Lego: Batman 2: DC Super Heroes is the best Batman-Superman team-up video game I've ever played, though it's worth mentioning that it is also the only Batman-Superman team-up video game I've ever played. (It might be the only one that exists.)
This new game is the 10th of the popular Lego action-adventure games that began with 2005's Lego: Star Wars. At times, the series has soared. Other times, it has fallen into formula and then innovated again. With Lego: Batman 2, we've got a game in two parts. One half of the game is the series at its peak. The other half sees the creators of the series taking one of their biggest chances and failing.
Here is a game that would be better if the people who made it hadn't tried so hard—or if they had had somehow done a very difficult thing perfectly the first time they tried it.
The good parts of Lego: Batman 2 are numerous, so I will be kind and mention them first.
This is a game about Superman's relationship with Batman and Robin, which is extraordinary just for the fact that this is a Lego video game about anything other than adapting a movie. The story in this one is original and, in a series first, is voice-acted,. It explore the amusing dynamic among a cheerfully arrogant Superman, a Batman who doesn't want his ultra-powerful pal to lend a crime-fighting hand and the loyal Robin who can't help but be awestruck every time Superman shows up. These guys make for a great comedic trio that entertains far more successfully than their foils, Lex Luthor and The Joker. Superman could swipe in at any time and solve most of the problems Batman is facing in the game, which is the running gag, except when there's kryptonite around.
The Superman-Batman-Robin dynamic works well in the gameplay as well. Superman shows up early in the game's 15 super-sized chapters, but before he does, our heroes—Batman and Robin—are the standard land-locked heroes of most of these Lego games. They can beat up bad guys and perform some terrifically-animated finishing moves. They can toss their batarangs, smash just about anything that is made up with Lego pieces and they can don special suits that let them like turn invisible to slip past security cameras or vacuum up water to then clean away pools of toxic waste. Then the Man of Steel shows up. You can control him. He can fly. He can hover high above the game's linear levels. He can't be hurt by bad guys. He can freeze water with his breath and destroy gold bricks with his heat vision. He is so powerful that he feels like a bunch of cheat codes wearing on a red cape. It's so wonderful to play as him that we soon realize what Robin has realized: that all these levels would be easier if we could have just called Superman in from the start. Batman—and Lego: Batman—just won't allow that.
Most of the game follows Batman, Superman and Robin tussling in some way with Lex Luthor and the Joker. Luthor is running for President and has decided that his best shot at winning requires a giant Joker-shaped robot to gas people at political rallies. The gas makes them like Luthor more, of course. The plan is appropriately absurd and suits the tone of these ever-comedic Lego games.
From afar, the game's 15 levels will appear to be formula. They let one or two players play solo or co-op (locally, not online), while smashing bad guys and collecting Lego studs. As before, you can re-visit levels with newly-unlocked characters in order to unearth more secrets and collect more stuff. Regular players of the series, however, will appreciate what is yet another step in the progression of level design quality in the series. Slowly but surely, from 2010's Lego: Harry Potter: Years 1-4 to 2011's Lego: Star Wars III to this game, the missions comprising the story parts of these games have become more and more fun to play. They are designed, basically, as interactive pop-up book pages that encourage players young and old to poke and pull to see what happens. That overall appeal to our desire to poke at anything we come across is twisted by the occasional structural twist. Some levels in Lego: Batman 2 involve chunks of action set on moving vehicles or in freefall. Many involve a chase sequence using special Bat-vehicles. Some require a tiny bit of stealth; others take advantage of Superman's ability to break the traditional bounds of Lego levels, while others poison him with Kryptonite to box the level back in. Room after room, the moment-to-moment action is delightful.
The problem with Lego: Batman 2 is Gotham City. That's a big problem, because Gotham City is Lego: Batman 2's big new idea and is a massive disappointment. The storyline levels of prior Lego games were connected to a hub—the Mos Eisley spaceport in Lego Star Wars, Hogwarts in the Lego: Harry Potters. The pinnacle achievement of this was Lego Star Wars III's gargantuan hub spaceship which was full of secret rooms, cool Star Wars characters and a hangar from which you could launch Star Wars fighter craft only to discover, once they were aloft, that there was a second, massive bad-guy ship that serves as the second half of the massive hub. Lego: Batman 2's hub is even bigger, as it is a vast city. It's as big and packed with buildings as a metropolis in a Grand Theft Auto or an Assassin's Creed. It is, however, far less interesting than the cities in those series. (Hey, it's their first open-world game. This kind of thing is tough.)
