Wot I Think: Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes
And still they come. With Lego Lord Of The Rings coming shortly, and Lego Harry Potter 2 only just gone, the incessant supply of block-breaking cuteness has just delivered us Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes. It should more properly have been called Lego Batman & Superman, really. Is that a good thing? Shine a giant J into the sky and I'll tell you Wot I Think. (And this time avoid telling you about how he fancies Lego Harley Quinn.)
It probably shouldn't come as any surprise that Traveller's Tales' thirteenth Lego-based game is absolutely brilliant. What should come as a surprise is that they've actually, finally, responded to some of the criticisms the last twelve have received and made some changes. Not too many changes mind - they've not gone mad.
One thing that's not changed is not making a sensible attempt to keep things clear. This has to be the most opaque game they've ever made, two completely different game styles entwined, with a mad muddle of menus, options and things to do. As the series have gone one, the hubs between the levels have grown increasingly complex, with the Harry Potter games ingeniously blending the hub and the levels together in a seamless fashion. I think something similar was aimed for in Lego Batman 2, but it's a blurry old thing. Both halves are fantastic - it's just figuring out how they're meant to fit together, and why they openly contradict each other, that's a bit odd. But it's about the only weakness in yet another sublime, family-orientated action adventure.
The story levels are much as you'd expect if you're familiar with the series. If you're not, you play either one or two player, smashing levels into their constituent Lego parts, collecting... everything, punching occasional enemies, and solving simple puzzles to progress. And as ever, you can switch back and forth between both present characters if you're soloing. And of course, you can return to any level in Free Play mode once it's complete, letting you switch in even more characters with other special abilities, and collect all the stuff you missed. All present and correct, and while some levels go on slightly too long, they're as smash-happy and kleptomania-inducing as ever before.
Betwixt these is the entirety of Gotham City, vast acres of the place accessible to explore from pretty early on, which ends up feeling like a lite version of a Lego Grand Theft Auto. With multiple special vehicles, along with any you jump into on the street, you can hurtle around the streets at a ludicrous pace, mowing down pedestrians, and shooting at everything in sight. It's so enormously counter-intuitive to do as Batman, Robin, Superman, or any of the heroes on offer that it just becomes brilliant, like a hero losing his mind, snapping, and taking revenge on all he fights to save. Except, well, it doesn't actually have any impact on the game, beyond making it an awful lot more fun to get from one mission location to the next.
The city is worth exploring too. It's ludicrously jam-packed with bonuses to find, secret areas to discover, and enormous skyscrapers to scale using characters' unique abilities. You can lose hours just to this, what really is just incidental to the game itself, and yet absolutely superbly crafted and implemented. There's an entire funfair to explore, with gold bricks as prizes for completing the many mini-games found inside. There are citizens in trouble, trapped in various situations for you to trace down and rescue. There are enemy vehicles to buy for collected tokens, then drive around using for mayhem. There's a zoo to break into, then ride the lions into the streets and maul citizens. No, really. And there's a ton more I've not found yet, because like all their games, it's bloody enormous.
The story, the real core of the game, begins predictably enough. An outbreak at Arkham Asylum releases all of Batman's familiar enemies, scattering them about the city and letting them cause their mayhem. However, their freedom came via a name not usually associated with Gotham - Lex Luthor. The baldy baddy is running for President, and wants the Joker's evil gas to help him convince citizens to vote for him. In return, the Joker wants access to Luthor's krypton-powered weapon that's capable of disintegrating black Lego objects, which of course is most of Batbloke's aresnal.
And as I mentioned above, this means Superman shows up. And this is the source of the game's best moments. Batman can't stand Superman, while Robin is in awe of him, offering some fantastic cutscenes. And in fairness to Batman, Superman really is a bit of a dick. All of this being revealed in perhaps the strangest change - the Lego characters talk English. It threw me at first. They're meant to "Mmmmff mmfff MMMMMFF"! Not chat! But while I think it means there's slightly less physical comedy in the cutscenes as a result, it pays off with some really lovely jokes. Especially the regular news bulletins, that take friendly digs at DC, the comics, and even Arkham City.
