Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Traveller's Tales
Release Date: September 23, 2008
When gamers think of franchises that deserve the Lego treatment, Batman is not a character who comes to mind. The Caped Crusader has always been one of the darker comic book heroes, dishing out vigilante justice to those deemed "evil" while his own moral compass has never been the most perfectly oriented. Indeed, it is this darker aspect of the hero that has been embraced recently, with Christopher Nolan's films reigniting public interest in the character by presenting a much more complex side that only comic fans have known about for years. The question becomes, how can this franchise, currently reveling in its own moral ambiguity, make the jump to Legoland, a world where everything is black and white and characters are kept simple? Surprisingly, Lego Batman holds up quite well in the family-friendly universe, but some legacy issues surrounding the entire Lego gaming concept dampen the experience.
Perhaps the best thing about Lego Batman is the fact that the game's script is not directly tied into any movie or comic book story line. Traveller's Tales and Warner Bros. penned their own unique concept for this game, one in which all of Gotham City's villains have busted out of Arkham Asylum at the same time, and are now back out on the streets concocting various schemes of super-villainous proportions.
It's a simple backdrop, but it serves as the excuse that leads to Lego Batman's best mechanic, the fact that a wide variety of characters is available to interact with, and this particular Batman game will stretch beyond household names like Penguin and The Joker and allow you to experience fighting against (and playing as) more obscure, yet equally fascinating, villains such as Clayface, Bane and Killer Croc. What really sets this title apart from the others in the Lego series is the fact that the game features two separate story lines, interwoven throughout the adventure. While you can run about with Batman and Robin foiling the schemes of evildoers, you can then go back and relive the caper through the villains' eyes, letting you take control of a wide assortment of baddies, each with his own unique powers and quirks. From the Riddler's mind control to The Joker's lethal joy buzzer, each bad guy is a joy to command, and you'll likely find yourself loving the villain levels far more than the hero ones.
It's not that Batman and Robin are slouches, either, but they have to tackle problems in a different way. While the bad guys may be able to get across an acid lake simply by walking through it, the Dynamic Duo posses no superpowers of their own, so they must rely on special suits to get the job done. To that end, Batman may get around an obstacle by using his demolition suit to blow open a new path, or Robin could perhaps use his magnetic suit to climb a nearby air-conditioning duct in order to flip a previously inaccessible switch. Both heroes have a fair variety of suits to choose from in order to get the job done, and you're always given the right set of tools in order to accomplish any task.
Aside from these changes, the rest of the core gameplay remains intact from previous entries into the Lego universe. Levels still consist of fighting baddies and smashing up the scenery in order to collect Lego studs (the game's currency) and find the components to build the necessary devices to get through certain parts of the level. Indeed, anytime you are presented with a puzzle that has no discernable solution, the best bet is to start wrecking all of the on-screen items in the hopes of finding a pile of Lego blocks that you can turn into something useful. As always, once you complete a level, you can return in Free Play mode with all of the characters you have unlocked in order to access secrets you may have missed the first time around. Lego Canisters and power blocks lie hidden in each level, and you can never fully complete a mission until you return later with plenty of friends in tow. It's what we've come to expect, and there are no real surprises in the rest of the title's fundamental mechanics.
It is this satisfaction with the status quo that leads to Lego Batman's biggest problems. Firstly, the fact that the game is using the exact same engine with new skins means that all of the same problems that cropped up in Lego Star Wars and Lego Indiana Jones are back to rear their ugly head once more. That means jumping is still a painfully tedious affair, with many players falling to their premature deaths due to the fact that the game forces you to act in a 3-D environment using a 2-D camera system. This has been an unnecessary frustration for years, and sadly, it's present once more in this game. Another problem that pops up once again is collision detection and targeting, with the game sometimes losing track of who you're supposed to be fighting. The bug mainly manifests itself when you are exploring areas with lots of enemies and breakables in the same space. The title is programmed so that if something is very close to you, that thing will be what you attack, regardless of whether it is an enemy or an item. Therefore, if a baddie is shooting at you from across the screen but there is a trash can right next to where you are standing, if you press attack, the game will punch the trash can rather than try and take out the shooting bad guy. It's not a game-wrecking bug, but it can cause annoyance when you're in the middle of a heated battle and taking hits from all sides.
The final problem when it comes to relying so heavily on the previous games' engine is that there is little by way of innovation in Lego Batman. The new villain story line is a great addition, but the game's core mechanics haven't changed from what we were playing in 2005 with the original Lego Star Wars. Little things, like being able to control your grappling speed and the inclusion of a Batarang, don't count as pressing the series forward, so if you aren't going to innovate, then at least fix the little nagging details that have been plaguing the Lego games since their inception. Considering neither option was chosen, I'm left wondering if Traveller's Tales has begun to grow complacent in their work, thinking that these titles are so much fun and sell so well that they simply don't need to do any more work. Unfortunately for them, that just isn't the case.
Ultimately, Lego Batman is a "safe" game, one which works well for its target audience but doesn't do anything to press the franchise forward. The additional villain story line is a great inclusion, and I only wish that Traveller's Tales had decided to devote the entire game to the bad guys. Also, co-op is still exceptionally fun with a friend, assuming you both don't spend the entire gaming time jumping into pits. Finally, I hope you enjoy Danny Elfman's soundtrack to the original Batman movie from 1989 because you're going to be hearing it over and over throughout the duration of the game.
While the Dark Knight might not seem the ideal candidate for the happy and cheerful Lego world, the entire affair is handled with a good-natured wink, and we are all reminded that the purpose of these games is to take us to a world where the lines between good and evil are clearly defined and evil is more a thing of comic mischief than serious malice. The dual world of Batman and Lego is juxtaposed in the cute, smiling characters battling on-screen through the dark, crumbling Gotham City landscape, reminding you that, while this isn't a safe place, you can still have fun here. There is indeed a good deal of fun to be had with Lego Batman, but there is also sadly a lot of squandered potential. As it stands, this game falls squarely in the middle of the Lego pack, warranting a purchase for those in love with the IP, and a rental from anyone curious about what Traveller's Tales has brought to the table this time.
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