Even the Dark Knight needs a little help now and then. Bruce Wayne returns in blocky form after his critically acclaimed first outing, and this time he's brought along a huge gang of friends – and their enemies. LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes still hangs on Batman and Gotham City, but the scope has been expanded to give you the chance to play as all your favourite superheroes and villains from the wider world of DC Comics. Plus Captain Boomerang.
Free of the pre-existing narratives that usually constrain LEGO games' storylines, LEGO Batman 2 features an all-new plot that plucks bits and pieces from a range of source material. In a suitably comic book-esque twist of fate, The Joker and Lex Luthor find themselves in cahoots; Luthor needs Joker to help him rig his presidential campaign, whereas Mr J just wants a bit of destruction and a giggle. After much grumbling, Batman begrudgingly accepts the aid of super nice guy Superman as they partner up to stop the villainous duo before Gotham collapses into nothing more than a pile of plastic bricks.
Though the story is original, elsewhere LEGO Batman 2 feels rather familiar – and given the series' pedigree, that's a good thing. Many of the 15 core levels at its heart are close to the common style of each LEGO title. The majority feature simplistic, friendly platforming and puzzles that helpfully signpost their solutions in blatant fashion with glowing scenery; others are impossible to fail on-rails shooters, set in air or on road.
Naturally, you also spend a lot of time gathering up piles of LEGO studs, which tip forth from every orifice of each stage with an eternally satisfying jangle. Levels are available to repeat in free play mode once completed, letting you go through them again with whatever new characters you've unlocked by playing through the campaign or bought with massive heaps of studs.
However, LEGO Batman 2's at its most interesting when it breaks away from the formula. In between story missions there's the chance to bomb around Gotham City in your very own LEGO Batmobile in an open world version of the city. Exciting as it is in itself to hurtle around, smashing into lamp posts and anything else in the way to gather studs, there are also side missions to take on. There are civilians in peril to rescue, villains to challenge and add to your roster and 250 precious golden bricks to track down.
Beyond the story this open world is a gigantic, absorbing play box; you can get stuck into sorting out the streets or simply cruise around looking for things. It's good, but not perfect: it can feel a little cluttered, with so much chaos rampaging around you and so much to destroy, and it isn't always easy to get to exactly where you want. The map is only accessible through the pause menu, and although you can mark targets on it it's easy to overshoot your destination, particularly when flying about, as there's only a tiny tracking device in the top left of the main screen.
Overall, though, it's a positive experience that lets you loose, giving you the opportunity to experiment with new characters and a large variety of vehicles. It's really easy to lose track of time just messing about in Gotham's streets. It's also the best way to have a good gander at the gorgeous visuals. LEGO Batman 2 is the best looking LEGO title so far; rain-slicked roads reflect the neon lights of countless signs and windows, impressive animation brings the blocks to life and the models, though geometrically basic due to the toy's form, are extremely smooth.
There are some problems with delayed object pop-in in certain areas of the open world, however. This ties in with loading issues elsewhere. The initial boot up takes quite a while, presumably because of the large city. When the campaign is complete and the ability to select any character at any time is unlocked, there's a noticeable delay when you pull in a new figurine to play around with. These are unfortunate technical snags more than anything, but they do take away from what is otherwise a very slick package.
The co-operative focus is as big as ever, with multiple characters available to control most of the time. The levels and city are structured so that you can never get away with using your favourite hero infinitely; you've got to rotate your controllable character to adapt to each situation. For example, Batman can slip into an electric-proof suit to saunter through pools of pylon juice that others cannot; an appropriately dressed Robin can swing on poles to reach higher ground. No one character holds all the powers necessary to creep through every scenario solo – though a couple come quite close – so you need to embrace the skills of several.
Better yet, embroil a second player and play together. Co-operative play is available throughout the entirety of LEGO Batman 2; in story levels it all takes place on a single screen, but when you're in the open world the screen splits vertically so each player can go their own ways. It's local co-op only, though.
In a departure from the LEGO norm, LEGO Batman 2 is fully voice acted by a brilliant cast that includes Clancy Brown, who reprises the Lex Luthor role he's held in various cartoons, Laura Bailey, Steve Blum and – because he's in everything – Nolan North. It's well written to take full advantage of the line-up, and melds with the usual slapstick LEGO humour superbly. It's laugh out loud funny in several parts, especially any scene where Robin fawns after Superman like a schoolboy with a crush.
Fair play to Robin, really, as, though it's Batman's name on the box, it's actually Superman who comprehensively steals the show. When he's introduced, the Man of Steel is instantly appealing by virtue of the fact that he can do almost everything other characters have accomplished until that point. Then there's the small matter of his ability to fly; he's fun in the story missions, but in a league of his own when it comes to exploring Gotham.
While many characters have to drive or stumble around on foot, several can take to the skies instantly without help. The greatest feeling to be found in LEGO Batman 2 is, as Superman, soaring through the night sky, swooping down to street level, blasting down a few errant criminals with eye lasers before climbing once more to land on a tall building – all to the tune of the Superman theme, which rumbles out every time you ascend as Superman. It never, ever gets old.
LEGO Batman 2 is refreshingly straightforward, rarely frustrating and tailored perfectly to younger gamers. It also treats adults with respect, with universally appealing humour and gameplay that is relatively free of faff and full of fun. Though it's unfortunately dragged down by some technical hitches, on the whole it's a heroic effort and probably the best LEGO game to date. Thanks to the open world and voice acting, it's certainly the most ambitious.