Everything Is Awesome.
LEGO Dimensions is the latest title to enter the toys-to-life arena, where DLC content is packaged physically in the form of specific figures, some of which occasionally open up optional content in games. In Disney Infinity 2.0, for instance, there were missions specific to The Hulk, a figure that had to be bought separately from the Play Sets levels. Similarly, certain Nintendo games' amiibos confer abilities or characters into games that are so strong, it's almost pay-to-win. LEGO Dimensions joins the fray and is the most "mercenary" of all in how it apportions content through character purchases.
I'll come back to that later, because I'd like to address the core game itself first. In LEGO Dimensions you play as Wildestyle (Elizabeth Banks), Gandalf (sadly not Ian McKellan, but veteran voice actor Tom Kane does a fine job), and DC Comics Batman (Troy Baker), who should not be confused with LEGO Movie Batman (Will Arnett) who also appears in the game. Each game hero's respective sidekick or ward has been stolen by the villainous Lord Vortech (Gary Oldman) who is collecting heroes, villains, and the "Foundation Artifact" McGuffins of each of the 14 franchise's worlds (kryptonite, the plutonium that attaches to Homer's back during The Simpsons' intro, etc.) in an effort to rebuild the worlds into a single "perfect" dimension created in his image. You are aided by his former henchman robot, X-PO (Joel McHale), who helps you retrieve the artifacts.
LEGO Dimensions follows certain TT Games LEGO standards, like busting up everything in the level to collect studs (LEGO in-game currency), basic combat, and co-operative puzzles. Where it differs is in how intelligently it uses the LEGO toy pad and figures, the smartness of the puzzles, the physical build component, and some of the best writing in any LEGO game to date.
As a Toys-to-Life game, one of the first things you do in LEGO Dimensions is build the characters out of their LEGO components, and then the portal on top of the LEGO toy pad, from an instruction booklet that appears onscreen. This, in-and-of itself pretty much justifies the Toys-To-Life experience. As in other games, LEGO character's have different specific abilities, meaning you have to swap between them, where Dimensions immediately differs is that some abilities are activated by placing the characters on different parts of the LEGO toy pad. You may need to move Wildestyle to different sections of the board to activate her scanning ability or make Gandalf's staff glow to light dark areas.
More LEGO toy pad mini-game and puzzle elements are added as the player finds the missing "keystones" to the portals, five in total: one that opens portals in the level depending on the color of the section of the toy pad, one that confers elemental abilities based on placement, one that changes in-game character size based on character placement, one that allows the players to change the colors of the pad itself by assigning the figures individual colors, and one that allows them to search for dimensional rifts. (Got all that?) The last two in particular are the most innovative, and all five come into play in some of the larger boss fights.
At first this starts off with basic usage of each of these abilities, but as the levels continue, the puzzles become more complex, and LEGO Dimensions becomes a headier game than previous games in the series. Nothing is inappropriate for children in LEGO Dimensions, but the references to film, television, and comic franchises are clearly aimed at adults, as are the more challenging puzzles. It reaches a turning point in the 1885 Hill Valley level (Back to the Future), when Lord Vortech appears, and begins opening dimensional portals to toss LEGO versions of The Sphinx and other famous landmarks at you. From there, the game has a real, "anything goes" policy towards everything from the level design to the mixing of franchises themselves. With Superman sucked away by a dimensional portal, Sauron can invade Metropolis, his Barad-dûr fortress from Mordor appearing in the middle of the city.
By far, the best level in LEGO Dimensions is the Portal area, where GLaDOS (Ellen McLain) quickly becomes annoyed by the players using the keystone dimensional rift technology to "cheat" her tests (and their likely deaths). You are helped, briefly, by an inept Wheatley (Stephen Merchant) who ushers you into the Rat-man's lair, but it's the puzzles and classic GLaDOS character writing that make this area so good. Instead of just relying on the standard keystone puzzle elements, they are woven into Portal objectives, like reflecting lasers to take out turrets and reflect the energy balls from particle emitters to open doorways. It perfectly captures what makes both Portal and the LEGO games so good, all while GLaDOS tries to convince you that the turrets were talking fondly about you, and you should give them a hug.
Thankfully GLaDOS's involvement, and that of the 12th Doctor (Peter Capaldi) from Doctor Who, are strongly woven into the story, so they continue past their individual levels, which makes sense since both the Portal technology and the Timey-Wimey space stuff of Doctor Who go well with the dimensional travel of the game. While the game is never quite as good as the Portal content afterward—and the Ghostbusters level especially feels like a considerable amount of filler, with all the character dialogue coming from the the film archives—the story does reach a satisfying conclusion, and the game's end theme song is a Jonathan Coulton-penned GLaDOS song that passive-aggressively chides Chell for missing the adventure.
It's not hard to justify the $100 asking price for the LEGO Dimensions starter set. The base game and toys in a regular toys-to-life title generally runs about $70-75, but in Dimensions the toy pad portal, figures, and mini-Batmobile LEGO toys would probably sell independently between $20-40. The ask doesn't feel extravagant, though it might have been nice to see it slightly discounted for buying the whole package. Where it starts to hurt is that features that are standard in other LEGO games, with certain character abilities—like destroying silver and gold bricks with explosives or lasers—are now tied to purchasing the packs with characters with those abilities. While some of these packs will also be packaged with new levels, certain content from the core game can't be accessed without buying them, so the expense of completing the main quests and collecting a lot of the materials in the game are locked behind a paywall that has never existed in LEGO games before.
The game is still great, even without access to this content, but it does chafe to have content restricted that has always been included before and, in spite of the already expansive content of the title, feels cheap for a game that, baseline, costs $100. At present the game ships with three expansive gameworld hubs, one for each character, with the Adventure World hubs being unlockable (with a ton to do in them) with each new franchise character purchased. This, along with the level packs, actually confers a ton of great value per additional purchase, but doesn't necessarily offset the sting of having to buy these if you want to get the most out of a baseline game that already has a significant markup over not just other AAA titles, but also has more restrictions on the content than other toys-to-life games.
To a certain extent some of this can be mollified by upgrading vehicles from the packs; all vehicles have two possible upgrades, some of which grant abilities that are restricted to certain characters, making the cost perhaps a little less exploitative. For instance, the Batmobile (which comes with the starter set) can be upgraded to the Sonic Batray, which lets you use a sonic blast effect. Similarly, the Portal pack comes with a turret with laser abilities (to destroy gold bricks) and can be upgraded to destroy silver ones, so it may be possible to lessen the sting by making strategic purchases of different characters and vehicles.
LEGO Dimensions is still the best LEGO game TT Games has produced. It's more creative in both its narrative and gameplay, and there was only one small optional section I played where the platforming was problematic (traditionally an issue with the series). The toy pad gameplay feels fresh, as do the physical builds of characters, the portal, and the vehicle toys; keeping the mix of playing with the toys and video game-play stronger than any other toys-to-life game. It's slightly marred by its restrictive access to extra content, but by and large is still a really excellent game. If you're looking for enjoyable gaming content for the Portal and Doctor Who franchises, this is a really fantastic place to find it, with the promise of more in their individual level packs.