Version tested: Xbox 360
I always used to wish that some enterprising developer would take the openworld template of Grand Theft Auto and apply it to Batman. Not just any Batman, but specifically the wonderful 1960s TV Batman, with his outrageous rogue's gallery of villains, slapstick humour and an appropriately titled gadget for every occasion. Roaming a virtual Gotham, you'd foil plots by villains both famous and infamous by land, sea and air. Heck, you could even get Adam West and Burt Ward to reprise their roles in voiceover.
Of course, Batman is all dour and gritty these days so the chances of that ever happening are lower than Joel Schumacher being asked to direct the sequel to The Dark Knight. I'm not so bothered though, since Traveller's Tales has pretty much given me the game I always dreamed of.
Okay, there's no Adam West voiceover - no voices at all, as is customary for the LEGO games - and the music is taken from the Tim Burton movies rather than Neal Hefti's iconic TV theme, but this is unmistakably a game that draws the majority of its inspiration from the knowingly camp superhero spoof that many Bat-fans have spent decades foolishly trying to live down. From the general tone to overt references, this is a game that remembers when superheroes were fun.
Unlike the previous LEGO titles, which suckled at the twin Lucas teats of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, this latest in the series isn't bound to any rigid movie mythology or pre-determined sequences of events. While it was always appealing to see how favourite scenes would play out in LEGO, the shift away from adaptation towards a broader licence has been most welcome. The story isn't going to keep you on the edge of your seat, but simply not knowing what's coming next makes a huge difference, especially given the fantastic cast of characters the game offers.
The nutshell version is that Batman's greatest villains have broken out of Arkham and formed three evil gangs, each with their own schemes to dominate Gotham. As well as the obvious choices - Joker, Riddler, Two-Face, Penguin, Catwoman - you also get to face the sort of daft foes that have been sidelined in the drive to make Batman more realistic. And so we get the shape-shifting Clayface, Killer Croc, the Mad Hatter and the brilliantly obscure Killer Moth. All it needs to complete the far out escapist tone is for Vincent Price to turn up as Egghead.
In a major shift from the established LEGO format, you'll get to both fight these characters and play as them in their own parallel storyline. After foiling their dastardly schemes with Batman and Robin, you can throw a switch to be transported to Arkham from where you can play the same storyline from the villain's perspective, helping them to build their cataclysmic contraptions and plot their vile schemes. The levels share some locations, but always from different angles, so not only do you get a fun double narrative, it really does feel like two games in one.
The hero side of the equation is obviously less well populated. You can unlock characters like Batgirl and Nightwing, but these are purely for use in the Free Play mode - they have no role in the stories. Instead, to expand the gameplay options for the dynamic duo, the game introduces a series of different costumes with varying abilities. Batman, for example, has a glide suit which lets him sail over larger gaps. His demolition suit lets him set remote charges, while the sonic suit has a gun which shatters glass. Robin can walk up metallic walls in his magnetic suit, as well as vacuum up spare LEGO pieces and deposit them in special machines to build new items.
Returning after an enforced absence in LEGO Indiana Jones, there are over twenty vehicles to unlock, many specific to different characters. As well as a full complement of Batplanes, boats, choppers, subs, tanks and motorbikes, you can also take the helm of outlandish villainous transports. And those are just the ones you can collect. LEGO Batman goes all out as far as one-off modes of in-game transport are concerned. Discovering them is part of the fun, so I won't list them all, but the chance to ride robot crocodiles, giant Venus Flytraps and even dinosaur skeletons comes as a real treat.
With its dual structure, LEGO Batman already offers at least twice as much gameplay as the rather slight LEGO Indy. It's still not quite as generous as Star Wars, with its additional gold brick currency for unlocking extra material, but as well as the traditional minikits and red "power bricks" there are also 25 civilian hostages scattered through the game, as well as hero and villain "superkits" which are awarded one piece at a time for filling the stud counter in each level. You also get two bonus stages, set in Wayne Manor and Arkham Asylum. When you consider that I'd only achieved 53 per cent completion after finishing the hero storyline and polishing off two thirds of the villain plot, you can see that this is a game with plenty to discover.
And discovery is what the LEGO games are all about. The gameplay hasn't really changed, which isn't a surprise and really isn't worth complaining about. The core elements are comfortably familiar - scurrying into corners to find minikits, smashing everything you can find to horde studs - but there are enough new features layered on top to make it feel reasonably fresh. Most notably, the different villains each offer their own particular powers. Mr Freeze's gun can solidify liquids into platforms and encase enemies in blocks of ice. The Riddler and Mad Hatter can control other LEGO people, and operate them like puppets. Penguin releases exploding robot penguin drones. Even a big stupid lug like Bane brings something fun to the proceedings, with his super strength allowing him to hurl enemies miles into the air.
As with the previous games, wherever you look there's something funny or new to catch your eye. It's just a shame that persistent grumbles haven't been addressed. There is noticeable v-sync tearing on both PS3 and 360 versions, although it's nowhere near as bad as it's been in the past. Some leaps are made awkward thanks to quirky perspective, and the game will still occasionally respawn you in a position that leads to instant death over and over. The AI of your sidekick still needs work as well, as you'll sometimes have to backtrack and find them standing around, doing nothing.
While adult gamers will scowl with justifiable irritation at these glitches, they still don't seem to bother the game's true audience. As always, I playtested the game thoroughly with help from my six-year-old son and his school friends and they were as smitten as they were with LEGO Star Wars (which is still in heavy rotation, I might add). Traveller's Tales has the knack of knowing just how to build their games so that young players are drawn in, bit by bit, until they're tackling puzzles that they never would have solved before. It's undeniably educational, but in a fun way that favours lateral thinking and basic logic skills over anything too didactic.
With its smaller scale and samey levels, LEGO Indiana Jones felt like a step sideways, and even backwards, for the series. LEGO Batman addresses all those concerns and is even better than LEGO Star Wars in many respects. Grown-ups will find it cute enough for a single playthrough, but kids will be wearing the disc out for weeks to come. Another hugely entertaining, carefully constructed gem of kiddy gaming.
8 / 10