High above the crime-ridden streets of Gotham City, a spotlight beckons the Caped Crusader. It's an irresistible symbol for a man who lives to vanquish evildoers, and the latest game bearing his name makes a similar siren call. Eye-catching visual design and clever jokes draw in those who idolize Batman, and the collect-'em-all nature of the levels serves to keep you invested for hours. But problems--both new to this adventure and series staples--bubble just below the surface, making Batman's latest attempt to thwart his masked villains feel sloppy. As endearing as Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes can be, this flawed sequel fails to live up to the Dark Knight's high standards.
When the Joker joins forces with Lex Luthor, only bad things can happen. Political aspirations serve as the driving force behind the mischievous duo's latest harebrained scheme, but it's not Luthor's attempt at rigging an election that stands out. Rather, it's the goofy storytelling that's so enjoyable. Cutscenes are littered with clever jokes that should make DC aficionados flash a knowing smile. The interplay between Batman and Superman is particularly funny. Bats tries to keep his jealousy bottled up, but his feelings surface as mean-spirited jabs and 4-year-old-caliber pouting that reveal Bruce Wayne's petty side. Robin's adoration of Superman plays wonderfully into this dynamic, creating hilarious moments whenever these three are onscreen together.
Once the story gets under way, you're set loose in Gotham City to roam and venture as you please. The transition from linear level progression to open-world freedom is the biggest change from previous Lego games. Needy citizens call for help, tantalizing collectibles dangle just out of reach, and distractions surface every few steps. In a game already bursting with content, having so many places to go and things to collect is almost overwhelming--in a good way--and could have propelled Lego Batman 2 to new heights, if only the execution were better. But the locomotion is severely flawed. Getting from one location to the next is a fumbler's quest because loose vehicle controls and a zoomed-in camera make turning a tricky task, and the lack of a minimap hinders your ability to navigate.
After you arrive in a stage, events play out just like in previous Lego adventures. Tightly structured levels place Batman, Robin, and any other superhero willing to lend a hand in treacherous locations. As you walk through recognizable locales such as the Batcave and Lex Luthor's office, your primary job is to solve puzzles. See that metal-plated wall over there? Don Robin's magnetic suit to walk right up to it. Staring at an indestructible computer? Jump into Batman's power suit to blow it sky-high. There's a pleasing rhythm to the problem solving because you seamlessly go from one puzzle to the next, using different abilities to interact with the environment in unique ways. Rarely are the puzzles tricky enough to seriously stump you, but seeing the different environments and dangers is reason enough to continue playing.
Outside of puzzle solving, you trade punches with miscreants who don't realize that attacking Batman is always a bad idea. Combat is mostly unchanged from previous adventures. One-button melee with context-sensitive counterattacks ensures you bash through baddies without breaking a sweat. It's tedious, and though you won't have to deal with as many respawning attackers as in the first LEGO Batman, combat still feels like pointless padding in an otherwise fun adventure. This feeling is magnified by sections in which you're invincible. Flying as Superman to destroy the Joker's airship is boring because there's no threat of failure. Just let the missiles slam into you while you slowly peck away at the ship's armor and try to stifle your yawns.
It's a shame the combat hasn't been improved from previous games, but that's to be expected in a franchise firmly stuck in the past. In no place is this more apparent than with the friendly artificial intelligence. Watch in horror as Batman gets beaten to a pulp by a street thug without so much as moving a muscle, or explosive barrels slam into an oblivious Superman. Robin might repeatedly jump in a pit or just stand stock-still while you wait for him to help you with a switch. It's infuriating. And not only do your AI pals fail to help, but they openly impede your progress at times. Batman might stand in front of a door you need to cut open with Superman, or Wonder Woman might stand in your way on a narrow beam. Yeah, it's funny to laugh at their ineptitude, but considering that the same flaw has existed since the Lego franchise began, it's becoming embarrassing. Luckily, you can always join up with a friend, though the lack of online play makes it tougher to get help in a pinch.
It's a shame there are so many obvious problems with Lego Batman 2, because the core experience is enjoyable. The visual design is particularly impressive. Swirling clouds and foreboding darkness give Gotham an eerie mood, and this meshes beautifully with the utter goofiness of the Lego characters. Sure, the city is in peril, but would it really hurt to laugh? And the amount of tomfoolery is staggering. Break into the zoo, and behold a menagerie of plastic animals. You might have thought you knew everything about Batman, but did you realize how much he enjoys riding polar bears in his free time? Plus, because most of the game is tangential to the story, you can spend hours discovering new things to do. Optional boss fights featuring lesser-known villains such as Hush and Captain Boomerang are fun endeavors, and once you win, you can control the baddie for some evil-themed mischief.
Lego Batman 2 contains the same strengths and weaknesses as the many games that came before it. Worthwhile additions such as the open world show the potential for where this series could go, but the core mechanics suffer from the same problems in every iteration. Although it's still as fun as ever to collect Lego bricks and watch the cutscenes, the lack of real change leads to the feeling that you've seen all this before. Batman is a meticulous self-improver; it would be nice if his Lego games had the same mentality.