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We take a look at Traveller's Tales' second Lego release of the year and see what's new for the series...
- Cool tech suits and super villain abilities.
- Unlocking all the characters is still addictive.
- Retains the humour of other Lego games.
- Very few new features here.
- Partner AI is still hit and miss.
- Inconsistent puzzles.
As the casual gaming market creaks under the weight of its own rapid expansion with lacklustre third party titles being churned out to cash-in on the lucrative family market, one series of games stands out as a textbook example of broad gaming appeal. Lego Indiana Jones has been one of the most commercially successful games this year, once again demonstrating that Traveller's Tales is the closest thing that the gaming world has to a Pixar movie.
Well, that is with the exception of actually Pixar movie tie-in games, but they hardly demonstrate the point we're driving at here (they are, for the most part, far from enjoyable to play). TT's Lego games are like Pixar movies in the sense that they appeal to adults as much as they do to young children, making them perfect for family friendly fun. The choices of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and now Batman as the basis for these Lego games are a perfect example of this. All three have stories and characters so well established that both parents and children can relate to them. The parodying cut-scenes between each level have always been funny, as much to hardened game journalists like us as they are to the average 7 year-old.
Three Pronged Attack
For the first time with Batman, however, TT won't be drawing upon film licenses for the game's story. Instead, a fairly rudimentary Batman plot has been woven into the game, which has been divided into three separate campaigns to mirror the format of the previous Lego titles, all of which drew from trilogies. It all begins when Gotham City's most nefarious super-villains escape from Arkham Asylum (they really should get some higher security gates there or something) and start unravelling their various plots to bring chaos to Gotham once again.
Three groups of super-villains emerge led by the Riddler, the Penguin, and the Joker, while each ring-leader has enlisted help from Gotham's criminal elite to bring their plans to fruition. For example, the Riddler recruits the assistance of Clayface, Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, and Two-Face for his particular portion of the game's story. His goal is to rob the saving's from Gotham's bank, utilising the various powers of each clan member to help him carry out his evil deeds. You'll face-off against each super-villain before finally foiling the Riddler during the story-arcs climax.
There's a near identical process with the Penguin and the Joker, both of whom hire other super-villains to complete their plans, which are a city controlled by robot penguins and mass murder via laughing gas (no prizes for guessing whose plan is whose). In all three story-arcs, once you've foiled the super-villains with Batman and Robin, you'll then open up new levels where you replay the story from the villains' perspective. As always, Freeplay mode is also unlocked when you complete a level, allowing you to find secret areas and items that were previously out of reach without the powers of unlockable characters.
It's elements like these that make the Lego games one of the best examples of carrot-on-a-stick gameplay. This is because all of TT's Lego games (Batman included) exemplify a basic gaming experience at the trickiest of times. The combat has been and remains repetitive (this is particularly noticeable in boss battles), your AI partner is pretty dim-witted for the most part, and the puzzles are either simplistic or just infuriating and nonsensical.
Take one of the puzzles in the level where you play as Clayface, where you have to get to an area by using his super strength to move broken down trucks out of the way. With the first two trucks it was simply a case of finding the right place to pick up the truck and hurling it out of the way, but the third truck was tricky. No matter how much we circled the vehicle trying to find where we should pick it up, we couldn't find a sweet-spot. It turned out that there was a single piece of Lego debris aside the truck that could be stacked onto it, turning the vehicle into a pile of Lego studs. The puzzle just made no sense. For one, why was the third truck different to the other two? And secondly, in all the other cases where you have to stack Lego bricks to complete a task, the unassembled piles of blocks are usually pretty obvious, not just a solitary piece of Lego.
Given these sorts of annoyances with Lego Batman (and the Lego games in general), it's a miracle that they're enjoyable to the extent that they are. Collecting Lego studs by destroying things is one of the staple gameplay elements in the series. It's TT's way of dispensing with lives or a punishing health system and replacing it with a Super Hero rating (the same as the True Jedi achievement in Lego Star Wars games). If you collect the vast majority of studs in a level (a task that veers on obsessive compulsive at times) then you'll be rewarded with a Super Hero rating and the various unlockables that come with it, but every time you run out of health hearts you lose a whole bunch of these studs.
The thing is, we really wanted to achieve the Super Hero rating but we didn't quite know why. We found ourselves foraging around every nook and cranny trying to pick up all those little Lego pieces and for what? Where's the appeal in getting every single unlockable in the game? It's the same for the Freeplay mode, where you can use unlocked characters and tech suits to reach every hidden red brick or secret pack in a level. In theory these features add a lot of replay value and, to TT's credit, it does get more people replaying these levels than they would in other similar games. When all's said and done though, you're just playing like a gormless donkey lusting after a carrot that's always just out of reach. And even if you did eventually get the carrot by completing everything the game has to offer, then it's still just a carrot.
Peas In A Pod
The reason we're drawing all these parallels between Lego Batman and the other Lego games is that the format really hasn't changed much from the Star Wars and Indiana Jones games. The combat retains the slight improvements made with Lego Indiana Jones but remains repetitive overall, the dodgy partner AI that's dogged the series hasn't been fixed, vehicle sections are still fairly uninspiring, and there's very little here in terms of new gameplay features. Perhaps the most original idea is Batman, Robin, and Batgirl's tech suits. Similarly, the abilities of various super-villains in the game are pretty cool as well. Tech suits allow Batman and his sidekicks to do everything from gliding long distances and walking vertically up metal walls, to spending extended periods underwater and walking over hot metal pipes, while super-villains can control the minds and actions of NPCs (the Riddler) or joy buzz people to death (again, no prizes for guessing who).
Having said that, the characters in the Star Wars games also offered up a lot of variation with the assorted force powers and weapons on show, so while we certainly enjoyed the tech suits and super-villainy, perhaps it's not a huge leap forward for the series. Similarly, the graphics retain the same Lego injected appeal that they always have, with cute character models that perform well in the game and during humorous cut-scenes that haven't lost any of their charm without a film license to draw on. Perhaps TT could've done a little more with the Gotham City setting by making environments a bit more stylistically well realised, especially with an extensive back-catalogue of Batman movies and comics to draw on.
If you had to place Batman within a canon of the Dark Knight's universe, the first couple of movies would be the most suitable comparison. It's certainly not the gritty Gotham and morally ambiguous Batman of the Frank Miller graphic novels and latest films, but it's also not the camp style of the original TV series either. Batman is always the upstanding cape crusader fighting of fairly comical super-villains that still manage to retain an edge, bringing the game closer to the Tim Burton movies. It's perhaps fitting then, that TT has used Danny Elfman's score from these films for the backing track in Lego Batman.