With a steady schedule of semi-annual releases, dependably decent (and sometimes downright excellent) gameplay, and an ever-expanding stable of licenses, LEGO games are fast becoming the comfort food of family-friendly gaming. The Wii U alone has seen a half a dozen of the titles in the two years since its launch, and the trend doesn’t look set to stop any time soon. Now, following directly on from 2012’s LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes, LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham returns with another adventure starring the Dark Knight and a hundred of his closest friends (and enemies). While it can get repetitive — and it doesn’t do much to improve on the standard LEGO formula — this is still a solid, simple action game with plenty to offer for LEGO and Batman fans alike.
LEGO Batman 3 begins when various members of the Lantern Corps suddenly — and presumably rather inconveniently — find themselves floating through space, brought together by an unknown force and under attack from all sides. It doesn’t take long for the brains behind the operation to become clear: supervillain Brainiac is up to no good, and his galaxy- and series-spanning schemes take us from deep space to Gotham, where we meet up with Batman and Robin in the middle of an operation of their own. Things only speed up from there, and while Beyond Gotham’s story won’t win any awards for subtlety, it’s still an enjoyable ride that ties together heroes and villains from across the DC universe in an ambitious — and largely successful — feat of fan-service.
The plot is decidedly out there, but in terms of gameplay LEGO Batman 3 is a fairly straightforward action game which takes its cues from the well-established LEGO building blocks. The one surprise is that Beyond Gotham ditches the open-world design of its predecessor, LEGO Batman 2 — instead of exploring a single and continuous Gotham you’ll move through discrete, largely linear levels, beating up blocky enemies and solving simple puzzles.
These puzzles mostly consist of interacting with switches, levers, and consoles in each level, along with building useful contraptions out of ‘hopping LEGO bricks’ that emerge as you break apart various pieces of the environment. The building is disappointingly hands-off — mashing ‘A’ is all it takes to assemble a masterpiece — but it’s fun to watch and satisfyingly on-theme as part of the overall action.
And overall, that action is good fun; the LEGO influence keeps things immediately accessible, there’s lots of loot and secrets to collect, the puzzles-to-combat ratio is pleasantly high, and the galaxy-hopping story ensures the settings stay fresh and varied between levels. Far and away the biggest draw in LEGO Batman 3, however, is the huge — and hugely likeable — cast of characters.
Though Batman takes top billing, Beyond Gotham takes its subtitle seriously and branches out starting very early on. You’ll spend just as much time playing as Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter as you will the Dark Knight, and — without spoiling anything — the characters you’ll play as in the main Story mode certainly don’t all carry Justice League ID. In Free Play mode, meanwhile, you’ll eventually be able to replay levels as over a hundred different characters from the DC universe, including both well-known and obscure heroes, villains, sidekicks and special guests.
Each of the main Story mode characters has their own special power, and while the basics of play remain the same for everyone — run, jump, and hit ‘Y’ to attack — the unique abilities add a welcome sense of variety. A select few heroes — including Batman and Robin, among others — have several different ‘suits’ that they can switch between on the fly, in order to access even more specialized abilities. Batman’s Sensor Suit, for example, lets him pick out hidden items and turn invisible, while the Power Suit lets him place bombs and fire rockets. Robin’s Hazard Suit lets him tiptoe through toxic waste with impunity, while the Illumination Suit lets the Boy Wonder act as a helpful human flashlight. Many of the environmental puzzles revolve around these special powers and character-specific suits, and — since you’ll always control teams of at least two characters — switching back and forth between multiple heroes to progress.
