Poor Hal Jordan. He can't carry a movie, he can't be trusted with his own LEGO playset, and when Traveller's Tales creates a LEGO video game that is very much an epic Green Lantern yarn, he has to take a back seat to Bruce Wayne, the tedious title character of LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham.
It's plain to me that the third installment of the LEGO Batman series did not want to be a LEGO Batman game. The opening chapter, in which Batman and Robin chase Killer Croc through the sewers of Gotham City, is a disheartening slog through familiar ground. The Dynamic Duo beat bricks, collecting the specially-powered costumes needed to overcome various obstacles in their way.
I'd done this all in the first two games, and I was bored. Bored and concerned that this game would turn out to be another LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes, a game that promised a large cast of non-bat characters but didn't really deliver until just before the credits rolled — a Batman story with DC Comics cameos.
But stay strong, DC Comics fans — all will be well. This is LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham, and beyond Gotham lies a story that's not very Batman at all. The moment Bruce and Dick blast off into space in the Bat Rocket to help deal with an invasion of the Watchtower by the Joker, Lex Luthor and a team of unjust super-villains, the game becomes LEGO Justice League.
And when that invasion is interrupted by interstellar Superman villain Braniac, who's harnessed the power of the emotional spectrum to power his shrink ray to planet-reducing levels, we're suddenly in a galaxy-spanning Green Lantern crossover. The sort of event that sells millions of comic books yet can't seem to find enough of a mainstream foothold to have a video game called LEGO: Green Lantern.
That early boredom is completely obliterated the moment the game opens itself up to the DC universe at large. It starts with a wonderful side-scrolling space shooter outside the Justice League's orbital headquarters. Then we're treated to a walk along the Watchtower, joined by Hal Jordan and Cyborg, the latter possessing the inexplicable ability to transform into a washing machine.
Wonder Woman arrives on the scene, taking flight to the opening theme of her 1970s live-action television show. The Flash possesses the power of the LEGO Movie Video Game's master builders, assembling useful equipment in a blur of red and gold. Soon the DC villains join the battle against Brainiac. Solomon Grundy (born on a Monday), Lex Luthor with his transforming power armor, the Joker with his wonderful toys — each new character brings a completely new gameplay mechanic or an alternative to one of the Dark Knight's many outfits.
Batman and Robin are relegated to co-star status and the result is the best LEGO Batman game yet. Poor Bruce Wayne. He seems so out-of-place as we journey from Earth's shrinking cities to a grand tour of the various Lantern worlds. He doesn't appear at all in several of the game's chapters. It's probably for the best.
When the story's grand conclusion arrives and the Batman and Robin framing device comes back into play, it's almost a surprise. Oh yeah, you guys are here. Hey, you guys. Did you see all the Lanterns do that thing? It was pretty cool. You should have been here. You were? Huh.
To make up for Batman's lessened role, Traveller's Tales and DC packed the game with extra bat-bits. There are Batman capsules to collect. Batman super-fan and sometimes comic book writer Kevin Smith makes an appearance in LEGO form. We've got the Batcave to explore between levels along with the much more interesting Hall of Justice and Watchtower. And to top it all off, each chapter features a minifigure of TV's Adam West to rescue, mirroring LEGO Marvel Super Heroes' Stan Lee in Peril feature.
LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham did not borrow from LEGO Marvel Super Heroes' free-roam New York City. Instead we get the aforementioned Batcave, Hall of Justice and Watchtower to wander through, as well as pleasing spherical representations of the seven Lantern planets and the moon. Nice enough, but nothing that comes close to dropping from the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier down through the clouds and landing on the streets of New York City.
I've always felt Marvel Comics were open and ambitious, while DC's library is more controlled and comprehensive. That in mind, Traveller's Tales probably made the right call in not going the full, open-world route with LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham. We had a city to traverse in LEGO Batman 2, but it didn't feel quite right. DC cities always struck me as more ideas than maps, better alluded to than fully realized.
That's not to say there isn't plenty to discover here. Each of the three hub locations is packed with hidden characters, mini-missions, and references to great moments and figures in comics history. It's a DC Comics fan's wonderland. Between the hubs and eight spherical planets to explore, there's almost too much to see and do.
Actually there is too much to see and do, and that too much is named Conan O'Brien. Why the talk show host was tapped to serve as a tour guide to the game's iconic locales is beyond me, but one thing is for certain — he is the absolute worst. Every time the player approaches the mission computer, he says this:
The same lame joke. Every. Single. Time. To be fair it's not just Conan. Other characters posted throughout the non-story areas repeat the same lines every time you get within their general vicinity. His delivery is just so sarcastic. It feels like he's making fun of us for playing the game.
I get it. Playing a LEGO game isn't a huge challenge. They're built kid-friendly. Here we have DC Comics heroes and villains battling hordes of henchmen, strange alien beasts and each other, but the combat is so silly and LEGO-fied it's more slapstick comedy than violence. With no real penalty for death other than losing a few bits during respawn and puzzles that tell you exactly which character you need to solve them with flashing prompts, LEGO Batman 3 is the video game equivalent of Tee Ball. That's exactly why fans of LEGO video games enjoy them so much. We can wander around looking for pretty rocks, maybe nip off to the concession stand for a popsicle. The ball's not going anywhere. We'll take a swing when we feel like it. If we get lucky maybe we'll take off LEGO Conan O'Brien's stupid plastic head.
While I've enjoyed my time with LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham immensely and plan on continuing to enjoy it throughout the downloadable content season (Arrow! Batman '66!), there was a brief moment I considered giving the game a "No" instead of a yes.
(Mild spoiler ahead)
I searched high and low during the game's mission on Ysmault, home of the rage-wielding Red Lanterns, but I could not find him. What self-respecting LEGO Green Lantern game could feature the Red Lanterns without including the greatest of their number?
Later, at the Hall of Justice, I heard it. "Meow."
Okay, Traveller's Tales. You win this time. It was a close call, but LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham is the best DC Comics LEGO video game yet. One tip, though — that's not how you spell LEGO: Green Lantern.