Success has made the Lego games quietly lavish. Take the Batcave as an example. In the Dark Knight's latest adventure, it's a complex network of gantries and glittering rock, built around a column of falling water. Secrets beckon from every alcove, while studs jitter and jump from even the darkest corners of the screen. It's a reminder that, despite the headline IP, the Lego games have never really been about creativity. What they're about is busyness - and as the hardware improves and the production budgets increase, they've never looked busier than this.
Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham promises a suitably busy agenda, too. As the name suggests, Traveller's Tales is leaving the second game's glorious open-world city behind for the most part. Instead, it's sending Batman and the Justice League up against Brainiac, who has a diabolical plan that will take our heroes out into space to visit the Lantern planets alongside other locations. An open-world approach simply wouldn't work here. No matter. The new threat's suitably dangerous that classic DC heroes will eventually have to unite with classic DC villains if they want to take him down. Fancy switching from Batman to the Joker, or the Flash to Lex Luthor? It's the kind of set-up that only the canon-scrambling playfulness of a Lego game can really deliver on.
Judging by a recent developer playthrough, the delivery's looking colourful and chaotic. The current demo is drawn from the early part of the game and sees Batman and Robin summoned to the JLA's orbiting Watchtower, where the Joker and Lex Luthor are causing trouble. Scattershot jokes come thick and fast as Superman's date with Wonder Woman is cut short and the launch of the Batrocket leaves Lego ducks bobbing around in pieces on the surface of the Wayne Manor pond.
Beneath the jokes is a game that's building on previous instalments in a typically conservative manner. Batman and Robin's special suits will return, and you're able to select them via a radial menu whenever you want. Many of the suits now feature fuel mechanics. Robin's illumination suit requires batteries for its torch to work, for example, while Batman's space suit has a jetpack that will allow him to fly - as long as you've collected enough propulsion canisters.
This time, plenty of other characters can get in on the costume-switching tricks too, mind. Cyborg has suits that allow him to transform into a giant robot to fight big enemies, for example, or a stealth suit that, brilliantly, turns him into a little Lego washing machine. The Joker and Lex will have their own suits as well. If Batman's been upgrading his arsenal since the last adventure, then so has everyone else.
Beyond that, new headline features include hacking games - these now span a wide range of mechanics, apparently, although the ones we're shown offer simple mazes and platforming - and an emphasis on levels set in space. The team at Traveller's Tales has clearly been spending a lot of time working out how best to map the series' knockabout action to the interplanetary void, and while a handful of different approaches are promised throughout the course of the campaign, the one being demonstrated today suggests Resogun's been a major influence. As Batman takes on the Joker's defences around the perimeter of the Watchtower, a hectic 2D shooter is grafted to a screen that behaves like a drum as you zip backwards and forwards. There are waves, power-ups and even smartbombs, and if you return in freeplay mode, you'll be able to ditch Batman and drop in other heroes, such as Superman. If, for some reason, you like Superman better than Batman. (Perhaps you're Lois Lane?)
As Batman and pals work their way up the Watchtower, switching between Cyborg with his magnetic suit to the Flash (who can spin like a dynamo and complete multiple brick builds at once), while laser grids spark and rockets rain down, it all looks as entertaining as ever. If you're expecting a revolution in basic mechanics, you've come to the wrong series - Traveller's Tales hasn't even switched out Courier, or a close relative, as the end-of-level breakdown font despite the fact that it still looks weird. What you're getting here is more of the same, with a few new ideas and, yes, a certain quiet lavishness. All things considered, that's probably what most of the fans are after.