I love LEGO games and I'm not afraid to admit it! Under the cutesy veneer, simple gameplay meets surprisingly deep level design with clever puzzles and tons of collectibles to find and unlock. The developers, Traveller's Tales, have consistently offered similar (yet enjoyable) experiences based on whichever movie franchise you happen to be playing. I have to admit, I've felt like they had beaten a dead horse after playing the last couple of offerings. So, to their credit, they made some substantial changes to LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes that really worked. The result is the best LEGO game I've played since LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga.
Far and away the biggest, most noticeable difference is that the characters have now found their voices. That's right folks, LEGO’s can talk! I was a little leery about this notable departure from the norm since the subtle (or not so subtle, depending on the scene) nuances of silent characters portraying classic scenes from some of my favorite big screen movies was a huge part of the charm of these games. Fortunately, I'm happy to report that the writing is stellar. I actually laughed out loud at a couple of the one-liners. What's clever is that a lot of the jokes will only appeal to older audiences; younger players wouldn't get a lot of the references as some of the humor is distinctly understated and dry. Provided the writing stays on such a high level, I can see this working going forward.
I think the reason the writing/voice acting works so well is that this is a completely new story for our heroes, not something that follows the rigid adherence to a preset script. Let me put it another way: if you just had dubbed lines from the movies then the charm of the previous LEGO entries might have been lost. It's a fun, cleverly written yarn, made all the more impressive considering there isn't a movie template they are following. LEGO Batman 2 boasts an interesting narrative as these super hero stories go... Batman must join Superman (hilariously against his wishes) and other heroes from the Justice League because the bad guys have teamed up as well: Lex Luthor and the Joker are now in cahoots (again)! From there it progresses pretty predictably, but the truth is that I enjoyed it more than I had initially anticipated.
The other big difference is the fact that there is no true "hub center" like the famous Mos Eisley Cantina from the LEGO Star Wars games or the Batcave from the first LEGO Batman. Instead, Traveller's Tales made Gotham City your playground! And take it from me: Gotham is massive with a lot to explore. It's not truly open world in the traditional sense: you can still return to the Batcave to replay missions. I found myself missing the hub at first, but that soon faded away as I began to explore the city. The amount of time you can spend searching for collectibles probably matches the time spent playing (and replaying in "Free Play") the game itself.
But apart from those admittedly major changes, LEGO Batman 2 is really just another LEGO game, with all the pros and cons that come with that. It's still about collecting studs, solving puzzles and replaying levels with unlockable characters to find all the hidden goodies. There are 250 gold bricks in this one, which means a lot of hidden gems. Using some of the iconic vehicles and all the fun suits has it's own charm, but on the whole there isn't much here that we haven't seen. However, I do want to mention that I love the addition of checkpoints mid-level so that you can save and quit without having to restart from the beginning.
The graphics have improved consistently over the life of these games (which, let's face it, have almost become a genre in and of themselves), and LEGO Batman 2 is the best yet. It's not so much the LEGO (how much can you do with LEGO really?), but a lot of the backgrounds look nice and the lighting is actually impressive. The sound work, aside from the fact that our loveable LEGO facsimiles have found their voices, is also fantastic. The use of licensed music and sound effects is very well done. Hearing the rousing Batman crescendo upon finding a new suit or simply listening to the well-paced background music as you search Gotham for collectibles, hits the mark.
But as good as LEGO Batman 2 is, there are some issues that, while none of them game breaking, detract from the experience somewhat. Some of the design decisions are just... well, weird. Firstly, the map is both confusing and enlightening at the same time... if that makes any sense. What I mean is this: it's nice that you can scan for points of interest and set way markers. However, using the map to navigate around open-world Gotham City can be disorienting. The mini-map in the corner is helpful in getting you pointed in the right direction, but it's not always obvious where you're actually supposed to go. Fortunately, you can simply follow 'ghost studs' which serve as a breadcrumb trail. This doesn't do much when you are exploring Gotham though.
To be honest, I still don't feel like the ally AI is particularly good. At some point it would be nice if they would program your teammates to pick up studs or... well, something other than getting beaten up all the time. Make no mistake, like the other LEGO games, this one is best played with a friend.
Playing LEGO Batman 2 with a friend is really the way to go. While I've complained about the active split-screen in LEGO games in the past, it seems like Traveller's Tales may have made it a bit better... notice I said "a bit." Rather than keeping both players on one screen or having proper, stationary split-screen for each player, the line differentiating the players moves depending on the location of each character in relation to the other. The result is the "line" distinguishing player from player moves... a lot, and at weird angles to boot! I understand why they did it this way, but I personally think it can still be disorienting to the point of inducing nausea. There has got to be a better way! It would almost be better to be tethered... almost.
And the last complaint I'll mention is just something I find bizarre. To unlock every character you actually need to have all 250 Gold Bricks. But if you get the last of the Gold Bricks then you are pretty much done with the game! So why would you leave certain characters locked until the very end, when there isn't anything else to do?! I'm pretty sure I found all the characters as they became available, so I found this understandably head scratching
While LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes suffers from a few questionable design decisions, none of the them ultimately detract from what is an excellent adventure. The fact that the characters are no longer silent gave a lot of fans a moment of pause, but I really think it worked for the better... although I'm curious to see how it will work if they stick with movie properties (like the upcoming LEGO Lord of the Rings). But taken as the sum of its parts, fans of the LEGO series should rejoice! As I said initially, I haven't had this much fun with one of these games since LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga. This one is definitely worth checking out!
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.