While the two-character dynamic works perfectly fine for one player — the computer simply takes control of whichever warrior you’re not controlling at any moment — Beyond Gotham is built from the ground up for co-op, and that’s where the adventure really shines. With a second player tagged in, the character-swapping puzzles from single-player turn into fantastic tests of teamwork that encourage the best kind of couch-top coordination. The level designs ensure that both players always have an important part to play, and getting through a stage often requires lots of leapfrogging — Robin might hold open a path for Batman, for example, who could then throw a switch and build a bridge so that Robin can catch up, and so on. That design focus, along with infinite lives and instant respawns, makes Beyond Gotham a perfect candidate for parent-child co-op — LEGO-ized but still somewhat violent subject matter notwithstanding.
Unfortunately, while LEGO titles often strike an excellent balance in catering to both sides of that dynamic, here the action feels a bit streamlined, with less specifically designed to interest experienced players. The linear levels have a tendency to funnel you down a pre-set path without requiring much in the way of decision or input, and exploration is largely limited to discovering which objects you need to smash in order to uncover the ‘hopping bricks’ necessary to build the next gadget. There are plenty of secrets and side-quests that require revisiting earlier levels with more recently unlocked characters and powers, so it’s not to say that there’s no sense of discovery; yet it’s mostly relegated to the ‘Free Play’ mode and subsequent run-throughs, rather than the campaign itself.
Combat is similarly simplified; you can reliably take out most foes by simply wailing on the attack button, while stronger baddies and bosses are usually taken down with set-piece puzzles. These are often satisfying, and always exciting to watch, but sometimes it does feel more like watching than playing. Even the varied environmental interactions tend to boil down to button mashing déjà-vu — whether you’re scanning for hidden switches, tugging open a door with a grappling hook, or charging a cannon, for example, you’ll still just be mashing ‘A’. Of course, this also helps keep things simple for younger players, so it’s not a problem in and of itself, but it could be a potential drawback for older gamers flying solo.
There’s also a bit of control clunkiness, mostly as a result of short and long button presses serving different functions. The distinction feels finicky at times, and when it means the difference between changing costumes and changing characters in the heat of battle, it can be frustrating. Further, given how often you’ll need to press or hold a button to perform various contextual actions, it’s odd how unintuitive those button assignments are. After a few hours of playing you’ll get used to using ‘Y’ to attack, ‘A’ to perform a special action, and ‘X’ to switch characters or suits, which makes it all the more confusing when you have to press ‘Y’ to activate some switches, ‘A’ to activate other switches, and ‘X’ to sit in vehicles and turrets. And since where you’re standing makes the difference, it’s annoyingly easy to accidentally switch characters when you mean to make a quick getaway in the Batmobile, or wail away on a switch when you’re trying to flip it.
Even with these issues, however, LEGO Batman 3 never fails in its most important mission: putting a smile on players’ faces. The dialogue is consistently clever and lighthearted, with puns, gags and winking references packed into nearly every scene, and the minifig character models provide a constant source of adorable amusement. It’s all incredibly charming, and that goes a long way towards keeping players excited for what’s coming up next.
Presentation is excellent throughout; a cinematic musical score and star-studded voice cast lend a big-screen, big budget feel and the graphics are fantastic — seeing iconic settings from the DC universe, several European cities, and the far reaches of outer space brought to life as surprisingly detailed, LEGO-based dioramas is a real joy, and LEGO enthusiasts will appreciate the labour of love that went into crafting each environment out of exact digital equivalents of the real-world bricks. Our only graphical complaint is with the GamePad implementation: off-screen play comes at the price of an annoyingly large blue circle permanently affixed to the bottom-left corner of the screen, and the game’s predominantly dark colour scheme — which looks great on an HDTV — is poorly suited for the GamePad’s palette, resulting in a somewhat muddied picture on the smaller screen.
Lego Batman 3 may not be the greatest adventure — or even the greatest LEGO adventure — on the Wii U, but it’s certainly still well worth a look for series fans. Repetitive gameplay elements and some occasionally awkward controls bring down the Dark Knight’s latest, and the lack of an explorable open world feels like a step back from its predecessor, but fun writing, excellent co-op, and lots of LEGO charm are more than enough to seal the deal for DC devotees.