LEGO Batman: the best Batman game yet?

LEGO Batman: The Videogame

We've got a live one here! Traveler's Tales takes the fan-favorite LEGO franchise to Gotham City with LEGO Batman. It may be hard to believe, but this could (easily) be the best Batman game yet.

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Batman begins his LEGO adventure this fall on every major console, plus a unique version developed specifically for the DS.

The best breath of fresh air in gaming comes when a new title arrives with little fanfare and plenty of skepticism, but in the end, turns out to be damned great. With 20/20 hindsight, everyone was expert enough to see that Halo, Grand Theft Auto III, and even Doom were going to be hits. Then again, it's a lot easier to judge a pitch after you've taken a swing.

Well, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more refreshing home run than the kinetic and addicting LEGO Star Wars titles developed by Traveller's Tales. Suitable for all ages in the best of ways, with humor that doesn't pander and challenges that don't punish, these games smashed expectations and delivered the next iteration of platform gaming for both retro-minded and younger gamers alike.

Suddenly, with that beautiful hindsight, LEGO titles look like no-brainer hits. Lucky for us, the brand is pairing with some of the best intellectual properties in entertainment, this time with no less a cultural juggernaut than Batman. "It's been really cool to work on a Batman game," says Loz Doyle, the game's producer. "When we heard we were going to do a Batman game, the team went nuts." So have a lot of fans of the legendary Caped Crusader.

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He's Batman. Dig those plastic abs

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Wholly original, Batman!

LEGO Batman presents an original story based on the comic book lore, developed internally by Traveller's Tales and sanctioned by DC comics. The action starts after an exodus from Arkham Asylum, as a mob of Batman's most notorious archenemies break loose and create the kind of havoc and mass hysteria that results in the Batsignal flaring high in the clouds over Gotham City.

"The villains team up into three groups," says Doyle, "each headed by a massive supervillain, with some other bad guys teaming up with them." Those ringleaders would be The Joker, The Penguin, and The Riddler. They're supported by over 20 partners in crime, including well-known Batman villains such as Mr. Freeze and more obscure rogues like Killer Croc.

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Mr. Freeze and Scarecrow are just two of dozens of Batman characters that are playable in LEGO Batman.

Fan-favorite Harley Quinn was also recently announced as the right-hand woman to her boyfriend, Mistah Jay (aka The Joker). Of course, all of the characters are represented with mini figures, or "minifigs," which are LEGO recreations of their iconic appearances. "It's the little touches that give the minifigs their character," explains Doyle, who will have his hands full with this sprawling roster of villains. Each of the enemies has a unique attack, such as The Joker's electrified hand buzzer. Many of them also have special abilities: The Penguin can take flight with his high-tech umbrella, and also traverse confined spaces thanks to his squat stature. Catwoman wields her trademark whip and a very appropriate super jump, Scarecrow emits fear gas, and Two-Face flips a LEGO coin before making decisions. Doyle also promises that some of the lesser-known characters will be the most fun to play. "I love Killer Croc," he says. "As a mini figure, he looks amazing, he's a chucking-people-around kind of bad guy. He even picks up busses."

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This epic trial for Batman and Robin will unfold in a linear story that encompasses eighteen unique locations, each with two distinct playable areas. We checked out a very early build of the game for Xbox 360, and the set design seemed heavily inspired by the visuals of early-90's Batman, including Batman: The Animated Series and the Tim Burton films. Batfans won't be disappointed by the familiar, yet wholly original Gotham City as represented here, which offers a far more gritty and lifelike verisimilitude than in LEGO Star Wars. The wet, grimy streets of Gotham have been faithfully created with excellent details, like reflections in puddles and gritty, bumpmapped textures, while the tone nimbly merges the pantomime humor of the LEGO series with the gothic action of the comic and the creepy, sadistic humor famously employed by Batman's most iconic villains.

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Rock out with your blocks out

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The gameplay structure of LEGO Star Wars has been overhauled for Batman as well. The best element of the LEGO games is the opportunity to play as a wide variety of characters. But Traveler's Tales is, of course, beset with just two heroes -- Batman and Robin. They've tackled this problem in two ways. First, our heroes play up their James Bond side with a wide variety of costume upgrades that grant special abilities. Batman's demo suit, for example, includes explosive charges that can destroy certain obstacles, while his glider suit facilitates travel across long distances. Robin's tech suit allows him to access computer terminals, and his magnet boots let you clomp your way up and over metal obstacles. Not bad, not bad. But it gets better.

