical Marvel movie, Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 starts strong. A dazzling re-interpretation of the Guardians of the Galaxy swoop into action to defend Nova Corps. Explosions, elaborate combat and goofy gags ensue. And like a typical Marvel movie, the adventure runs a bit too long, gradually wearing out its welcome. By the end, an above-average Marvel game is dragged down to the level of a below-average Lego game.
Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 loosely follows the events of 2013’s Lego Marvel Super Heroes but doesn’t require extensive foreknowledge of the series. The plot borrows gleefully from Marvel’s 2015 summer event, Secret Wars — just swap out Doctor Doom with Kang the Conqueror. It’s a complicated premise that Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 explains surprisingly gracefully.
Kang the Conqueror (purple guy, but not the purple guy from the movies) sets out to conquer the universe (naturally), this time using the powers of the Infinity Stone of Time, which allows him to gather forces from all over the Marvel multiverse. Kang also combines a number of physical landmark locations into a single megacity, Chronopolis, the game’s open world.
Chronopolis, as the name entails, is composed of different zones taken from different eras or places in the Marvel universe. There’s Manhattan (as you might expect), but also future and past Manhattan (Nueva York and Manhattan Noir, respectively); a version of Asgard; the Kree homeworld Hala; the Inhuman city of Attilan; as well as quite a few other Marvel locales. Each area is small but well-differentiated in style and missions. In the Hydra Empire zone, citizens extol the virtues of Red Skull and don’t seem too perturbed about living under another, slightly different overlord. As you might expect in a game aimed at a younger demographic, Nazi symbology is noticeably absent — these are the green and yellow Hydra, not the swastika-toting ones. They do all have German accents, though.
As the main storyline unfolds, Avengers and allies from all over the multiverse gather their forces to find the Nexus shards, to open a portal, to call for help, to find some other allies, to eventually, eventually mount an assault on Kang’s citadel in the middle of the map. The Nexus shards are scattered all over Chronopolis, and each one has been grabbed up by a supervillain who is either allied with Kang or plotting to take Kang’s throne and then smash the Avengers.
It’s pretty boilerplate comic book bad guy stuff: a little too complicated, prone to inconsistencies and inevitably thwarted by a plucky band of superheroes. Character writing hits more often than it misses. I was surprised to find myself laughing so often; there are enough quips and referential nods to keep the world irreverent but charming.
Unlike the original Lego Marvel Super Heroes, the sequel shows expected deference to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The X-Men, a staple of the team in the original game, are noticeably absent, and Guardians of the Galaxy- and Inhumans-related content takes center stage. It’s the sort of change you expect with Marvel properties after the Disney acquisition, but the loss of Wolverine and the frontline X-Men is a bummer.
Luckily, the new ‘main characters’ are more than up to the challenge of spouting quips and hitting bricks. Kamala Khan, as Ms. Marvel, provides a welcome foil to the more cosmic or regal superhero types; she and Spider-Gwen (Gwen Stacy who became Spider-Man in an alternate universe) lend a sometimes hamfisted, but mostly charming ‘teenage-ness’ to the roster. There is a focus on the standout comic characters of the past few years in general, with Captain Marvel and Black Panther playing crucial roles in the main storyline.
If you’re expecting the voice cast from the original Lego Marvel Super Heroes or the spinoff Lego Avengers, you’ll be disappointed to hear that due to the SAG-AFTRA strike of 2016, the entire voice cast was replaced by non-SAG-AFTRA actors. This recast includes Peter Serafinowicz as Kang himself, who lends a gravitas to the character that few other villains manage to nail.
The most disappointing thing about Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 is that it’s still ultimately a Lego game. Well-written dialogue and hard-earned character growth are undercut by every single mission sticking to the established Lego game formula. Around Chronopolis, you are tasked with your usual gamut of open-world mission types: fetch quests, follow quests, the occasional “hit these guys until they stop spawning” quests and if you’re really lucky, maybe a race. While the world of Chronopolis is full of hidden characters and some very well-written quest logs, the actual gameplay feels dated and boring in comparison.
Story missions involve mashing the attack buttons until every plastic enemy pops apart, then wreaking havoc on the current area until you’ve gathered all the bricks and various collectibles. At the end, there’s a boss. You hit him until his health bar is depleted. Rinse. Repeat.
Clunky controls and a camera that never really seems to know where you’d like to look don’t help. Flying and swimming are especially maddening: Fly up, and the camera swings under the character; fly down and it hovers above them, too close for comfort. In both cases, you can’t see where you’d actually like to go.
And there is a lot of flying and swimming. Both rarely inspire joy, save for a few fleeting moments of soaring above Chronopolis and not having to actually go anywhere in particular or fight anyone. With no method in the game to strafe, aerial combat becomes a game of pointing, shooting and praying that the auto-targeting picks up what you want to hit.
Under all of these technical flubs, the game itself just doesn’t feel that inspired. The characters, whose personalities make up so much of the charm in cinematics and voice lines, are reduced to Lego Game Stereotypes when you actually play them. This character shoots guns. This one punches. This one can fly. The simplification of characters serves the same purpose it always has in Lego games — mainly, that any level can be run in ‘free play’ mode, where the player can swap out heroes and villains on the fly — but how long can the franchise hit these same notes? There is barely a tangible gameplay difference between Star-Lord and Iron Man, save for a few voice lines and the color of their projectiles.
The specific spaces created for story missions feel similarly lackluster, often introducing puzzle variants without any warning or explanation. More than once I found myself swearing at the screen trying to figure out what exactly the game wanted me to do, staring at the same tiny area for way too long and wondering how on earth I was supposed to get that block to that pressure pad — only to find out that the answer lay in breaking apart this one specific object so that Captain America could build a contraption to break down a wall. They aren’t difficult puzzles; they’re just not communicated very well.
If there’s one thing you can’t knock Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 for, it doesn’t lack content. After I finished the main story and did a good handful of open-world missions, the pause screen informed me I was only at about 30 percent completion. The game boasts hundreds of playable characters, dozens of unlockable ‘cheats’ buyable from Gwenpool (Gwen Stacy, but in a universe where she became Deadpool) at the Avengers Mansion and a plethora of open-world missions.
Perhaps that’s the issue. Deep within all of this stuff, under layers and layers of outdated game design carried by the Lego brand, is a promising game. The writing and character direction is, by and large, excellent. At its best, the game is a celebration of Marvel, putting together characters from lore deep-dives with big-screen names like Captain America and Star-Lord. At its worst, it is a vague, opaque slog through hundreds of identical enemies and bad level design. Sadly, Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 is more “stepping on lego bricks” than “excelsior.”
Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 was reviewed using final “retail” PS4 download codes provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.