Adding Superman as a regularly played character obviously introduces a couple of issues. Firstly, he's invincible. Secondly, he's Superman, so surely can do anything? While the first holds, the second does not, and they've struck a great balance. You're basically invincible in the Lego games anyway, just suffering a token penalty (pun so very intended) and instantly respawned exactly where you died. So Supes being invulnerable doesn't change much. Also, he's as limited as most characters in the Lego games, capable of breaking golden objects, but not silver, blue, etc. Batman and Robin still have the suits from the previous game, made accessible at key points in levels, giving them special abilities for solving specific puzzles (and not giving them to ensure there's a reason to go back in Free Play). Oh, and of course Superman can fly.
They've handled that one rather smartly too. He can fly, and therefore yes, he can often traverse obstacles or ignore challenges by going straight past them. But he's always paired up with someone who can't. So sure, you can fly him over to the other side, but you still have to figure out how to get Batman there too. Oftentimes, it's embracing Supes' ability to do this that helps solve the puzzles. And pleasingly the flying is absolutely brilliantly implemented, incredibly fun to do. In the missions.
Outside of the missions, flying Superman is a horrendous, tedious mess. Which is just damned weird. Rather than free-flying, he has to be directed by an unwieldy and utterly broken system of following a reticule that he either ignores or ignores. Aiming for a particular spot, to collect something only he can reach, is miserable. He suddenly swoops in the opposite direction, the camera spinning around madly, and JUST WHAT ON EARTH ARE THEY DOING? They have it working!
Talking of which, finally - finally - they've added a reverse for vehicles. Previously everything drove like a broken bumper car, flailing around with their odd, odd choice of just one control - a stick for directions and nothing else. And now! Now cars, between levels, are controlled properly! Using a 360 pad as is my wont, right trigger for accelerate, left for brake/reverse. And it's great. You can charge about, handbrake turn, and properly enjoy yourself... So why, Traveller's Tales, WHY is it still broken in missions?! Incredibly confusingly, there you still move forward with the directions stick, but reverse with one of the face buttons. Buh? Having two contradictory control mechanisms for the same vehicles/characters in the same game is pretty damned special.
There's yet another contradictory improvement/failing. One of the most frequent complaints about the series has been the inability to control the camera to provide a sensible vantage point for aiming jumps. While a few games ago a rather perfunctory option to slightly nudge the camera was added, it remains a frustration here. Er, unless you're in the hub city, where you have full control and it's brilliant.
It's like two separate teams worked on either part, and weren't allowed to talk to each other until they were stitched together. This would also explain why it's so damned confusing trying to figure out the gaps between missions, and the menus that sometimes let you cross them.
I've no idea how far through I am. I've been playing for two days, and from the enemies I've yet to fight, and the heroes I've yet to meet, there must be so much more here. It is perhaps the most generous gaming series, and Lego Batman 2 embraces this fully.
It's almost a shame that it carries the sequel moniker, because while Lego Batman was a decent game, it wasn't one of the series' best. This is. This is a massively bigger and more elaborate game, that's as much about Superman and Luther as it is Batman and the Joker. I have no doubt that the reason this isn't Lego DC Heroes is because Lego Batman is the best selling of any of the games, even beating the Lego Star Wars titles.
No, it doesn't dramatically change how the missions themselves work. Things are mixed up with boss fights and flying sections, but not unlike we've seen before. And the levels themselves are mostly repeating the main gimmicks of the series, and those specifically of the previous Batman game. Except with Superman. But they do this so well, and they do this so engagingly, that it never seems to grow tiring. From the animations to the absolutely stunning score, the detail is - as ever from this team - mindblowing.
Oh, the PC port is as lazy as ever. No options for windowed mode,
no options for anti-aliasing, meaning it looks unnecessarily jaggedy (I'm a wrong idiot, and missed the separate menu option for this), and all the usual nonsense of save slots and agonisingly long saves every time you collect a golden brick. But it plays fine despite all this. The stupid, stupid contradictions between the two game modes remain both a complete mystery, and a pain in the arse, but they're the one downside to yet another adorable, compelling, often funny adventure.
Lego Batman 2 is out now, and there's a demo here.