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Classic villains include The Riddler, The Penguin, and of course, The Joker. Backing them up are some 20 lesser villains, including Scarecrow, Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, and Harley Quinn.

"Robin's vacuum suit is one of the coolest upgrades in the game," says Doyle. "It can suck up LEGOs in the environment... then you reach a station where you can unload all of the bricks and build a new object, like a door or a platform. You don't know what it's going to be until you get there." You'll access these new costumes at certain quick-change stations in each level. Plus, as in LEGO Star Wars, you can replay already completed levels with the new suits in order to access hidden locations. Far more exciting than the costume changes, however, is that LEGO Batman will allow you to play through the story from both sides of the law: Between each of the 36 levels, the storyline alternates from the perspective of Batman and Robin to their nemeses. There will even be separate "hub" areas: the heroes will operate out of the Batcave, while the villains will launch their do-baddery from the sinister Arkham Asylum.

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Although story details are shielded under a heavy shroud of secrecy, we do know that Joker launches a plot to kidnap Commissioner Gordon and sets a trap for Batman and the Boy Wonder in an abandoned amusement park. These scenes seamlessly mix logic puzzles with dexterity challenges, such as leaping across the tracks of a decaying rollercoaster. Once the action switches over to the dark side, you'll control The Joker and Harley Quinn as they dodge the police en route to a major showdown with the fuzz-a boss battle where you must use a crane to drop explosive teddy bears on the pigs' paddywagons. Another, more acrobatic battle is set across the dark rooftops of Gotham. In it, Batman clashes with Catwoman after she swipes a sparkling LEGO diamond. In a charming cutscene, Catwoman distracts Batman with a kiss (to the utter disgust of youngster Robin), only to lose the diamond over the edge of the roof. But who swoops in to snatch it up? None other than the Penguin, who makes off with the goods on the draft of his flying umbrella. This scene seemed to be heavily inspired by Batman Returns, right down to the set design and lighting. Rumor has it that the Riddler's caper involves a daring break-in at Fort Blox, the LEGO equivalent of Fort Knox. Sounds like a job for Batman!

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Batman can swap costumes mid-level to access new abilities, such as explosives and gliding.

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The Riddler befuddles a security guard.

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Building the Dark Knight

The combat in LEGO Batman promises to be the next evolution of the lightsaber-driven battles in Star Wars. In addition to a widely expanded array of close-range grapples, all of the characters will have ranged combat abilities. For Batman and Robin, that means they'll be busting out their signature Batarangs. But our heroes' signature weapons are far more than standard projectiles. Holding down the ranged attack button brings up a targeting reticule that you can move around the screen, stacking several consecutive targets before unleashing. You may recall this type of interface from later Zelda games, Rez HD, or even Panzer Dragoon. Traveller's Tales is determined to incorporate Wiimote gestures into the Wii version of the game, using swipes for Catwoman's whip and control jiggling to build LEGOs with your hands. "We'll got with whatever's the most fun," says Doyle.

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Of course, the Batarang is only the tip of the Batberg. LEGO Batman will also feature action on land, sea, and air with sequences utilizing the Batboat, Batwing and the Batmobile, in addition to villain-driven vehicles, including the Scarecrow's biplane (which was designed from an actual toy available in a real LEGO Batman playset). "These will be free-roaming vehicle levels, rather than on-rails," explains Doyle. "They're in the style of the Hoth levels in LEGO Star Wars II. Lots of exploration, lots of explosions."

Fans of the LEGO franchise seem to have reveled in blowing those things up with a friend, so LEGO Batman is designed with cooperative play firmly in mind. Online co-op will be available on the Xbox 360 via Xbox LIVE and on PlayStation 3 over the PlayStation Network. Ad-hoc co-op will be available on the PSP version as well. LEGO Batman will also see the light of day on other consoles, including the PlayStation 2, PC and Mac, as well as an all-new, uniquely designed Nintendo DS version. "The DS version is gonna be awesome," declares Doyle. "It's written from the ground up by the same team that did LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga for the DS. There will be loads of touch screen stuff in there, like Catwoman's whip, all of the panels and switches, and certain attacks like the grapple gun. And the vehicles are going to be really cool too. I can't wait for people to see that version." Considering how charming the LEGO games have been thus far, neither can we.

Stay tuned to this batchannel, where we'll have more details on this game before it hits shelves this fall!

Check out the first video of Two-Face and Scarecrow in action below:

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