I think most of us who loved the Lego Star Wars games and Lego Indiana Jones had the same fears about this one: could Traveller's Tales keep its Lego series feeling fresh and stop it getting formulaic, and could the series survive without a big movie trilogy to work with. After all, we've had so many Batmans, from the sixties series to the Tim Burton movies to the animated sagas and the more hard-edged hero of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. And that's not counting the original comics, the Frank Miller classics or the more recent Jeph Loeb version. Whose Batman were we going to get, and how could Traveller's Tales make the gameplay and humour work without a familiar story and iconic scenes to build on?
It turns out that we needn't have worried on either count. While Lego Batman still shares its look, its feel and its core game mechanics with the existing TT Lego games, it still managed to bring enough cool new stuff to the party to make hours melt away without you really noticing. And in a way, adapting a toy based on Batman has given TT license to create its own Batman universe and its own story and make it recognisably Batman, but fun. You can see elements of Batman and Batman Returns, of the sixties TV series and the cheesier cartoons, of the great animated series and the classic comic strips - even some echoes of the rotten Joel Shumacher 'nipples on the Batsuit' films. This isn't Christopher Nolan or Frank Miller's Batman, but it's one that fits the affectionate, high-camp tone of the Lego games.
The premise revolves around that classic Batman chestnut: order has broken down at the notorious Arkham Asylum and all the legendary Batman villains have escaped. The Riddler has teamed up with Two Face, Poison Ivy, Mr Freeze and Clayface. The Penguin with Catwoman, Killer Croc, Bane and Man-Bat, while the Joker has hooked together with The Scarecrow, The Mad Hatter and, erm, Killer Moth. Three groups of villains, three sets of missions to go through. It looks like Batman has his work cut out.
Luckily, he's not unarmed and alone. A second player or the CPU controls Robin, with control switching between the two heroes in a single player game as it did in previous TT Lego efforts. The dynamic duo explore level after level of the same sort of platform/puzzle mayhem we saw in Lego Indiana Jones, duking it out hand to hand with hordes of lackeys, smashing up the scenery into collectible Lego pieces, turning little piles of Lego into machines, vehicles, ladders and stairways, and using grapple guns and rope lines to get around. It's fast, it's frantic and there's rarely a dull moment to be had.
As with Lego Indiana Jones, the gameplay is more puzzle-focused than it was in the original Lego Star Wars games, but here the crux of the conundrums lies in a system of swappable suits. By discovering or rebuilding suit-swapping pads Batman or Robin can change their normal duds for special purpose costumes with specific capabilities. For instance, in one suit Batman can dispense and detonate explosives, while in others he can glide or withstand high temperatures. Robin gets to choose between magnetic boots, a robot control costume and a little vacuum cleaner that collects certain Lego pieces then dispenses them into a machine where they become something useful. Most of the puzzles are a case of using one hero in one suit to reach a tricky area so that they can activate something to give the other hero access to another area, so that they can then drive a vehicle or press a button to get to the next section.