(Pocket-lint) - Lego Dimensions joins the toys-to-life race this year in impressive form. Because from the very start the focus is as much on the toys as it is the screen - within minutes of play you'll put the controller down to build the Lego Toy Pad peripheral, which is made of actual Lego pieces, that will read-in the Lego minifigures from the real world to the virtual.
The Starter Pack comes with this Toy Pad, three Lego minifigures and one Lego vehicle. This grants access to the main adventure and every one of the 14 included pop culture franchises, varying from The Simpsons, to Lord of the Rings, Scooby Doo, DC Comics and many more.
All characters can be mixed up within the game, so whether it's Scooby Doo driving the Batmobile, or Homer Simpson riding a Velociraptor, Dimensions is a game where imagination and interactive play are put front and centre. Is it the best toys-to-life game ever?
Lego Dimensions review: Lego prices
Unlike other Lego games you can only play as a character if you own the associated minifigure. You start with Wyld Style, Gandalf and Batman and can expand your team by purchasing additional packs.
Given the vehicle packs are £30 a piece, or "fun packs" of minifigs are £15 that could all add up very quickly, with the potential for the game to cost well over £300. Careful selection of only favourite franchises, and ensuring you exhaust the Starter Pack before expanding, should keep costs reasonable.
The higher cost delivers considerable value though. Not only do you get to play in all of the franchise worlds from the off (unlike the more restrictive Disney Infinity) but each of the minifigures also unlocks an expansive open-world to explore. The main adventure alone takes at least 12 hours to get through - and that's not counting any side-quests.
Lego Dimensions review: Form perfected
Perhaps what's most impressive, though, is the game itself. Taking a lead from the irreverent mix-and-match storytelling of The Lego Movie, this is a Lego videogame with the branding gloves well and truly off.
This delivers on the "worlds colliding" promise as characters and locations from all manner of franchises joyously join together for some of the most engaging storytelling in a Lego game to date. The Lord of the Rings, DC Universe, The Simpsons, Doctor Who, Portal, The Lego Movie, Scooby Doo, Ninjago, and Legends of Chima all get in on the action.
Whichever of these brands gets you most excited, the result is simply a lot of fun. Sure, the game progression is essentially the usual "fetch and carry" work familiar from previous Lego games, but here it finds its form perfected.
Lego Dimensions review: Imaginations run wild
Layered on top of that is a novel use of the physical Toy Pad. To solve various puzzles in the game you must move the Lego minifigures to different colour-coded locations on the pad. This not only involves the physical toy side of the offering but introduces a strong connection between screen and character.
TT Games, the game's developer, has a deft touch which runs throughout every level. We won't give away any key plot points, but it's all delivered with a superb sense of humour and plenty of fan service that makes every chapter a joy to be savoured.
Each franchise has a twist on the usual gameplay to offer more variety than we've seen in previous Lego games too. For instance the top-down Gauntlet-like challenge in one Midway level or the test labs from Portal.
Visually the game looks superb on next-generation hardware. Of course this is designed to look like Lego so there are limits, but the attention to detail and smooth rendering of the worlds draws you in to investigate further.
Lego Dimensions review: Building complexity
The gameplay puzzles will be familiar to anyone who has spent time playing a Lego videogame previously. It's easy to dismiss much of this as busy-work but as the game progresses both the complexity and intricacy of solutions increases. With this, figuring out the right combination of actions and characters is actually very rewarding - for very young children it might be a little too much.
Progressing through levels offers the opportunity to build new versions of Lego vehicles. It's here that we find the game's important toys-to-life upgrade scheme. Different vehicle builds offer different abilities and upgrades in terms of performance.
This is an important part of the back and forth between screen and bricks, although it seems odd that the characters themselves can't be upgraded. Each minifigure offers a range of specific skills from the start and doesn't have a way to expand these. Disney Infinity had a similar oversight in its first version and this is likely something we will see Dimensions expand upon in the future.
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Those character abilities are also important to understand in terms of accessing side-quests and collectable bricks in the campaign and open-world parts of the game. To access certain areas you need a specific skill that will be related to different Lego characters. This is one of the drivers to purchase expansion packs that provide the right characters to access locked off area.
The game signposts these by telling the player which character they require when these zones are encountered - which will likely then trigger a degree of pestering from children at supermarket check outs.
Expansions come in three forms: Team; Fun; and Level packs. The first two offer additional characters to play in the game as well as access to their related open-world environments. The Level pack does this as well but also adds an additional level to the main game.
Progressing through each level in co-operative play grants the usual incentives to team-up and collaborate. Here there is an added payload for families where parents can introduce children to favourite films and franchises from their own childhood.
Lego Dimensions had a mountain to climb in order to catch-up with the other well-established toys-to-life games, namely Skylanders and Disney Infinity. But it's more than done that, establishing itself as the most imaginative and open-minded of the bunch.
However, some will quibble over the high price of entry, plus costs can further skyrocket when collecting large volumes of additional minifigures and vehicles. Yet the actual value delivered is considerable, from the physical toys through to the additional sections opened within the game as a result.
Playing Lego Dimensions with just the Starter Pack purchase is a huge amount of family-friendly fun too. From the physical process of building with Lego, to the sheer number of franchises included from the off, through to slick and often hilarious humour - it's a game that will keep families of all ages highly entertained for time to come.
Make no bricks about it, Lego Dimensions is the toys-to-life game of the year.