So great is my Batman fanaticism that I purposely skipped LEGO Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures in order to maintain my anticipation for LEGO Batman. The two properties may seem unrelated, but the truth is, I knew full well that despite all the Batman lore that Traveler's Tales would no doubt cram into a Gotham built brick by LEGO brick, taking in too much of the LEGO action game formula would kill Batman's fun factor quicker than a whiff of the Joker's deadly gas. As I predicted, LEGO Batman is immense fun -- if you can look past the LEGO formula's reoccurring flaws that should have been fixed after the first LEGO Star Wars.
Whether you're obsessed with Batman or you know little more than the name of his alter-ego, you will love LEGO Batman -- as long as you're not tired of the LEGO games. For those unfamiliar with the procedure, LEGO action titles work thus: play through story-based levels while hunting for hidden objects and smashing everything in sight to collect LEGO studs, which serve as currency. Cash in your studs to unlock new characters, vehicles, and game tweaks such as disguises (all characters wear the comedic big nose, mustache, and glasses get-up). After you've finished a level in any LEGO game's Story mode, you unlock its Free Play option, which allows you to re-enter the level as any unlocked character of your choice, all of which have special abilities that might allow you to grab special items that you couldn't reach during your first play-through.
As expected, Traveler's Tales went to great lengths to incorporate the most fan service possible. Batman fans, this game is for you. Classic heroes and villains are available in droves: Batman, Robin, Nightwing, Barbara Gordon's Batgirl, Alfred, Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, The Joker, Harley Quinn, Two-Face, Clayface, The Riddler, Man-Bat, Catwoman, Mad Hatter, Mr. Freeze, Bane -- even third-tier villain Killer Moth is available, and while you might never desire to step into his moth-infested boots, the fact that he's there at all does count for something.
Gamers more interested in wreaking havoc than saving Gotham's fair citizens won't have to wait long to realize their destructive dremas. After starting a new LEGO Batman file, you'll need to play through at least one entire hero episode (five levels) in order to unlock the villain-oriented missions. After that, you can swap between Arkham Asylum and the Batcave -- each respective group's base of operations -- to complete levels as you see fit.
The story is about what you might expect: all the villains are running rampant, so Batman and Robin swoop and soar about the city, rounding them up and depositing them into Arkham until they inevitably bust out to cause trouble yet again. The story is fairly simplistic, and the LEGO tradition of omitting dialogue sometimes makes it difficult to discern exactly what's going on. Star Wars and Indy fans didn't need dialogue for their games since they each followed their respective films almost perfectly. While the cutscenes in LEGO Batman aren't too difficult to decipher, the story isn't exactly compelling.
Still, who cares? The storyline serves its purpose: to cater to Batman fans with inside jokes and nods of appreciation to the character's rich history, and to provide a stage on which to break apart lots of little LEGO characters.
As mentioned, it is the LEGO formula itself that keeps LEGO Batman from achieving greatness. It's not that the games aren't fun, but that the formula simply hasn't evolved since its inception. LEGO Batman is exactly the same as its predecessors; the only difference is that a Batman skin covers Death Star and Lost Ark backdrops. The music, characters, and theme are pure Batman, but the gameplay is pure LEGO, and the repetitive gameplay mechanics have officially worn out their welcome.
I wouldn't mind the death grip Traveler's Tales apparently has on their beloved LEGO procedure if at least some of the engine's annoying flaws -- flaws that have existed since the very first LEGO action game -- would have been fixed. I don't know what it is that make these games different from any other 3D platformer ever made, but it is sometimes impossible to line up a jump from one platform to another.
Puzzles are as arbitrary as ever, with many solutions seeming nonexistent until your character accidentally breaks a trash can to reveal a handle that can magically be screwed into a door. The problem isn't that the puzzles are difficult, because they're not; the flaw is in the execution. Countless instances of smashing anything within range before running around a room for 10 minutes wondering what you've overlooked are too frequent in occurrence. Sometimes there are hints, but most times there are not. That got old in your first LEGO game, Traveler's Tales. Gamers don't want puzzle solutions handed to them, but giving us a push in the right direction wouldn't kill you.
The drop in, drop out co-op system is the lifeblood of this and all LEGO games, but the lack of online play cannot be forgiven. As fun as it is to partner with a friend who happens to be in the same room with you, this is 2008 -- local and online play should be available.
Depending on how you feel toward LEGO games and Batman, LEGO Batman may or may not be the best LEGO game yet. It's the same as all the others, but it's Batman. If you're a fan of one or both properties, get it. But if you're tired of playing the same game over and over, there's really nothing here that will win you over.