Honestly, it’s like we’ve gone back in time 20 years. We seem to have reached a point where the word ‘Lego’ is a license to print money once again – simply attach it to the front of any existing franchise and watch the coffers fill. Whether it’s an old franchise like Indy, a more recent one (at least in movie terms) like Pirates or Harry Potter or a timeless classic like Star Wars, transforming all of the characters in any given series into claw-handed yellow caricatures is a proven recipe for success. But this is a formula that works best when given the opportunity to riff on classic scenes, slapstick comedy and visual gags based on the blocky nature of the toys in question used to subvert and reimagine iconic pop culture moments. To combat this problem – one of the main issues with the original Lego Batman, it must be said – Traveller’s Tales has elected to give the toys a voice. Well, one each. But either way, it’s not something that sits particularly comfortably with the freedom and reliance upon imagination for which the Danish brand is so rightly revered.
That’s not to say that it isn’t well handled because for the most part, it absolutely is. The script and performances are both more than fit for purpose and hit the occasional high, although no witty retort is ever going to match the silent shrugs and overly confident flourishes that made the silent movie approach so successful in this format. With the power of dialogue at their disposal, cut-scenes take on a new-found and ill-fitting sense of self-importance – there’s a nauseating air of smugness about it in places while other scenes seem to have been penned before the decision to turn it into a talkie were made. It’s tricky to peg down whether the shift actually works or not and while it certainly helps in terms of exposition in trying to tell an original story, you can’t help but feel that at times, it’s just using its new voice to paraphrase jokes that would fare far better had they not been translated from the visual language of Lego games past.
Vocal toys aren’t the only bone of contention here, either. Lego Batman 2 needed a hook in order to be in any way relevant and in an open world Gotham City setting, it created just such a place to hang its plastic cowl. But to offer such an inviting bullet point only to reveal that the city itself isn’t even made of Lego is almost to cheat fans – there are entire areas of Windsor and Billund devoted to the fact that smaller versions of places made out of Lego are impossible to hate, so to see this odd take on Gotham so sparsely employ such brick-based architecture is saddening indeed. Again, it’s a shallow criticism as the world itself is relatively expansive and gloriously rendered but it can be horribly jarring at times to see, say, a toy Batmobile careering around a CG forest. Lego Star Wars III had an almost ‘back garden’ feel to its non-plastic environments, offering the feeling of a back yard reenactment to its battles but Lego Batman 2 has nothing of the sort – it’s all synthetic and digital, no matter how good it may look.
Yet despite such criticism, it’s hard not to enjoy something so evidently professional – the labours of a developer that has honed its craft over countless incrementally better games. Whether enjoyed alone or with a friend or family member, it’s a beautifully designed celebration of cooperation and from its character-switching puzzles to its moment-on-moment gameplay, there are few more powerful smile catalysts in modern gaming than a Lego game in full swing. Veterans might find some elements overly familiar, sure, and the hardcore will likely bemoan the fact that it never gets any more challenging than maintaining a grip on the controller to prevent it from falling to the floor. But these are just more arguments for Traveller’s Tales’ offerings being the gaming equivalent of Pixar’s output – these aren’t games designed for you, though you’re every bit as welcome to enjoy them as the younger target audience. There’s even the same kind of payoff in terms of jokes and references that the youngsters won’t get. Granted, it’s probably more Cars than Toy Story, but the Pixar comparison holds up all the same.
And as if the Lego games weren’t already enough of a time sink for players young and old alike, the open world setting affords Lego Batman 2 new ways to keep players from going elsewhere. Side missions and hidden blocks are suitably distracting, although the use of a difficult-to-read radar over a mini-map displays a certain level of open world naivety that should probably be expected from a developer that has just been going through the motions for so long. There’s plenty to do so long as you can find you way to it in the first place, though it must be said that flying characters and vehicles do make this far less of a chore.
This is not a franchise that ever needed to be chucking its easily lost plastic hat into GTA’s open world ring, so the shift in format is admirable if not entirely successful. If nothing else, it serves as evidence that Traveller’s Tales is listening to its critics and is unwilling to sit back as ‘those guys that keep making the same Lego game’. Pirates slipped back into the old format a little but between this and The Clone Wars, the studio has made it evident that it is keen to push new ideas on a franchise that has such comfortable, money-stuffed laurels constantly beckoning it to take a load off.
[NOTE: Photograph courtesy of Gavin Murrell, Managing Director, Kaos RC who flew Lego Superman over the streets of London in celebration of the release of Lego Batman 2]