The first million is the hardest.
Some of my better Saturdays were spent with a bowl of Apple Jacks, watching Adam West batusi his way through pastel-tinged danger and bat-cliffhangers. I have vivid memories of queuing up outside of a movie theater in Sun Valley, California, anxiously waiting to get tickets for Batman '89. I can, with disproportionate gusto, explain how a DC comics PR stunt saddled Batman with decades of guilt and helped redefine his precarious psychological machinery.
But before the Dark Knight endeared me to pulp crime fantasy, I had a love affair with tiny Danish cubes. I would watch as my father painstakingly deciphered a large sheet of directions, his hard work was rewarded with utter destruction. I'd devise complex excuses to rend brick from brick. Doors would be ripped away, flowers would be unearthed, nothing was safe. I think it's an innate human response to spend hours building those damned little sets, only to tear them to bits in a gloriously destructive minute.
Naturally, the words “Lego Batman” excited memories of childhood joy within me. At last, my love of brooding vigilantes and architectural destruction were married in one convenient package! This game was made for me and yet, somehow, it manages to miss the mark.
Chances are, you're already familiar with the Lego series of games. Lego Batman isn't a significant departure from its predecessors. You'll still collect Lego studs, unlock characters and vehicles, revisit stages and cause massive property damage. Instead of having innate Jedi abilities, the Hero characters rely on gadgets – suit chambers strewn about levels allow for a change of activewear and a Schumacheresque ability to adapt to certain situations. It is, instead, the Villains that get by on genetic luck. They don't have the luxury of a multinational corporate bankroll supplying them with toys, apparently.
In a refreshing change of pace, the story unfolds in two halves. As Batman and Robin, you'll be hunting down a gang of escapees from the notorious Arkham Asylum. Each chapter centers around a specific set of baddies, with characters as iconic as The Riddler and as laughable as Killer Moth making appearances. Upon completion of the first chapter, you'll be able to switch to the Villain's point of view. In this way, we are given dualistic doses of an otherwise linear plot. The Dynamic Duo foil the dastardly scheme, the evil-doers set up the caper. The player has a hand in both.
To better suit the Caped Crusader's physicality, Lego Batman features a slightly reworked combat system. Players will still be able to mash the attack button to work their way through goons, but they can also execute a grab attack to toss a little variety into the mix. Each character has his or her own grab animations and in the case of some, will trigger a special ability (Scarecrow tosses fear dust into the air and spooks the enemy, The Joker uses an electric joybuzzer to shock his foes).
But that's about the extent of the innovations present in this title, I'm sad to say.
By now, I'm certain that Traveller's Tales is content with the Lego series, and I'm pretty sure that gamers are ok with the fact that they are essentially re-buying the same game (albeit with different character skins). At some point, I realized that I was playing the basest of Platform-Puzzle games: running through levels multiple times to collect LegoCash with which we can unlock score multipliers, or completing frivolous minikit collections with newly-uncovered character powers. In all honesty, it feels like the bloom is off the rose with Traveller's Tales' legendary game design.
This was the first Lego game designed specifically around the "nextgen" consoles. Aside from some graphical niceties, it doesn't seem as though much was really done with this newly built framework. There could be more effort put into level design, for instance. Oftentimes my co-crimefighter would get caught up with a tricky jump or poorly placed obstacle. Frustration would gather as I waited impatiently and my partner attempted to fine-tune her depth-perception-platforming skills.
“Jump on that thing. Right there. No, over there. OVER THERE! YOU'RE JUMPING BEHIND THE LADDER. WHAT ARE YOU DOING!? Wait, where are you going? I thought we were having fun.”
I can only imagine what it would be like playing with, not a full-grown adult, but a child. I know that levels can't be simple “Walk to the right and fight a boss” affairs, but I'm hopeful that future Lego games can fine tune the experience. Traveller's Tales has already eased the single player's ability to switch between characters, so I'm eagerly anticipating the implementation of something that allows co-op players to switch places on the fly. That would allow more seasoned players to get past frustrating sections without the awkward angry hand-over of the controller. I'm not arguing for mind-blowing Lego revolutions, but for small tweaks that make this a painless co-op environment.
What really dampens my enthusiasm for this game is the fact that the previous level of Lego humor is largely absent from the Batman campaign. Sure, we get tons of instances where Robin impulsively jumps off of a roof, or does a handstand while riding his bike. Great. For the most part, Batman plays the straight man, the dour do-gooder that he is in my Detective Comics.
That's just wrong.
I understand they couldn't Adam West it up, but Bats' reactions to his Rogues and his environment is the same detached schtick that we've come to expect from the character. There's no whimsy with him. His gadget suits are functional, but drab. He punches enemies or flips them to the ground. No cocky dodges, scaring bandits, or any of that fun nonsense.
The enemies, on the other hand, are a much more enjoyable experience. They exude personality. My partner and I spent many a minute lining up our characters, walking them from room to room in an odd costumed congaline. Poison Ivy sashays seductively. Joker giggles maniacally as he walks around. The Scarecrow stalks about like a schlocky horror movie villain. Comparatively, Batman lurches around with his cape in front of him like a second-rate Dracula. Cute, but a little bland.
In fact, out of all the characters present in the game, it was the goofball D-lister, Killer Moth, that held my fancy. Dressed in a purple, green and orange suit, Moth should have been a complete joke of a character. And he was. In every cutscene, he is utterly fascinated by light sources. In-game, he awkwardly flaps his wings and flails about when gliding. He's hilarious to watch.
And that's what initially captivated me with Lego Star Wars: familiar characters that were reinterpreted with a bit of goofiness to them (albeit, with nods to glorious canon). For some reason, this title chose to toe a serious, darker line. It's nowhere near as entertaining.
It's hard to believe that I'm writing this, because the initial wow-factor of Lego Star Wars revolved around what was not only a fun take on a universal geek obsession, but the execution of a game playing ethos that didn't punish characters for dying. We were given a game that could appeal to old gamers and neophytes alike. Who would have imagined that the formula would become tiresome so quickly? It may be that the average kid-gamer will eat this title like candy, that they'll run through and unlock everything they can get their dirt-caked hands on. But for me, especially without the humor to ease the bitter pill of CollectItitis, the core experience just isn't that fun. And since the gameplay hasn't evolved in a truly meaningful way, it's even more apparent that I'm mindlessly rerunning the Lego stud collector boogie.
I'm also stupefied at the removal of online co-op via Xbox Live. What kind of design choice is that?
Hopefully, Traveller's Tales will take a good look at their next IP and come up with strong ways to improve their trademark gameplay and appeal to the crowd that's able to get into R rated movies. Or, at least, cast future entries in the series in a decidedly humorous light.