Not many developers could get so much love for producing the same game time and time again with just a few twists, but then not many developers do it quite as well as Traveller's Tales. The millions of gamers, kids and parents who have bought into the Lego games brand before can buy Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes safe in the knowledge that all that stuff that has made the series so lovable in the past remains just as lovable this time around.
The gameplay is the same old mix of building, bashing and collecting that we've had in Lego Star Wars, Lego Indiana Jones, Lego Harry Potter and Lego Pirates of the Caribbean. There are still millions of Lego studs, gold bricks, vehicle parts and characters to collect, and the game is as forgiving, child-friendly and co-op focussed as its predecessors. If you're looking for a game that can keep the kids busy over the school holidays and/or keep adults entertained, then Lego Batman 2 is pretty much ideal.
That said, while every Lego game is sort-of the same, they always come with a twist. In some Lego games, like Pirates of the Caribbean and Lego Harry Potter, the twist is relatively minor, but Lego Batman 2 is, like the last Lego Star Wars, a bit more aggressive in pushing the boundaries. Here the twist is that the usual small hub, normally little more than just a handful of locations where you can unlock characters and access missions, has been replaced by a larger, open-world Gotham City. Here you can run, drive, leap and fight to your heart's content, tackling criminals, saving citizens in peril and collecting even more studs and gold bricks. There's not the level of content you'd expect in a proper open-world game, but there's enough to do to keep you busy in-between story missions, or keep you exploring and collecting once the main game is done.
It's a nice idea, even if you'll spend your first ten or so hours in the game simply racing through Gotham City en-route to the next story mission. Lego Batman 2 has a linear campaign, kicking off with a Gotham City awards dinner that turns into a super-powered brawl, and ending in a slightly too epic battle against a giant robot. Despite the DC Super Heroes subtitle and the promise of multiple playable heroes, the first half is almost entirely focused on Batman and Robin, with the traditional Lego gameplay broken up by a handful of vehicle chase and on-rails shooting sequences. This means that, where other Lego games can base their puzzles on having different characters with different capabilities, Lego Batman 2 works with a selection of costumes instead, which can only be changed when you find or construct specific changing pads.
It's not a huge change from the norm, but there are enough costumes with enough head-scratching, costume-swapping puzzles to keep you busy, with Robin's versatile acrobat and hazard suits making for some of the early game's best moments. Then, just at the halfway point where the game is threatening to grow a bit stale, Lego Batman 2 brings on Superman, and everything changes. Just as in the comics, Superman is indestructible, can fly, has super-strength, freezing breath and heat-rays coming from his eyes. For a handful of levels he becomes a Swiss Army knife for puzzle-solving and baddie-battering, and the focus of the puzzles changes to making sure that Batman and Robin can keep up. Flying is surprisingly well-handled, and all those abilities make Superman brilliant to play. Surprisingly, Lego Batman 2 might be the best Superman game ever made.
The campaign does have its weak points. The levels are long, and sometimes protractedly so, and the racing/flying/shooting sequences aren't the game's most entertaining. Batman and Superman's fellow DC heroes aren't brought in until the very last levels, and having to drive, walk or fly to the next mission sometimes interrupts the flow of the action, and can be a pain.
Yet you'll be willing to forgive Lego Batman 2 any weakness, just because it still has that great Lego charm. You may or many not like the addition of voices, as all the mugging and miming during the classic scene re-enactments was always part of the fun, but it actually works pretty well. The characterisation of Batman as a grump, Robin as a too-keen youngster and Superman as an overbearing, do-it-all do-gooder adds to the enjoyment, and there's certainly no shortage of smartass in-jokes and slapstick gags.
Meanwhile, the decision to root the game in the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher era of Batman is a touch of genius. You get the great Danny Elfman theme, the grandiose architecture and the slightly camp tone, and it all works better for a Lego game than, say, the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight cycle would. We might not expect Lego games to feature cutting-edge graphics, but the most recent titles have all impressed with their strong design, great lighting and lavish detail. Lego Batman 2 is possible the best-looking Lego game yet.
More importantly, it's the deepest. Completing a Lego game is never about simply working your way through the levels. It's about coming back to re-explore them with different characters, finding new areas and hidden collectibles and making sure you get every last stud. It's about making sure you've unlocked every hero, bystander and villain, and using all their powers everywhere you can. This Lego Batman 2 does just like every other Lego title, but having an open world Gotham City just extends the experience that little bit further.
Having characters with flight might seem to make things a bit too easy, but TT Games has found ingenious ways to make you work with the more ground-bound heroes instead, and the range of vehicles and costumes means that this bigger Lego sandbox gets the toys it needs to make things fun. In fact, there are enough super villains spread around Gotham to ensure that the adventure doesn't have to end even when the main story has finished.
Lego Batman 2 doesn't rewrite the Lego rulebook, but there are enough twists to the formula to keep it fresh and fun, while the larger, open-world hub adds a new level of depth. It's a great single-player game, an even better co-op game, and one of the most enjoyable family games you'll play this year.
There are some minor problems with the action and the pacing, but the charm and humour more than make up for them. Opinions will differ on whether this is the best Lego game, but it's a big improvement on the first Lego Batman and a game that could easily keep kids and adults alike absorbed for months.