What do the citizens of ancient Egypt and the goons of Hydra have in common? If you ask LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2, it’s that neither of them can stop themselves from jammin’ to the staccato beats of “Mr. Blue Sky” when Star-Lord slips on his Walkman in the heat of combat. Maybe they’re onto something. I’d routinely stop and hold down the circle button on my DualShock just to jam with him myself, so infectious is the personality that shines through almost every pixel in this fun new adventure. Some of the old problems with the series remain, but the other wonders here never let them overpower the rest of the action.
Again, that personality is the chief draw, along with some of the same flair for catchy variety we find in Star-Lord’s awesome mix tapes. Pull back the curtain and, by and large, you’ll find that this is the same LEGO formula that we’ve known for years, which means you’ll spend a lot of time duking it out with lightweight combat and solving environmental puzzles by swapping between the huge collection of characters to access the correct special ability. That’s all here, for better or for worse, right down for the sometimes-reluctant AI for the heroes you or a co-op partner not controlling directly, who stand around looking bored while you’re trying to, for instance, save the world with a big, lightning-charged hammer. This game’s definitely best played as a duo.
Rarely, though, has this setup been so satisfying. If I had to guess, I’d say a lot of that appeal seems to spring from the work of veteran comic book writer Karl Busiek, who co-wrote a lot of LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2’s amusing story.
Back in 2001, Busiek (whom I personally admire for his work with Conan the Barbarian) penned a tale about a war with the villain Kang the Conqueror for the Avengers comics, and he returns to Kang here in LEGO form with a story that’s both interesting and coherent. Better yet, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 never lets dour universe-conquering gravitas get in the way of a flood of silly puns and excited outbursts from the likes of Wasp and Spider-Man. This is LEGO, after all, and the combination of good writing and lighthearted charm helps the pieces here fit together better than they have in years. Sometimes, admittedly, the delivery falters; in one case for technical reasons when uneven sound editing causes the Enchantress to practically scream her lines. It’s a little like dealing with that annoying guy who drops into a Discord channel with his mic settings set too high.
But the vast majority of the time LEGO Marvel Super Heroes succeeds in being consistently entertaining, in part because it’s not bound as tightly to the movies as last year’s relatively unsatisfying LEGO Marvel’s Avengers. You’ll still find familiar locations from the movies, like Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy and Sakaar from Thor: Ragnarok, but Super Heroes 2 wisely uses them to craft its own stories with different villains and heroes instead of retreading the same ground. Kang, you see, has pulled together multiple locations from across time and space to create a massive hub world called Chronopolis, and I believe it’s the largest world the LEGO franchise has seen to date. It’s certainly the most varied. Kang plops bits of these worlds right down next to each other, allowing someone like She-Hulk to take a quick jaunt from Midtown Manhattan to the K’un-Lun of Iron First or places like the medieval England and ancient Egypt.
LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 is thus a “theme park” in the best meaning of the term. Just when I started to get bored of blasting my way through Black Panther’s homeland of Wakanda, I would bound off to solve puzzles and collect more blocks in a film noir version of New York.
Fortunately, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 doesn’t content itself with mere variety of settings: it also breaks up the missions with fun actions sequences that go beyond the usual business of busting up the bad guys’ furniture and making new items with it. The original LEGO Marvel Super Heroes relied too heavily on sending you down corridors to beat a boss, but here I found myself guiding Iron Man through underwater compounds or shrinking Ms. Marvel down so she could fit inside a puzzle I jostled around with my controller’s trigger buttons. One of my favorite fights had Captain America and Star-Lord dog fighting with a boss in an airplane high above snowy peaks, making them stop shooting occasionally to kick henchmen off the wings.
The problem with the world is that it needs better signage. There were plenty of times when I was simply at a loss as to what to do next, even with all the little prompts that pop up showing which hero can interact with what. Sometimes all I needed to do was hop on a wall to reach a ladder, but I kept thinking I was missing something since the wall wouldn’t let me “land” unless I hit the perfect spot. These moments never lasted so long as to stop me in my tracks, but they did ruin the flow of the action and the sense that I was playing through a butt-kicking Marvel movie or comic book.
Yet the strength of LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 lies in how it embraces all aspects of Marvel. You see the influence of the movies in the way the Guardians of the Galaxy are clearly modeled after Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and friends, but it also enthusiastically delves into the deep cuts of the comics with villains like Klaw, the Black Knight, and Kraven the Hunter. There dozens upon dozens to tinker with and unlock here, right down to quirky parodies like the porcine Spider-Ham.
Many of the characters you can unlock for free play through Chronopolis even have variations, meaning you can turn Spider-Man into a camera-equipped Peter Parker or fight Hydra as a medieval Captain America. Much time was clearly spent on giving each character their own unique abilities: Captain America’s ridiculously useful tossable shield is back, for one, but you can also use Dr. Strange to manipulate some environmental elements backward and forward in time in order to solve puzzles. For that matter, the option to create your own hero has never been so robust, as you can draw from this massive pool of pieces to create any kind of hero you wish.
Outside of the campaign is a new local-only multiplayer mode for up to four players, which currently offers two scenarios. In one, you run around picking up and holding the Infinity Stones to build points; and in the other, you run around collecting colored blocks and dumping them in a bin. Just don’t expect any balance, owing to the wildly different abilities of the heroes. I quickly discovered, for instance, that I prefer playing with Ms. Marvel because her rubbery arms could generally clobber any opponents before they got close. It’s a shame that this mode is local-only unless you have three people to play with in your house, it’s a lot harder to enjoy discovering those imbalances because the AI just can’t keep up.