The Lego Film series have been a staple in children’s games since Lego Star Wars first impressed in 2005. There have been 19 games since, across five franchises and spanning platforms from PlayStation 3 to 3DS. Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes is the latest entry, coming only seven months after Lego Harry Potter: Years 5 - 7. And of course, it’s the follow up to Lego Batman, also from last year.
This latest title continues the formula established by 18 ancestors, and its direct progenitor. In a story told for the first time with voice, Lex Luthor and The Joker team up with dastardly plans involving Luthor becoming president. Assistance in correct voting provided by the Joker's patented gas, retconned to a mind control gas rather than its more traditionally lethal nature.
The effectiveness of the Lego franchise games has always depended on two major factors. The fun and intuitiveness of the level design and the building and smashing process is one. Gameplay is the most fun where “cool things” happen, or vehicles are built and destroyed. Certain environments lend themselves to that better than others, for example, Lego Star Wars more so than the slightly dull Indiana Jones.
But the one that has the most impact is the ensemble nature of the cast. Star Wars is an ideal choice. Everyone’s favourite character is different, and whether a player ends up with Luke, Obi Wan, Darth Maul or Han Solo, it’s happy times. Lego Batman was at the opposite end of the spectrum. The player who wasn’t Batman really wasn’t anyone. Or worse, was Robin. A fact not helped by cutscene characterisation that made Robin foolish and clumsy.
The subtitle of Batman 2 is a clear attempt to avoid that issue. The inclusion of other characters from the DC universe creates an ensemble of characters with more choice for the player. This is commendable, and probably necessary.
If only it had been done better.
Unfortunately the first playable non-Batman character is Superman. Superman has a major flaw as a videogame character, which is that he has no real flaw. There can be little fun or challenge in a game where the player’s character can fly, run super fast, is impervious to bullets, can win any fight in a single punch, and so on. Superman spoils any concept of balance. Even his vulnerability to Kryptonite is trivial.
The level to which he’s overpowered is startling. He doesn’t even have a health bar. Sure, he has the usual heart icons, but his are greyed out, because he can’t lose them. He can breath ice to put out fires. His punches are a one hit kill. He can lift or move heavy objects. He has laser eyes that can destroy golden objects. He even builds super-fast, just to add insult to injury.
But worst of all, he can fly. This means any obstacles in the game he simply flies past or over. He only needs to actually do any work to help the crippled, limping fools trailing in his wake.
Not only does this cause a significant imbalance in gameplay between the Superman player and the one forced to be Batman - and note that wording is a problem itself - but worst of all, it’s just not any fun to be him.
Only Wonder Woman approaches Superman on the imbameter, and she lacks half of his abilities, being only invincible, strong, and able to fly.
Green Lantern is a solid addition, able to fly but not invincible. He also uniquely assembles green Lego blocks to create fun and imaginative objects and interactions. Possibly the best addition, though, is the Flash. Running everywhere at super speeds, it’s surprisingly easy and entertaining to run Flash off an edge. Combat with him is a hilarious flurry, and at the very least he provides variety.
In fact, so many of the new Justice League characters have such power and utility that they make Batman feel a little underwhelming in his own game. Only specific unique skills make Batman and Robin even necessary in later playthroughs.
Though taking from the previous games’ formula, Batman 2 attempts to add something to the pot as well. There are two main additions, each with mixed results.
The first and simplest is the addition of voice. The Lego games always had cutscenes, but they were voiceless, a mix of gesture and gibberish. It was charming, and had little or no need for localisation. It also lent itself well to cheap visual gags, which were surprisingly effective, especially considering the often juvenile nature of their audience. But Lego Batman 2 adds voice acting, unfortunately to its detriment. The voices don’t actually contribute much to story and the script is flat. The simple story could be adequately conveyed without verbal explanation, and the addition of voice has encouraged the developers to write humour instead of showing it. Unfortunately the visual stuff was much better.
The other addition is a sandbox. The Lego games have always featured a central hub area, which then teleports the player to the episode location. Now players are given a city to drive or fly around, with a few hidden features to be discovered. The city can be ignored for the most part, except when travelling to the next mission. This is not the vibrant and detailed city of a GTA or Assassin’s Creed, but it’s serviceable, and contains some pleasant distractions. Of note is the presence of “terminals”, which, when found, unlock a boss fight elsewhere on the map. Beat the boss and they can be bought for a substantial chunk of studs.
The sandbox environment isn’t profound, but it’s effective and well realised. It’s a step in the right direction that will hopefully be enhanced in the inevitable later Lego titles.
Graphically, Lego Batman 2 changes little from the previous titles. Rendering repeated identically sized pieces of plastic is practically a tropical vacation for a computer, and without organic shapes and textures the Lego games have always looked sharp. Batman is a little grittier than the usual, but this is handled well. The city, especially, looks impressive while flying through it or standing on a rooftop making gravel-voiced pronouncements about the hero Gotham needs.
There is one aspect to the presentation that's not handled well, though, which is the splitscreen. Since Lego Indiana Jones, the Lego games have featured a clever splitscreen effect, which shows as splitscreen when the players are at a distance, but melds into one when they come together. It's an elegant solution to maximising both screen space and individual freedom. At least, it used to be. For some reason, this title has "improved" on the feature, making it more responsive. What this actually means is that when the players are near each other the splitscreen can flicker in and out, spinning wildly around. This is disorienting and irritating. Previous implementation of this functionality was perfect, so it's hard to tell why this error has been made.
But in the end, Batman 2’s biggest flaw is not its own fault. Lego Harry Potter 2 came out in November. Lego Lord of the Rings is due in October. There have been two Lego franchise games out practically every year for the last few years. This shows no sign of abating. The last time a franchise was milked this hard it had to be put down, leaving gamers with a pile of plastic guitars in a corner.
Lego Batman 2 is a worthy addition to one of the few game series that is fun to play with younger gamers. The ability to drop in and out is unmatched, and while the combat and general gameplay is simplistic, the collection aspect keeps lasting fun. Which is just as well, as only the well-loved franchises and fun of playing with familiar characters keep enjoyment in a series whose gameplay is starting to get tired.