Version tested: Xbox 360
If you're a fan of superhero comics, there are many moments that could make you fall in love with Lego Batman 2. It might be the fleeting mention of Ace the Bat-Hound. It might be the discovery that both Hawkman and Hawkgirl are playable characters. It could even be the moment when you realise that somebody really has made a game where Captain Boomerang is a boss character.
All suggest that TT Games has gone above and beyond in its quest to squeeze as much fun out of the DC Comics roster as possible, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the moment that will make most players fall for Lego Batman 2's charms is also the most obvious. It's when you finally get control of a little, smiling Lego Superman, with an open-world Lego Gotham to explore.
You take to the sky, rays of sunlight gleaming off skyscrapers, and Danny Elfman's ominous Batman theme gives way to the soaring melody of the classic John Williams Superman theme. If you don't spend the next five minutes just swooping around with a big stupid grin on your face, you are a soulless monster.
It's an excellent showcase for how far the Lego game engine has come - from the screen-tearing and problematic camera of the first Lego Star Wars to this glittering, detailed cityscape, with a random weather cycle and a nice line in dramatic sunsets.
We've flown, swung and run around in gloriously designed open-world cities as superheroes before, of course, but such games have always tended towards the gritty. There's something about the Lego framework that taps into the na´ve innocence of the superhero myth, elevating what should be overly familiar tropes into something delightful.
Lego Batman 2 has all the scale and scope of Arkham City, but with a joyful Silver Age touch. The Penguin is a squat, ridiculous figure nyack-nyacking around in Gotham Zoo, not a disfigured cockney with a bottle jammed in his eye. Nobody calls Catwoman a bitch or a whore. It's big and broad and rescues superheroes from the clutches of cynical adults, returning them to their intended audience of children.
This is a game that knows how to be silly, but that's not to undersell the saga it spins through 15 self-contained story levels, an epic yarn that wouldn't be out of place in an all-ages Justice League comic or cartoon show. Starting from a formula deliberately similar to the first Lego Batman, you'll control the caped crusader and Robin as they chase and battle The Joker and assorted other ne'er-do-wells from their abundant rogues' gallery. There are hints at the larger shared universe now in play - a cut-scene cameo from Superman here, a brief scene with Martian Manhunter at the Justice League's orbiting watchtower - but the game is wise enough to keep the focus on Batman.
When Superman joins the team as a fully playable character, it's a moment well-earned, and the levels that follow are cleverly designed to let you revel in his varied powers. Unlike other superhero games, they've not nerfed the Man of Steel here. He's nigh indestructible, he can fly and has super strength, heat vision and freeze breath. He'll become your go-to character for a great many problems, but he's never allowed to overbalance the gameplay. There are plenty of puzzles that still require Batman and his collection of special costumes, even as the story plays on the resentment the Dark Knight feels towards his godlike, boy scout ally.
If you're expecting to get your hands on the rest of the Justice League, then you'll have a long wait. They become playable only right near the end, and it's a testament to TT's growing confidence with storytelling that it's able to hold off on this moment for as long as it does. When you finally get Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Flash and Cyborg, it's not only at the perfect plot point for a rousing team-up moment, but it leads into the real meat of Lego Batman 2.
As with the previous Lego titles, completing the story is only half the game. Or, in this case, less than a quarter of the game. Even after 20 hours of solid play, by the time I polished off the 15th mission, my completion meter stood at less than 25 per cent. This is a seriously big game. There's more to find by replaying the story levels in Free Play, using new characters to access secret areas, hoovering up those minikits and saving imperilled citizens, but even that doesn't tell the whole story.
It's here that the shift to an open-world gameplay hub really makes its benefits clear. Gotham is a living Lego city, with 22 classic DC villains to find and defeat, custom vehicles to purchase, even more citizens to be saved, and hundreds of gold bricks to unearth. There are elaborate obstacle courses requiring multiple costume changes, taking you up, over and around the rooftops. Checkpoint races are located conveniently close to new vehicles. Villainous graffiti tips you off to the presence of special crates containing those cheat-enabling red power bricks.
You can take the subway to get from one end of the city to another, or unwind by heading to Gotham Funland where Batman and friends can ride the teacups, play carnival games or drive the dodgems, earning a gold brick every time. If there's a hallmark of the Lego games it's that there's always something to do, something to find, and lines of Lego studs act as both currency and pathfinding tools, gently pulling you towards amusing diversions. Given this much gameplay real estate to fill, the designers have risen to the challenge and created a true sandbox, a play area brimming with stuff to find and things to mess around with.
Rather brilliantly, these ambient tasks can be as easy or difficult to find as you like. Call up the map and you can "scan" an area to reveal every item of note. If you'd prefer to discover them for yourself, the information remains hidden. You can also unlock red brick cheats that will highlight their location in-game. There's certainly weeks of gameplay on offer, and that will easily stretch to months for younger players, for whom the prospect of simply wazzing around a Lego city as an actual superhero will be an amazing and empowering experience.
Moment to moment, the gameplay is much the same as in the previous Lego titles, and it's easy to see how ideas from other games have manifested in this one. Batman's stealthy sensor suit works much like Harry Potter's invisibility cloak. Wonder Woman's lariat is Indiana Jones' whip. Lex Luthor totes a deconstruction cannon that affects black bricks, much like the Dark Side powers of Lego Darth Vader.
Not that this bothers youngsters - in fact, it's something of a draw for them. The fact that the core Lego gameplay is so familiar is all part of the appeal, giving them a solid footing from which to start their explorations. And they'll need it, as the move to a larger persistent world isn't without teething trouble.
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Navigating the city takes a little getting used to, and some of the characters have a habit of wrecking the camera when in full flow. On anything other than a long straight road, The Flash is motion sickness waiting to happen, while the flying characters can be tricky to control and struggle when close to objects. It doesn't help that the controls for flight in the open world are different to those used in the story levels. Toss in the sticky moment where your character freezes for a few seconds after finding a gold brick, and those are the only serious technical complaints that register.
It's simply a phenomenally assured game, a pleasure to explore, and bursting with barely contained enthusiasm for its comic-book universe. Building on the successful formula it's inherited rather than using it as a crutch, the finer details indulge DC fans without alienating those of a less nerdy persuasion, giving a valid gameplay purpose to every obscure character, every additional superpower.
Consistently charming and funny, and constructed with the same carefully layered challenges that have come to define the series, Lego Batman 2 is an absolute joy even for adult gamers. For kids, it'll be a revelation.
9 / 10