I've been a fan of TT Games' "LEGO" video game franchise since "LEGO Star Wars" first hit shelves nearly a decade ago in 2005, and it's pretty fair to say that the basic formula of the popular franchise hasn't changed: play through a story, pick up many LEGO studs to attain mastery over a level, then use the studs gathered to purchase new characters that will, in turn, help unlock more content. While the development team at TT Games has used a number of tools to keep the games fresh and interesting, "LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham" is the first time I've felt the franchise is slowing down.
There are quite a few gameplay enhancements in "LEGO Batman 3," not the least of which is a fun space shooter sequence in the spirit of "Resogun." This game also has quite a bit in common with "LEGO Marvel Super Heroes" in terms of gameplay -- characters with shield-like objects can walk through flames; characters with reflective objects can bounce lasers as long as they're standing on a special platform; elastic characters can transform into special objects; large characters can bash through broken walls and lift heavy objects. Speedsters have the Master Builder ability from "The LEGO Movie Video Game" -- in fact, there isn't much here that's actually new or unique. Notably, TT Games has done away with special "suits" taking up character slots, opting for a wheel that allows certain characters to change suits at will to perform different specialized tasks. The game does away with the massive open world seen in "The LEGO Movie Video Game" and "LEGO The Hobbit," and instead opts for closed-off hubs in The Watchtower and The Batcave.
"LEGO Batman 3" certainly adheres to the timeless "LEGO" game formula, and follows in step with the previous "LEGO Batman" games with an original story (a concept first introduced in the original "LEGO Batman") that sees Brainiac attempt to shrink the Earth using the powers of the various Lantern Corps of the DC Universe. Players have the opportunity to journey to different planets in the DCU to gather the Lantern power batteries that will help un-shrink the Earth and defeat Brainiac. It's a by-the-numbers story, and it's kept decently engaging by some excellent voice work -- the cast is understandably massive and each character has a wonderfully distinctive voice. Green Loontern in particular is a favorite, as is Troy Baker's Batman and Stephen Amell's Green Arrow.
However, it feels like the TT Games team almost went a little overboard with the characters that appear in-game; the celebrity appearances like Conan O'Brien and Kevin Smith aren't really explained in the slightest -- and they seem woefully out of place on the Justice League Watchtower. O'Brien serves as a tutorial of sorts, explaining different machinery in the Watchtower, while Smith takes on the role of a sidequest guru. It's certainly interesting to see them in the game, but the roles could very easily have been filled by any of the 150 characters included in the roster -- or even Jim Lee and Geoff Johns, who have a much more relevant tether to the DC Universe. Adam West delivers a perfect celebrity in peril for each of the story levels, serving much the same role as Stan Lee did in "LEGO Marvel Super Heroes."
Part of the problem is that the story itself isn't all that strong. In the early days of "LEGO" games, the hallmark of the series was its ability to successfully parody existing works with a funny spin. "LEGO Batman 3" in many ways takes itself too seriously, attempting to tell a story that might be found in any All-Ages comic (with a Very Special Episode-like ending included), rather than one unique to the LEGO franchise. It's not necessarily a problem, and doesn't detract very much from the overall experience, but that level of humor and tongue-in-cheek references to LEGO is missed.
The game is also not without a few bugs -- more than once, I had to restart a level due to a key character getting stuck and unable to move, or a command prompt not appearing during a boss battle. Much like the game itself, these are bugs that have been in the series since the very first game in the franchise, but it's still disappointing to see it happen during story mode.
All that said, it's very clear the folks over at TT Games are huge DC fans. When I made Wonder Woman fly for the first time, I was thrilled to hear the Lynda Carter "Wonder Woman" theme song play in the background -- and fans will be excited to know that yes, the John Williams "Superman" theme still plays whenever Superman takes flight in the game.
While most of the game is the same song and dance, there is one incredible piece of content that's worth picking it up: the "Batman '66" level, "Same Bat Time! Same Bat Channel!" Narrated by Adam West and including nearly every famous "Batman '66" character, the level is a celebration of everything that made the original television series great, including the "BAM! POW! THWACK!" sound effects whenever a character hits something, a sidescrolling car chase and even a LEGO version of the Batusi. It's the most fun I've had playing a LEGO level in quite some time, and I wish there had been more levels like it.
In many ways, "LEGO Batman 3" feels like it retreads old ground a little too much. Possibly, the true test of the game's potential will likely be in its Downloadable Content episodes, which will take on Batman's 75th Anniversary as well as LEGO versions of Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" trilogy and a LEGO "Arrow" story. The mastery that the TT Games team showed on the "Batman '66" level really made me excited for the DLC -- more so than the actual game, if only because part of what the LEGO franchise does so well is parody, and an original story does take a bit away from the ability to enact that parody.
However, for those that have never played a LEGO game before, or parents looking for a great game for their kids to play, "LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham" is an excellent choice -- but for anyone that's already experience the LEGO franchise in the last three years, there's not going to be much that's new here. It's a fun game and a fine expansion, but doesn't offer much that hasn't been seen before. (That is, beyond the "Batman '66" level. Have I mentioned how great that is?)
IS IT BETTER THAN...
"LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes"?
Yes. "LEGO Batman 2" was a great game when it released in 2012, but the amount of technical advancement in the last two years from TT Games makes it somewhat obsolete. While "LEGO Batman 2" has the open-world advantage, the staggering roster and excellent voice acting set the third game apart from its predecessor. Even if it didn't, the "Batman '66" level would push it over the top.
"LEGO Marvel Super Heroes"?
They're about the same in terms of enjoyment. "LEGO Marvel Super Heroes" had a similar edict of cramming everything possible into a game with a story well-suited to Marvel and the added benefit of off-the-wall bonus levels through Deadpool. The satisfaction of exploration in an open world combined with many new advancements for its time might push "LEGO Marvel Super Heroes" slightly over the top, but it's really close.
"The LEGO Movie Video Game"?
Yes. "The LEGO Movie Video Game" was a straight-up adaptation of "The LEGO Movie." While there's certainly a lot to be said for the strength of that film, playing "The LEGO Movie Video Game" is like watching a much longer version of the film. Fun, but not nearly as strong as the parody or original content of which TT Games is capable.
"LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham" is available now for all major game platforms.