Monday, July 16, 2012

Video Game Review – LEGO Batman 2: DC Superheroes

WARNING: There are some spoilers for the game in here. If you don’t want to know anything about the plot points or secrets, skip to the last paragraph.
I don’t do a whole lot of video game reviews here because I don’t play a whole lot of video games. I think the last piece I ever did about a game was a sort of cursory first impression of Grand Theft Auto IV. I’m sure I have mentioned Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City a few times and maybe even Skyrim, but I don’t ever feel qualified to actually review games. I think I look for different things out of video games than the average gamer.
            I have always enjoyed the licensed LEGO games from Traveler’s Tales. Starting with LEGO Star Wars they have all proven to be fun, creative games that were simple enough to play and just challenging enough to complete. Each one has been just a bit more polished than the last, with LEGO Harry Potter incorporating so many minor improvements that it felt like a whole new iteration in the franchise.
The first LEGO Batman game is a favorite in the Troublemaker household. My son and I have played it more than any other game. The sheer variety of levels and playable characters make it almost endlessly replayable. It’s so much fun to play through almost every level of that game that you really want to keep going back to unlock all the possible rewards. All of the most notable heroes and villains of the Batman mythos are represented and the game really feels like a kid-friendly version of the Gotham City from the comic books. And then there’s the fact that once you complete Batman and Robin’s storyline you still have the villains’ story to play through. It made the game seem twice as big – almost like two games in one.
We were very excited about the sequel. Early on it was revealed that more superheroes than just Batman, Robin, Nightwing, and Batgirl would be involved. Superman was the first big reveal, followed soon after by Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman. It looked like they would all have representations of their respective powers, right up to Green Lantern and Superman being able to fly. Then it was revealed that the game took place in a huge, open Gotham City – the largest environment Traveler’s Tales had ever produced and one that was totally open.
In short it looked like LEGO Batman 2 might be the greatest video game of all time. We put our money down at GameStop and counted the days until its release.
Before I get into the game itself, I want to make sure you get where I am coming from reviewing it. Probably eighty-five percent of the time I have spent playing LEGO Batman 2 has been in two-player mode with my son. He is very good at the LEGO games, so his skill level was not a factor. He has finished LEGO Star Wars – the complete one – on his own. He knows his way around a LEGO game. And yes – we let him play video games. I firmly believe that gaming in moderation is excellent for not only his hand-eye coordination, but also his problem solving skills and his reading. His start in reading has come from wanting to be able to read game menus. Lil’ Troublemaker’s not going to be playing Grand Theft Auto any time soon and we keep a limit on how much he is able to play. Plus, it’s time that he and I get to spend doing something together that we both enjoy.
Okay, so we picked up our copy of the game, took it home, and downloaded the five free villains you get for preordering from GameStop – Captain Cold, Gorilla Grodd, Black Adam, Bizarro, and Black Manta. Once you have opened up Free Play they are available as playable characters.
Each portion of the storyline is bookended by a cutscene and a news report. The voice acting is quite good and the humor is the same as the other LEGO games – wry but not mean-spirited. Hearing Clancy Brown do his Lex Luthor in a more comedic fashion is pretty outstanding. It’s also worth noting that every character you interact with has a voice. They didn’t just record for the main ones and then leave the rest silent. Granted, most of the villains only have a line or two due to their peripheral involvement, but at least they don’t just gesture. I’ll get to that peripheral involvement in a minute.
LEGO Batman 2 is noticeably different from its predecessors from the start. The first thing that really jarred me was the new split screen. Previously in LEGO games you had to deal with the restrictions that come along with sharing a screen. Now there is a dynamic split screen system that moves with the characters. If they are proximal to one another you are actually sharing a screen, but as the two characters move apart, the screen splits and the dividing line shifts around depending on where they are relative to one another. For example, if Batman is near the top of the screen moving towards the upper left corner and Robin is near the bottom moving towards the lower right corner, the screen will start with a horizontal line that slowly shifts to become diagonal. As the characters move closer together again the line will rotate and dissolve. Essentially, this system gives the largest amount of real estate possible while characters are in action. It takes a second to get used to, but it is easily the best split screen system I have ever used.
Which makes it hard to understand why the Gotham City portions of the game are a vertical split screen at all times, regardless of the characters’ proximity. This was the first issue I had with the game, as both of us were having difficulty navigating through the large, open city with so narrow a view. It got to the point where one of us was having to drop out while the other moved through the city.
