Construction Time Again
The LEGO branding applied to video games is a novel concept. Developer Traveller’s Tales takes popular franchises like Star Wars and makes them kid-friendly, accessible, and, most of all, fun. They’ve become so adept at the process that the same year we received LEGO Indiana Jones, they turned right around and gave us another: LEGO Batman. This is a testament to everything that’s right and wrong with the series. Like with previous LEGO games, we get a game that is full of charm, but seems so similar to everything the developer has done before. It doesn’t make for a bad game by any means (there’s fun to be had), but rather gives the sense that the LEGO series is on autopilot, cruising along comfortably at its own pace.
Unlike Traveller’s Tales’ Star Wars and Indiana Jones games, LEGO Batman doesn’t follow a particular film. The story is split into three episodes, each headlined by one mastermind villain – such as the Riddler, Penguin, or Joker – as they carry out a nefarious plot with the help of equally evil accomplices. This means you get to see plenty of bad guys from the Batman universe. From Catwoman to Mr. Freeze and Two-Face, the world is densely populated with fan favorites. On the hero side of the equation, you get to control Batman and Robin as they attempt to return everyone to their rightful home at Arkham Asylum. The twist – both in terms of plot and gameplay – is that once you beat an episode with Batman and Robin, you can go back to it and play as the bad guys, giving you a different perspective on the scenario.
The decision to not follow the storyline of a particular Batman film makes sense. Aside from Tim Burton’s original offering, the Batman films of the ’90s were an artistic train wreck, and while Christopher Nolan’s entries in the series have received acclaim, they are more character studies than full-blown action pieces. Besides, like past LEGO games, we’ve got characters who don’t speak and have to get their point across via vivid animation and the occasional voice blip – whether it be a grunt, laugh, or an evil cackle. It all works well enough and it’s a staple of the series. Plus, this time out Traveller’s Tales included the option for players to skip cutscenes, should the near-silent cutscenes’ charm be lost on some gamers.
Since there’s a formula at play for LEGO games, gameplay is very similar to past entries in the series. Batman and Robin can dish out melee attacks, destroy objects for studs (the game’s unlock currency), and build objects out of LEGOs. However, there are some new ideas at play. The two heroes can throw Batarangs to destroy hard-to-reach objects on-screen and use grappling lines to hoist themselves to higher heights or travel across gaps. Then there’s the clever suit system. Both Batman and Robin have an array of specialty suits that gave them different abilities. For example, Batman can get a glider to float longer distances; he can equip a demolitions outfit to set off bombs; or he can fire off a sonic gun that shatters glass. Robin can use a technology suit to maneuver remote-controlled vehicles; equip a magnet suit to walk along vertical surfaces; or throw on an attract suit, equipped with a vacuum, to suck up critical LEGO pieces.
The game’s villains are short on suits, but make up for it with unique character abilities. For example, the Riddler’s cane allows him to control the feeble-minded. This is useful for forcing NPCs to open locked doors and flip vital switches. Mr. Freeze can use his trusty freeze ray to turn police officers into blocks of ice, stopping them dead in their tracks, and he can form ice platforms over hot surfaces. Poison Ivy is immune to toxins and can grow plants, which she can then use as makeshift platforms to reach important items.
Vehicles factor into the game as well. During levels, you may have the chance to build a car to ram through tougher objects or build a waste disposal machine that can suck up toxic waste, allowing Batman and Robin to pass over once-dangerous terrain. There are also vehicle-centered levels. In these you get to pilot craft like the Batmobile, Batboat, and Batwing. For the most part they’re a fun diversion, but compared to the character controls, they feel a little too slippery. Trying to do something very specific – like sling shot a water mine across the screen using the Batboat’s towline – is a troublesome process.
Aside from the new suit system and character abilities, the overall level design suffers from the same problem as past LEGO games: every room is littered with LEGO pieces and the only way to get from one room to the next is to destroy as much stuff as possible, assemble some LEGO object, and then flip a series of switches. It’s fun at first (as bashing stuff often is), but it gets old incredibly fast.
There’s also the problem of partner A.I. In past LEGO games you’re A.I. buddy might do silly things like jump into a bottomless pit. Thankfully, that kind of scenario no longer happens, but it’s been replaced by level glitches. When playing for review, two were encountered. One involved Batman getting across a toxin pond via an air boat, but then Robin refused to get on-board. Another took place on a Riddler and Poison Ivy villain level. A lift took off with only one of the characters. The obvious solution would be to get off the lift, letting it fall back to the bottom of the screen, collect the other character, and then ride it to the next section of the level. The lift refused to lower. Both these level glitches forced a level restart – a compromise that could have been avoided by betting bug testing.
LEGO games have never been graphical showcases, and the trend continues here. Sure, the characters are cute and the environments have a look that accurately reflects their universe, but nothing really stands out. It doesn’t help that there’s a problem with screen tearing. It happens often and can get distracting. The options menu includes a V-Sync control that you can flip on to eliminate the problem, but then the framerate drastically drops. All is not lost in the audiovisual department – the game’s score is fantastic. Don’t worry, it’s not the Prince-themed soundtrack that for some reason sold millions of copies. Fans of the 1989 film with recognize it as Danny Elfman’s fitting score, and it does a tremendous job.
Even though LEGO Batman does a few new things to set it apart from past entries in the LEGO series, it feels like Traveller’s Tales is giving us more of the same. It’s an acceptable solution given the demographic of the game, but those waiting in the wings, waiting for that one LEGO game that will convert them to the whole LEGO gaming brand, are still best served sitting this series out.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.5 Graphics
On par with past LEGO games – there’s a level of charm, but you won’t be blown away. Screen tearing is a problem, and the V-Sync option only slows things down. 3.7 Control
Character control works well enough, but vehicles feel a little too slippery. 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Aside from whimsical cartoon noises there’s no voice acting and the rest of the in-game sound design is minimal. The inclusion of Danny Elfman’s score is a nice touch. 3.5 Play Value
The ability to play the villain side is a welcome addition and, like previous LEGO games, there are tons of unlockables for players to discover. 3.4 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.