Lego: Batman 2's Gotham is a bore. It may be full of civilians who need rescuing from the burst fire hydrants and it may contain dozens of roofs capped with gold cages that need to be melted by Superman's heat vision. But those things—and, really, everything in the game's Gotham—is not fun to interact with by the fourth time you find them in the city, let alone the fifth, sixth or seventh. The game's city contains many of the Lego: Batman 2's 250 gold bricks, all 20 of its red cheat-code bricks and hides many of its unlockable characters. Few of these are fun to find. The better ones require you to put Robin in his acrobat suit and have him twirl his way to the top of a skyscraper. Some require you to switch from Batman's gadget-hacking electricity suit to his glass-shattering Bat-Suit. Some of that is fine. But most of the game's hidden treasure is tucked into corners that are not fun to access. The delight of discovery apparent in each of the game's 15 storyline levels is incongruous with the tedium of trawling through this game's Gotham.
Much of this virtual Gotham's problems involve the game's weird open-world flight controls and its abominable radar. The flight controls that work so well in the game's mostly-2D storyline levels are replaced by what initially feel like exhilarating controls that let you fly anywhere in any direction in Gotham. But you don't really want to fly in any direction like a drunk Man of Steel. You want to land on the top of that nearby skyscraper to grab some Lego studs. Or you want to go to that other roof to punch the Joker out and add him to your roster of characters. Unfortunately, you will struggle to land Superman on that rooftop because your options are either 1) to nudge him there without triggering full-speed flight or 2) to try to swoop above and dive-bomb the roof. You can't just glide over, which is what you want to do.
If you're targeting a specific roof, you've at least figured out where you want to go, which means you've triumphed over the game's ultimate villain: its map. The vast in-game map is accessible at any time, but can only be pinged to reveal the locations of collectible characters and Lego bricks when you're at one of about 15 special Bat-computers in the city. The ping is just that: a quick check of the surroundings. Briefly, you'll see where the bricks are on this 2D map. And then you won't. Did you remember what you just saw? You can place a marker where one of them was, but then you'll return to playing the game and struggle with the fact that this open-world game, unlike just about every other one in the genre, does not give you a mini-map. In theory, a compass should suffice, as it did in last year's equally-vast Batman: Arkham CIty, but the radar is full of icons pointing to places you'll never care about, such as the location of the game's metro stations and its zoo. That's not what you want to be pointed to. You want to know where that marker you laid down is. You want to know if you've just flown past wherever the map indicated Killer Croc was hiding. You want to have some sort of hint as to where the red brick you just pinged on the Bat computer actually is. But the game's radar—combined with its bad flight controls—make these tasks as unpleasant as a kiss from Clayface.
Most of the Lego games hook me and keep me playing for a couple dozen hours, well past storyline completion and closer to something like 70% or even a 100% done-everything end. I know the systems of these games and enjoy being pulled through them. They're my gaming guilty pleasures. You play the story to unlock the main characters. You re-play the story missions in freeplay to earn enough Lego studs (money) and gold bricks to unlock characters and vehicles and cheats. Eventually you are rewarded with the most exotic characters and a hidden bonus level. I have cheerfully played through variations on this system through three Lego: Star Wars games, the first Lego: Batman and the first Lego: Harry Potter as well as part of the still-idling second. I was not hooked by Lego: Indiana Jones nor Lego: Pirates of the Caribbean because, I thought, I was not very interested in playing a game about their source material.
Lego: Batman 2 should have been able to hook me easily. I grew up reading and enjoying the comic book adventures of Batman and Superman. I have a weakness for these characters, yet I do not expect I will play any more of this game. I won't unlock more characters, nor will I seek more gold bricks. I won't for two reasons: 1) it's just not fun to do this stuff in Lego: Batman 2's Gotham and 2) there is at least one more Lego game coming out this year—Lego: Lord of the Rings—and maybe a second, the Wii U's Lego City: Undercover. What Lego: Batman 2 gets wrong with Gotham perhaps Lego LOTR will get right with its massive Middle-Earth hub. Or maybe the open-world Lego City game will benefit from an improvement on top of the mistakes of this game.
Risk-taking deserves at least the reward of acknowledgment. It's a myth that no risks are taken in the long-running Lego series. Last year's Lego: Star Wars III added a surprisingly involved real-time-strategy ground warfare mode. This game tries to make a Lego game work in an open world. Good idea; poor execution.
Bonus paragraph: Close observers of the full title of Lego: Batman 2: DC Super-Heroes may have noticed that I did not yet mention the appearances in this game of The Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, The Flash and a few other Justice League greats. Like the game, I've left them to the end and not given them much attention. If only these heroes'' 11th-hour appearance led to many interesting things for them to do. Save it for a Lego: Justice League game, I guess, when Green Lantern's interesting ability to construct massive green trains and hammers out of green Lego pieces might come into play—or when the Flash's super-speed can have a level built to suit it. I'd give a Lego: Justice League a shot. If nothing else, the faltering ambition of Lego: Batman 2's Gotham and the polish of its wonderful storyline levels earns the people behind these games that benefit of the doubt.