The actual story portion of the game is a whole lot of fun and uses the new characters in a very clever way. Things start off with Batman and Robin taking care of business while Joker and Lex Luthor team up to conquer the world or whatever. Gradually events escalate to the point where the Man of Steel has to step in… er, fly in… and help out the Dynamic Duo. Things are set up so that once you actually do get to play as Superman it feels like a reward and a big deal. His flight, heat vision, and freezing breath are so cool to use. And here’s the truly genius thing about Superman as a playable character: he’s invulnerable. That’s right – the very first game to get this right is a friggin’ LEGO game. Superman can be repelled by kryptonite and slowed by enemies, but he does not die. The game is created to present different challenges to the Man of Steel rather than just depowering him. Except that he does eventually get depowered, but rather than feeling like a cheap way to make the game challenging, it underlines just how great his powers are and just how big of a deal Batman and Robin are.
Thinking about depowered Superman makes me think of the fantastic character animations in the game. Each character has their own walk, mannerisms, and combat style that is very distinctive and based on who they are. Everything Batman does is serious and efficient. Robin is bouncy and agile. Superman moves effortlessly through the environment, even knocking over trees and benches just by walking into them. Joker kind of stumbles around and Lex Luthor has a tiny little LEGO swagger. Not only that, each of the specialized suits Batman and Robin wear has its own effect on the character’s look. Robin adopts a strained gait while carrying his massive water blaster and Batman clomps around slowly in his bulky Power Suit.
So anyway, the story is a lot of fun to play through and never gets frustrating or repetitive. There are a lot of great environments and the vehicle scenes are vast improvements over the last game in my opinion. Now they are more like rail shooters where you have to blast certain points as you progress through the streets – or waterways - of Gotham. I kind of dreaded the vehicle levels in the other LEGO games, but actively looked forward to them in this one.
The problem with the story mode is that half of it involves fighting this giant Joker robot. So much of it is fighting that robot that when you finally defeat it and the game is over you can’t believe it. I’m serious when I say half the game. Level after level involves that one robot to the point where it feels like it must just be the middle section of the game, but then you defeat it and the credits roll. The story is very short – we finished it in two nights of very casual playing. Also a problem is the fact that the last game trained us to expect a villain story and this one does not have that. Once you have finished the heroes portion you’re done.
The story mode seems much more linear than other LEGO games. There’s nowhere near as much exploration or feeling of discovery with the levels. They are all fairly straightforward platforming levels with a minimum of depth and little of the sense of individual, fully realized environments that the original game had. I’m not saying it’s bad by any means, but it let both of us down a bit when we were done with it.
Well, not done, obviously – this is a LEGO game, after all. There are still hundreds of secrets to find, extras to buy, and characters to unlock. And buy. There might not be any more mission-specific levels to complete, but there is the whole city of Gotham to explore and it is loaded with destructible items, hidden characters and vehicles, obstacle courses, and villainous henchmen running wild amongst the citizens.
Which is another huge problem.
You will get swarmed over and over and over again – pretty much constantly – by the henchmen of the various villains. It’s massively annoying. We got amazingly lucky in that the first red brick we found was Invincibility. This makes the constant attacks tolerable. Unless, of course, you’re in a vehicle. Then the Penguin’s damn penguins will immediately show up to shoot it to pieces. There’s almost no point in trying to drive around because those damned flightless waterfowl get you every time. But then you do have Flash to run around and that is a lot of fun once you get used to it.
Or you can use one of the flying characters, but that presents its own problems. So far we’ve got Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Bizarro, and Black Adam as our fliers. I’m really hoping Killer Moth and Man-Bat can fly as well, but all wonky like they did in the last game (we got Man-Bat after I wrote this and he does fly!). The flying mechanics are a little odd. You double-tap “X” to start flying. At this point a targeting reticule appears in front of the character. You use this target to aim your character. It works sort of okay. It’s just difficult to go exactly where you want to go because there’s this thing where when you’re in the open world your characters speed up after a couple of steps. It’s meant to make traveling through Gotham more efficient, but often it’s a pain in the ass, as you’ll be trying to do something and all of a sudden you’re running. The same thing happens while flying. You’ll be aimed in the right direction and moving towards your target when all of a sudden you’re zooming past because the speed-up kicked in. Then you’ve got to turn around and try to find it, only you can’t just use the right stick to look around – you have to actually aim the reticule with the left stick, which starts you moving again. It is a ton of fun flying over Gotham, but it is very awkward to do so with any specific agenda.
