Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Review: Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes

I hate a love/hate relationship with the Lego games.

I want to love them. They have an endearing goofiness, simple yet engaging gameplay, and are some of the most respectful adaptations of their source material. And for achievement hounds such as myself, they're usually good for an easy 1000 gamerscore (if you want to put in the time for the repetitious grind).

However, they tend to rest on their laurels, afraid to make needed changes as they crank out game after game (There's as many Lego licensed games on the Xbox 360 as there are Guitar Hero games, a franchise which died from over-saturation). They mostly ignore core improvements desperately needed: AI partner, targeting and camera problems continue to persist through these games.

I had high hopes going into this new Lego Batman game. After all, they added voice acting. That's a huge step up from the grunts and giggles these games are known for.

The game starts out with a whole flock of villains for you to take down in the first couple of levels. Each battle is small and quick, giving you the impression that these are just cameo appearances from the first Lego Batman's baddies, just getting you ready for a whole slew of new bosses to battle. Sadly, that was not the case. Do you like Lex Luthor and the Joker? Hope so, because you'll be chasing/fighting them for the entire game. Really. They build a robot and you'll be fighting that for the last half of the 15-level adventure. That's disappointment # 1.

Disappointment # 2: the misleading title of the game. Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes… should have been Lego Batman, Robin & Superman: With Brief Appearances by Other Super-Guests! Superman shows up a few levels in and you'll spend a lot of quality time with him. I particularly like how rightfully overpowered he is, and how his presence annoys Batman. There is a cutscene with Batman & Superman in an elevator that was the highlight of my game.

However, aside from Supes, no other hero will show up to help you out until the final two stages. Which makes the end of the game play out like a tutorial level! I'm still shocked that anybody thought that was a good idea. And why are all these super-powered icons fighting like Batman & Robin? Why isn't Wonder Woman just ripping the robot apart with her bare hands? Why isn't Green Lantern using his ring to pick up the robot and throw it into space?

Did I mention this happens at the end of the 15-level game? That's right, one single storyline and then it's over. No multiple episodes, or even a few levels from the villains' perspective like the previous game. Disappointment #3. You can finish every level in 3 or 4 hours.

Let's compare that to the previous Lego release, Lego Harry Potter Years 5 - 7. I'd say lengthwise, the storymode in LB2 is probably slightly longer than one "year" from LHP, which had plenty of between level puzzles and navigation and new spells to learn.  Conservatively, I'd say there is 3 times more content in LHP than in this game. That's quite a step down.

But they did add something new. A giant hub world in the form of Gotham City, filled with all red bricks, gold bricks, citizens-in-distress and unlockable characters. Or, as I like to call it, Disappointment #4! The biggest misstep in the game.

I don't know if they outsourced the creation of this hub, but having the navigation controls change going from the levels to the hub world is a monumental failure in judgment. In the levels (and even in the small Batcave area), flying is simple and easy. The analog makes you go, holding the jump button makes you ascend, and the "context" button brings you back down to the ground. It's not perfect, mind you… when you release the ascend button, you begin to drift slowly back down instead of hovering. But in the hub, you have a twitchy reticule you point towards where you want to go and then hold the jump button to move. It sounds simple, but it's an absolute mess for any precision flight. Especially since your character will do some crazy super-swoop if you get close to an object…. Such as a small rooftop I'm desperately trying to land on. So, as you shoot past it, you'll need to slowly reorient the camera without any available sensitivity options. It's a frustrating disaster.

The hub world is a glitchy fiasco upon itself. Vehicles and enemies not spawning, or sometimes appearing half inside a building's wall. Remote control minigames that stop accepting certain inputs (After about ten seconds, I could only move my vehicle in reverse.). And most annoyingly, whenever you acquire a Gold Brick you become frozen in place for ten seconds while the game saves. The bad guys running around beating on you aren't subjected to the freeze, so you get to sit and watch as they beat up you and your co-op buddy. Sure, "it doesn't matter" because it's all post-game stuff and dying doesn't really mean anything. But when you have to go through it 200 times(!) it becomes a huge blemish on your day. That's over half an hour of just waiting on the game to let you continue playing.

The worst part of this city mode, in my mind, is that nothing gets accomplished. You never "cleanse" sections of the city. Thugs continue spawning, civilians continue to run in circles, panicking. It's just very unfulfilling. Find the gold bricks and move on. Bleh.

This game sets a new benchmark in user-unfriendliness.

You'd think a mini-map would be standard technology for open world areas, but developer Traveller's Tales is so far behind they only give you a useless compass that marks landmarks which are already visible just by looking around. Instead, on your quest to find all the bricks and characters, you must enter the start menu and scroll down to select view map (despite having unused buttons on your controller which normally would be assigned this task), find what you're looking for, back out to the menu and scroll back up and press Resume to continue. You'll have to do that A LOT. There's another hour that could have been shaved off this game with some very standard programming. Is that their way of making up for the lack of story levels?
In previous Lego games, as you struggled to navigate platforming sections, your AI partner would suddenly make miraculous leaps and join up with you (often trying to knock you off your ledge). Now, he's been programmed to lag behind so you have to manually bring him everywhere you need. Even when the AI is in control of Superman, I always find him earthbound, walking on balance beams, or stuck behind some slight outcropping in the wall. I'm going to mark this up as not an improvement for the AI.

But it's not all bad! One thing I am particularly grateful for is the change in the vehicle levels. They are all on-rail shooter levels now! No trying to drive with horrible controls (Though, they're not totally gone; The hub world still has drivable vehicles which you'll need to manage in order to get those darn gold bricks. I envy non-completionists.)!

The on-rail sections are fun, but they're quite easy. In fact, the whole game is crazy-simple. I don't recall any non-boss even using a gun. And puzzles are practically non-existent. It's just a matter of "where's the suit I need to wear?"

Overall, the lack of true content and challenge,  as well as overall lack of open-world programming experience, really brought this game to its knees. It's fun for a quick play-though, but ends up a sad failure to live up to its huge potential, and not worth the full purchase price.

2 out of 4 Stars.

Recommended for: Families looking for a short rental, and achievement hounds willing to deal with the poor navigation to get all their gamer points.

Franchise fixes: They seriously need to slow down their production process. Stop cranking so many of these games out each year. Instead, consolidate talent and even hire some experienced outside help to expand the knowledge base of more advance game programming. Then make some real high-quality games that you can support with DLC. Also: how cool would it be for an open-world game where every building is demolishable and able to be rebuilt from the Lego rubble?

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