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Travellers' Tales certainly hit on a bright idea when they chose to combine Lego with Star Wars to create a hit computer game. Since then, they've never looked back and these days it seems like every popular franchise character has their Lego game - Harry Potter, Indy, Star Wars and, of course, Batman.
In Lego Batman 2, The Joker and Lex Luthor have teamed up to try and outwit Batman and all the DC Universe heroes. It's your job as Batman (and other characters) to stop the hordes of super villains who are aiding the Joker and bring the Big J and Mr L to justice. Generally, this involves smashing up Lego scenery, solving some simple puzzles and beating up bad guys.
It has to be said that the plot didn't do a great deal for me and felt rather disjointed. Previous Lego games have had coherent plots, with levels based around key scenes from the films. Obviously, Lego Batman 2 doesn't have this luxury (since it is not based on any of the films), so which it deserves marks for being original, it all felt a little silly and dull. Many of the levels are themed round a particular villain but despite the best efforts of inter-level cut scenes, I never felt that there was an overarching plot linking them together.
Graphically the game is disappointing. Whilst the various Batman characters are nicely rendered as Lego people, elsewhere things are uninspired or downright poor. Cut scene videos are particularly poor. It's pretty obvious that they have been created for other, more powerful platforms then compressed to within an inch of their lives to fit them onto the DS. For a top-price commercial release, the videos are nothing short of embarrassing. They are so dark and of such poor quality that it's virtually impossible to see what is going on.
In-game graphics are also rather uninspired and look like they have been lazily pieced together from previous Lego games. Like the videos, they can be rather dark and I have found that on some levels, it can be difficult to make out some of the detail - particularly the edges of platforms. This can result in a lot of frustrating deaths as you accidentally fall into an abyss thanks to the unclear graphics.
This is not helped by the decision to use the top screen on the DS to display the action, rather than the more usual bottom screen. This is so the bottom screen can be used for some touch screen controls, but it doesn't really work and contributes to the visibility issues. It's true that the same method was used for the Lego Star Wars games, but the graphics on that game were generally clearer and better designed, so that wasn't an issue.
Sound is a lot better. The game is accompanied by several tunes taken from the Tim Burton Batman films so they sound very natural, like they belong with the game. There is also some nice voice acting for the spoken dialogue. A few of the vocalizations are a little cartoony for my liking, but this actually fits in with the tone and style of the rest of the game. Other sound effects are essentially modified from other Lego games and are appropriate, if not particularly original.
The game makes reasonable use of the Batman/DC licence, with lots of heroes and villains from the DC Universe putting in an appearance. Some (Superman, The Joker, The Penguin) will be familiar to most gamers but it's nice to see the creators delving into Batman's deep back catalogue to pick out some characters that might not be quite so familiar.
Whilst there might be some weaknesses elsewhere, at least the basic gameplay remains fun. Essentially the game boils down to a linear platform game where you make you way from one end of a level to the exit. Along the way, you have to fight bad guys, smash up scenery (to acquire coins which can be used to unlock features) and work out a few puzzles to be able to progress. There are bonus items to find on each level, although some of these are in hidden areas and can only be discovered using freeplay mode (where you can play as any character you have unlocked). This adds to the replay value of the game, since you will need to play every level at least twice before you unlock every single secret.
Some of the puzzles are quite frustrating. It's not that they are difficult; rather it's not always clear what you are meant to do. This is particularly true of some of the bosses, who can only be defeated in a particular way. There have been multiple moments when I have been completely bemused as to what I need to do to progress and it's taken a frustrating few minutes to work it out. This is something none of the other Lego games have suffered from - progression has always been far more obvious and intuitive.
The game also suffers from some poor level design. There have been several times when I reached a seeming dead end, with no real idea of where to go next. Sometimes I've even had to resort to leaping off ledges (usually dying) in the hope that I might land on some platforms below. This trial and error gameplay is frustrating and not really suitable for a game like this.
The game can also be pretty fiddly, too, even from an early stage. Batman and Robin have access to a number of suits with special powers to overcome certain hazards (fire, electricity etc.) and the game ties to introduce too many of these early on, before the player has really got into the swing of things. Previous games in the series have got the difficulty curve right: introducing players to the basic characters and controls before throwing in some extra abilities. The early levels of Lego Batman 2 feels like one long slog learning the different abilities of different characters/costumes and trying to remember when to use which one.
Lego Batman 2 has at least learned some lessons from previous games. One of my longstanding gripes concerned the length of levels which often took 30-45 minutes to complete with no save point until the end of the level was reached. This could be frustrating as you couldn't just pick up the game for a few minutes, but had to ensure you had enough time to complete at least one stage. Lego Batman 2 has at least introduced mid-level save points to address this issue. If I were being churlish, I could complain these were a little too frequent (breaking up the flow of the levels) but on the whole, I'd rather they were too frequent than non-existent.
Lego Batman 2 currently costs around £25, since it is still pretty new. These Lego games tend to be pretty popular and hold their value reasonable well, so if you are desperate for a new Lego challenge, then you're probably going to have to pay premium price. In fairness, it does offer good value for money if you are prepared to put up with some of the frustrations. Although I've not yet completed/collected everything, previous experience suggests there is somewhere in the region of 50-60 hours of game time. To be honest, though, if you've not already got them, I'd advise you to spend your cash on one the older Lego Star Wars titles which are cheaper and better.
The real issue with Lego Batman 2 is that the formula is starting to feel overused. The games are simply not as innovative as they were and whilst they are still fun, they lack that little spark that marked them out as different and worthy of gamers' attention. Lego Batman 2 is worth playing - it's just not as good as it could have been.
© Copyright SWSt 2012