Keeping a long-running franchise fresh is always a challenge. Change things too much, and you risk alienating core fans. Don't change enough, and it ends up feeling like a retread of what's come before. It's a fine line that TT Games has walked many times before. With LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes, the developer gets it mostly right, but a few key issues keep the game from shining as brightly as what has come before.
If you're unfamiliar with the LEGO series of games, they all use the same premise. Take a licensed property, re-create the world with LEGO minifigs and LEGO bricks, mix in some humor, lots of hidden goodies, and you've got a winner. As the series progressed, the basics were maintained, but individual elements were tweaked.
The first LEGO Batman introduced a custom story designed for the game (not based on pre-existing movie or TV show). LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 took the basic hub area and expanded it into a detailed environment. LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars experimented with some RTS-style gameplay and expanded the hub area even further. LEGO Batman 2 takes the hub area and turns it into a full-blown open-world environment, while introducing fully voiced characters for the first time in the series.
Going to an open-world format instead of a traditional hub is easily the biggest risk taken by the developers. While the idea is sound, the execution is a little rough. This isn't anything like LEGO Grand Theft Auto.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the open world of Gotham City and the individual levels is that there's an awkward transition between the two, with completely different control schemes used between the two areas. When you're in a traditional level, a certain control scheme applies. As soon as you move into Gotham, a different control scheme applies.
For example, when you're in a level with a flying character such as Superman, the thumbstick moves forward, back, left and right while the A button controls height. Take Superman into Gotham, and suddenly pressing forward on the thumbstick moves you up, while the A button moves you forward. Unfortunately, there is no way to edit the default controls to make the two environments match up. In fact, you don't even have the ability to invert the look controls while flying.
With the traditional LEGO action happening in the 15 story levels, activities in Gotham center around fighting famous villains, collecting the hidden red and gold bricks and saving "Citizens in Peril." A citizen in peril can be anything from someone frozen in a block of ice to someone being attacked by one of Poison Ivy's man-eating Venus Flytrap plants. None of the Gotham activities are mandatory to the story, though if you're going for 100% completion, you'll spend the bulk of your time here.
Playing through Gotham, it's difficult to shake the feeling that LEGO Batman 2 is a dry run for LEGO City: Undercover. With that in mind, TT Games really needs to work on polishing up the in-game compass because what's here is an utter mess. Thankfully, Gotham's three islands are small enough that an efficient compass isn't a necessity.
The story levels are both fun and engaging, on par with what we've seen before in the series. The 15 story levels are longer than a typical LEGO level, and that seems to hold true for the first 10 levels. The last five blow by pretty quickly, though, and don't feel that in-depth. Puzzle bits have been vastly toned down from previous LEGO titles, so much so that there's never a question as to what to do next. The game holds your hand all the way through.
Speaking of hand-holding, LEGO Batman 2 also makes it pretty impossible to fail. In earlier titles, there was a bit of a challenge to survive with all your studs intact. Here, you're more or less invulnerable for more than half the game. Flying or driving in one of the on-rails shooter segments? You're not going to die. That's not the biggest offender, though. That honor goes to Superman.
Being an invulnerable superhero is cool in comic books, but even then, villains can hurt him. Not so in LEGO Batman 2. Once you get Superman (which happens relatively early), it's basically like turning on god mode. Any challenge in the game is gone. Want to collect the villain minifigs? No worries; have Superman fight them. After all, he can't be hurt. Even Kryptonite doesn't pose a threat, as it doesn't harm Superman, it just slows him down. He's a cool character, but using him breaks the game balance.
Co-op is the same as the prior titles, with drop-in/drop-out local play supported, but zero online support. This time around, TT Games is claiming it couldn't support co-op over Xbox Live due to the size of Gotham. We're calling shenanigans on that explanation. Steelport is a whole lot bigger than Gotham, and Saints Row the Third managed online support just fine.
Last, but not least, is the voice acting. It's interesting to hear the LEGO characters talk for the first time, but it doesn't really add much to the experience. Part of the charm of the LEGO experience has always been the expressive pantomimes with the characters mumbling their way through. The voices allow for more detailed dialogue, but it is ultimately unnecessary. The voice acting is a mixed bag, with Batman, Superman and Robin all putting in solid performances, while Commissioner Gordon falls completely flat. It doesn't hurt the game, but it also doesn't help it.
In the end, what really matters about LEGO Batman 2 is the gameplay and it delivers that as promised. Partner AI is still brain-dead, and there is the occasional glitch that requires restarting a level from the checkpoint, but neither detracts from the fun of running around, smashing bricks and bashing bad guys. The simpler puzzles mean the game is more accessible to younger players, so it's a good choice for family co-op. It'll also keep you busy if you like to experiment, as LEGO Batman 2 features 50 unlockable characters and 10 custom character slots. An additional 10 characters are available via pre-order DLC.
With a little more polish, LEGO Batman 2 could have been a high point of the franchise. Instead, it's merely another enjoyable entry in the lineup of LEGO games. If you've already mastered all the previous LEGO titles, then by all means, pick it up and have fun. But if you still have a LEGO backlog, you'd be better served by either LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean or LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5-7. Both are better, overall experiences.
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