[12 July 2012]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
In the past, two things have occurred when one of the LEGO franchise games appears in my house for review: 1) my daughters suddenly also appear to help Dad out with his review and 2) there’s usually a whole lot of yelling.
The first part is much appreciated and much of the fun that I derive from the series. While I am not in love with the LEGO games as games themselves, they bring me and my kids together around the television, uniting two generations with a game that offers a little something for everyone. For me, the Gen X gamer, many of the franchises (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman) are loving tongue-in-cheek homages to the media that consumed my childhood. For them, it is fun to collect the chubby little versions of that same media that I have also shared with them through DVDs, old television episodes, and even my old comic book collection.
The second part, of course, is less thrilling, and the yelling is unfortunately due to a problem that has existed since the beginning of the series, specifically the problem of having two players playing co-op together, both of whom that need to see themselves on a single screen. Much anxiety and ire is raised when my kids play as they shriek at one another to stay close to “me” so that “I” don’t get trapped at the edge of the screen or “I” don’t fall into a pit as a result of the other one “pulling” the screen too far to the right or the left.
Luckily, the first part of the equation, enjoying the funny LEGO versions of much beloved super heroes, is present in LEGO Batman 2. This new Batman game, though, sees the first effort in the series to resolve the second part of the problem, the limitations of a single screen for co-op play. The results are mixed.
LEGO Batman 2 is a game that features split-screen play. No more dragging someone into a bad guy or over the side of a cliff and no more getting caught behind LEGO scenery. However, the screen is split into what is basically two vertical segments. The dividing line that exists between the two sides, though, can rotate at times, so that players can see more to their right and their left by sometimes moving almost to a diagonal position between the two. Saying “at times,” though, is a bit of an understatement. Throughout story mode the line moves pretty constantly. As a result, the general chaos that ensues in a LEGO game, which consists largely of madcap punching and shooting, LEGO blocks bursting in showers of LEGO studs, and other visual insanity is made all the more difficult to respond to.
The yelling has been replaced with a lot of “I don’t know where I am,” “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Worse, though, is the experience of the franchises first LEGO open world, which offers a LEGO version of Gotham City to explore, finding new puzzles and unlockables spread throughout what is a pretty robust game space. Like the previous installments of these games, LEGO Batman 2 offers a great many additional characters from the Batman universe to unlock by collecting LEGO studs during Story and Freeplay mode. Unlike those previous installments, though, there is no hub world that exists between levels in which you can just buy these new figures. Since Gotham City is populated with Batman’s rogues gallery, you have to track each of them to various lairs around Gotham, beat them up, and then pay the fee to unlock them.
This is a neat idea and much related to what is good about Traveller’s Tales approach to these various franchises. While the core gameplay of LEGO games, participating in crazy beat ‘em ups and building gadgets and doodads with LEGOS to proceed, is pretty much the same from game to game, they do still consider the franchise that they are working with and tailor bits of those core elements around the intellectual properties that they are playing with. LEGO Indiana Jones, for instance, features far more puzzle solving through LEGO building than the LEGO Star Wars games do—appropriate enough given the nature of those two media properties. In this instance, playing a LEGO Dark Knight Detective, I love the idea of going one step further to track down Batman’s usual assortment of anatagonists. However, that split screen mucks things up even more here.
Since there is a lot more space to traverse in the open world, Batman travels by Batmobile and Robin travels on his motorcycle. Other characters, like Superman, can fly around the city. In the open world Gotham, though, the split screen is always just two vertical areas, and not being able to see much to your right and left (only largely up and down) is really, really tough when you are trying to drive or fly. The Twisted Metal series featured co-op split screens for years and the default was always two horizontal areas. There’s a reason why.
Here, though, much like in story mode, there seems an obvious need to provide a sense of scope for the player as most of the LEGO titles feature large and complicated set pieces. Favoring allowing the player to see all the grandiosity of the scenery is simply impractical, though. The only real way to reasonably experience the open world is by having the second player drop out so you can actually see the whole screen, which defeats the central appeal of the game: that unifying of generations over one game or two siblings or friends playing along together.
All that being said, I am not exactly the essential target audience for the game. While the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Batman brands are supposed to get me to plunk down some cash for something that “I know” my kinds will like because “I know” they’re great is the most essential part of the marketing surrounding these games. It is really the kids who want to hang in there for the full “collectathon” that these games become. And as usual, mine did. Despite verbalizing some similar criticisms of the camera, my 10-year-old and 12-year-old daughters had to collect enough studs to unlock Catwoman and Poison Ivy.
They were still hooked. The charm and humor of the games is still there (the interactions between the peppy, helpful LEGO Superman and the grim, standoffish LEGO Batman are especially hilarious—clever stuff). So, I can’t fault the game for still being a fundamentally good experience for kids.
I do have one other complaint, though, that I think is notable enough (given the subtitle of the game) that I should bring itup. Story mode features mostly Batman and Robin with a little Superman sprinkled in. The other DC super heroes (The Flash, Cyborg, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman) don’t show up until the last couple of brief levels, which kind of bummed me out. I wish there was some way to fit a few more appearances into the plotline just to change it up a bit (as the Star Wars games do, for instance). Certainly, you can play as these guys in Freeplay mode, but they don’t get unlocked for awhile, and I guess I was expecting them to more in the spotlight in a game subtitled DC Super Heroes.
The girls (and my wife) all wanted to play more as Wonder Woman much sooner and not just as Batman’s goofy sidekick. However, once again, they were just happy to bust and build in the LEGO universe once again.