Lego Batman 2: DC Superheroes' best feature is also its most divisive; it gives Superman most of the best powers. He can fly, melt objects with his heat vision, freeze objects with frost breath, and has super strength. Historically fans of Batman haven't been particularly fond of his Kryptonian rival, so giving this much freedom to Superman threatens to tip the scales in his favour, rendering Bats a secondary character. Thankfully, this is not the case at all, and through a series of clever choices, Lego Batman 2: DC Heroes promises to capture what makes each of its enormous catalogue of heroes and villains so special.
Last time out, Batman was a bit of a dullard compared to his more colourful villains. To make up for that this time around he can switch between various suits, each granting a different set of powers. Batman's green-goggled sensor suit allows him to appear invisible to sensors, see through certain surfaces with x-ray vision, and activate switches from afar. His electricity suit causes him to absorb charges and later deploy them to power machinery, and his power suit launches rockets that can crumble specific parts of the scenery to reveal grapple points underneath.
Robin can gain different suits as well. A blue acrobat costume allows him to carry off slicker combos or form a glass sphere around him, which can be used to knock enemies over or activate switches than require steadily rolling over them in place. Elsewhere, his hazard suit grants him the ability to walk underwater and comes attached with a Super Mario Sunshine-esque hose for cleaning up.
The demo I saw begins with Joker crashing the 'Man of the Year' awards where Bruce Wayne is about to be celebrated for his contributions to Gotham. Pandemonium spreads throughout the dining hall, while Harley dances onstage in the background. Amusingly, everything Batman and Robin punch - be it a chair, table, or musical instrument, dramatically explodes into flames, leaving collectible Lego bricks as debris.
The first enemies the dynamic duo encounter are mimes. This is a reference to the Lego games of yesteryear as Lego Batman 2: DC Superheroes will be the first title in the series to have full voice-acting. Sadly, this wasn't shown in the demo, and the cast list has yet to be announced.
While the stage begins with Batman and Robin tracking down Joker and his goons, he also encounters the Riddler and Two Face along the way. Each story level will be longer and more varied than they've been in past Lego games, with greater variations in their setpieces. "We wanted a sense of epic adventure, of drama, of escalation throughout our levels," said Traveller's Tales' Jonathan Smith. While lengthier stages could easily drag or be inconvenient for parents who want to get their kids to bed on time, Traveller's Tales has introduced checkpoints within each level, and quite frankly, it's about time.
If the story-based levels seem tight and refined but perhaps overtly familiar to longtime fans of the series, the hub worlds should provide a breath of fresh air. Our tour of the hub begins in the batcave where waterfalls crash down at all angles while a series of platforms support the world's greatest detective's vehicles and computers.
We switch roles to Superman and fly into a cave, splash through a waterfall, and emerge upon a dimly lit Gotham City expanding in all directions. The dreary cityscape is adorned by colossal stone statues of Lego men bent at odd angles supporting the mammoth structures above them. "We wanted to highlight the drama and grief that exists within this place," Smith explains. Traveller's Tales' take on Gotham is at once a modern metropolis with skyscrapers and street lights infused as well as an ancient city with towering monuments recalling Greece or Egypt.
Famous landmarks are spread throughout like the freakishly tall Wayne Tower, the Acme chemical plant where the Joker was reborn and the Monarch Theatre where Bruce Wayne's parents were killed. From a technical perspective it's not quite as awe-inspiring as what we saw in last year's Arkham City, but it just might be conceptually more interesting.
Exploring the hub has a Crackdown-ish vibe to it, with an open world environment, manually controllable camera, and emphasis on collection. Where Crackdown had hundreds of orbs secreted away in Pacific City's nook and crannies, Gotham contains 100 hidden gold bricks. In one case we see Superman fly into the air and use his heat vision to melt the cranium off a stone mini-figure supporting a bridge to find a gold brick inside. At a glance it would appear Superman's outlandish mobility and temperature-altering powers would make him so omnipotent as to render all other characters useless. The truth is Superman is powerful, but he can't do everything. He can't switch suits for one. This ensures that Batman and his gadgets are still the star attraction.
To further balance the Man of Steel against his less super-powered brethren, the open world environments are filled with trails of puzzles that require other characters to bypass. Superman may be able to fly atop a building and find a switch, but if it's covered in goo, he'll need to use Robin and find a hazard suit in order to use it. While Superman is agile, he's really more of a scout (or Reagan's "big blue boy scout" as Frank Miller has it).
There's also a Grand Theft Auto element to these hubs where you can steal cars from characters and zip around in them. While it has yet to be shown off, Warner Bros has promised that all of Bats' vehicles will be available as well from the batmobile to the batwing to the batboat. GTA may have been touted as a sandbox, but its adherence to a structured narrative and realistic world were somewhat at odds with the playful freedom. The hub-world interludes in this virtual toy box seem more fitting to this sense of exploration and horsing around.
The addition of other DC characters may seem like a desperate attempt to toss in extra content for a iterative sequel, but Traveller's Tales seems to have learned a lot over the years about what makes these games work. The tight puzzles, colourful sets, and smorgasbord of different characters and abilities continue to charm and delight, while the addition of Superman promises to expand upon an already solid template. It's another joyous toy box from the Lego series, and this time it looks like an impressively expanded one too.