There are a series of obstacle courses strewn throughout Gotham City. A lot of them. Each one is Batman or Robin-specific and involves switching through their various specialty suits. These aren’t really puzzles; as there’s nothing to figure out. It’s simply a matter of donning each suit and then moving past the suit-specific path. That’s not to say they aren’t fun. We’ve both enjoyed finding the courses and finishing them to get the Gold Bricks at the end. There are 250 Gold Bricks in the game and many different ways to earn them, from the obstacle courses to rescuing Citizens In Peril. You also might find hidden characters on the obstacle courses.
This is another thing that is new and I don’t know if I like it or not. Rather than all of the unlockables being available from a central hub like the Batcave, you have to first find them in the city to unlock them and then come back when you have enough money to purchase them. It’s a little tedious. I mean, it is more fun, but then you have to remember where everything was because they are not marked on the map once you locate them.
Another thing you have to do once the story is over is track down all of the villains that escaped from Arkham Asylum courtesy of Lex Luthor and Joker at the beginning of the game. This sounds great until you realize that they are just standing around Gotham and not actual new levels. Even that doesn’t sound so bad until you find them and see that each bad guy takes exactly three punches to defeat, with no special strategy or boss-like battles whatsoever. Then you have to buy them, too.
I’ve also got to wonder why some of the improvements seen in the Potter games weren’t brought here. Stud collecting was much less of a hassle thanks to a better range of attraction. Character switching was also much smoother and could be done from a greater distance. Actually, now that I think about it everything in that game (I know there are two but I’ve only played the first) seemed a bit more polished.
Most of the characters have special anilities or at least a bit of personality that make them fun for one reason or another, but I want to mention two in particular – Green Lantern and Gorilla Grodd. They kind of suck.
GL sucks because his abilities just are not accurately reflected. He can fly and he can build stuff out of translucent green LEGOs that you find lying around. That might sound kind of cool, but it isn’t. He has no ring powers at all, not even during fighting. As a matter of fact, Green Lantern and Superman both absolutely suck at fighting because for some reason they both have this weird flying move they do that is slow and awkward to use. They kind of dive at the enemies and it takes forever.
Grodd is basically just a Gorilla. He has no special abilities. So when you compare him with Captain Cold’s freeze gun or Black Adam’s flight or Bizarro’s heat vision he is kind of a let-down.
All in all LEGO Batman 2: DC Superheroes really is a whole lot of fun and now that we’ve realized we need to just take turns playing rather than suffer through the co-op split screen we’re enjoying it more. I suppose my problems revolve around some of the new things that were implemented and the fact that they seem like they just weren’t polished quite enough. If anybody other than Traveler’s Tales had put this game out I would probably be singing their praises, but Tt has set the bar incredibly high with their past releases. I absolutely love all of the new ideas in this game, but it almost feels like they needed a few more months before they put it out. The animation is a bit choppy (usually because there are about a million characters on screen at once) and there are quite a few irritating glitches:
  • Studs you can’t pick up
  • Sometimes saving takes so long studs you released disappear
  • Switching to characters other than Batman or Robin takes forever
  • The toggle system is only available in Free Play mode when you are playing through the levels again – not in the Gotham roaming mode. Of course, countering this is the fact that you can select any character you want from the Character Select drop-down while in Free Play mode.
  • If you explore Gotham a lot you are going to get stuck behind and under stuff a lot. Sometimes even switching to a flying character doesn’t help if the space is too tight.
  • The game has frozen up several times while we were playing in co-op mode.
This is by no means a bad game and I would never suggest that you shouldn’t buy it. But be prepared for the things I have discussed above so you won’t be disappointed. LEGO Batman 2 is one of those games where you go, “Well, they’ll probably fix all this stuff in the next one.” And with Traveler’s Tales’ track record I feel that they will.
I don’t want to rate this game, because I feel like it’s a 3 out of 5, but that just seems too low for how much effort and innovation went into it. But yeah, it’s a
3 out of 5
Please still go ahead and give this game a chance. It’s a lot of fun. But just be aware that there are some flaws that you’re not used to seeing from Traveler’s Tales. I should also mention that there are quite a few folks on Facebook that do not agree with me. They were actually a bit outraged when I mentioned that the game might not be perfect. So just know that there are folks out there who don’t see the issues I mentioned as a big deal or maybe, somehow, didn’t see them at all.
Also, this is a game where water kills you and Aquaman dies in the water. For real.

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