Lego Batman: Extras and Secrets Revisited

By now, it’s abundantly clear to me that the Traveler’s Tales Lego games are fundamentally meant not just to be won, but to be 100%ed. The secrets aren’t all that hard to find, and involve many of the games’ best tricks, things you don’t want to miss out on. But I didn’t fully appreciate this when I was writing about Lego Star Wars back in 2007. In one post, I mentioned how one of the upgrades I had not yet purchased was a 10x multiplier on lego stud intake, which seems like it would be a great way to afford the really expensive purchasable upgrades and characters, until you notice that the 10x upgrade costs more than everything else put together. Saving up for that hardly seemed worth it.

However, that’s not all there is to it. In all of the games from Lego Star Wars 2 onward, there are in fact other, cheaper score multiplier upgrades — I just happened to find the most expensive one first. See, before you can purchase upgrades, you have to physically locate the lego blocks containing them. (In Lego Indiana Jones, you also have to find or assemble a mailbox so you can send it back to Barnett College.) Before you do this, you don’t even know what upgrades are available. The customary progression seems to be a 2x multiplier in the first few levels, then 4x, 6x, 8x, and finally 10x, scattered throughout the run, interspersed with other upgrades. Furthermore, the multipliers stack — and not in the half-hearted additive way usually seen in bonus multipliers in games: if you activate the 2x, 4x, 6x, and 8x bonuses all at once, the result is not 20x, but 384x. This makes the 10x multiplier trivially affordable, along with everything else in the game. It’s still pointless, but it’s no longer pointless and difficult.

Lego Batman adds a neat twist to all this: it makes the multipliers the exclusive province of the Villain levels. In fact, instead of spacing them out over the course of the game, the upgrades in the first five levels of the Villain campaign are simply the five multipliers, followed by the “stud magnet” upgrade. It seems appropriate, associating villain play with both avarice and borderline cheating. Except I don’t really feel like using the multipliers gained this way is cheating — it would be cheating to unlock them with a cheat code, but if you solved an in-game puzzle to obtain it, that means you earned it.

What upgrades does the Hero campaign provide while this is going on? It seems to be entirely about “suit upgrades”: things that specifically affect the functions of the various Batman and Robin costumes. More batarang targets, faster grappling, immunity to bullets, that sort of thing. Somehow this feels like it goes against the hero/villain dynamic: the villain upgrades generously benefit everyone, the hero upgrades selfishly only benefit the heroes. But that’s the superhero ethic, I suppose. I remember a review of Warren Ellis’s Planetary, a comic whose main villains are plainly modeled after the Fantastic Four, that pointed out that it isn’t even a matter of “What if the Fantastic Four were evil”, but that, by hoarding potentially transformative technologies for their exclusive use, the canon Fantastic Four are already evil as judged by Planetary‘s values.

Still, that’s a bit of a stretch here, in a game where the putative heroes and villains fight side by side all the time in Free Play mode, united by their shared obsession with gratuitous property damage.

Lego Batman

Lego Batman is special to me: it’s a game whose existence I predicted, in a comment thread on this very blog. It just seemed like a natural next step after Lego Star Wars, as Batman kits were one of Lego’s bigger sellers. I actually bought and played it a bit years before my current Lego kick, but didn’t complete it then, mainly because it’s effectively twice as long as the other Lego games, consisting of two entire trilogyworths of levels. As of this writing, I’ve completed both trilogies in Story Mode, but have not yet 100%ed it. The trilogy as an organizing principle is obviously a holdover from Lego Star Wars and Lego Indiana Jones, but here, for the first time, Traveller’s Tales isn’t adapting a trilogy of movies. Instead, they’re just making up a completely new set of villain team-up stories, unencumbered by the need to pretend that a scene that was compelling on the silver screen necessarily makes for good lego play.

Mechanically, it brings two new things to the table: batarangs and special-purpose costumes. Batarangs are just a projectile weapon where you can program in a certain number of designated targets (either enemies or breakable lego objects), like in that one scene at the beginning of Batman Returns. Doing this — both selecting targets and waiting for the batarang to flit between them — is slow enough to make it not very useful in combat, except to pick off people shooting at you from unreachable ledges. It’s sometimes used as a puzzle-solving tool, to break things out of reach. but guns work just as well for that, when you have them — which you obviously don’t, when you’re playing as Batman in Story mode. Most of the villains carry guns, though, when you unlock them.

Costumes are a way for Story Mode to partake in some of the variability that Free Play mode gets by letting you switch characters: Batman and Robin are each effectively multiple characters, with special abilities determined by what they’re wearing, which they can change at designated costume-change pads (which you typically have to assemble from pieces). So it functions a bit like the pick-uppable tools in Lego Indiana Jones, except that they’re tools that can only be used by specific characters: Batman has Batman costumes, Robin has Robin costumes. (Batgirl doesn’t appear in Story mode. If you unlock her in Free Play, she’s treated as just a variation on Batman, and uses Batman costumes.) The specific abilities costumes grant are an odd assortment. There’s some obvious ones, like the one that lets you glide and the one that lets you plant explosives, but there’s also things like a costume with a sonic device that breaks glass (which, contrary to expectation, is the strongest frangible material in the game and can’t be broken in any other way, even by the aforementioned bombs) and, for Robin, magnet-boots that let you walk on metal walls and a vacuum device for collecting scraps and recycling them into useful objects. It all reminds me of the goofier sort of action figure accessories, the kind where a toy company just makes up vehicles with no basis in the source material.

But goofiness is the order of the day, isn’t it? This is a Traveller’s Tales Lego game, and that means making everyone a little childish, to excuse the fact that even the heroes spend most of their time smashing scenery. The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie have forever defined the character of Lego Batman for us, but that was years away when this game was made. Instead, it seems to draw inspiration from a mishmash of the Tim Burton films, Batman: The Animated Series, and the Adam West TV series. (The comics that inspired all three sources don’t seem to be much of a factor directly.) You can see this most clearly in the villain roster: among others, we’ve got a Joker with a lethal joybuzzer (with enough juice to power electric motors), the monstrous B:TAS version of Clayface, and Killer Moth. The Penguin’s special ability, in addition to umbrella-gliding, is that he can release exploding penguins, like in Batman Returns, but otherwise he’s solidly Burgess Meredith-based: this is a Penguine who prances about with joie de vivre, swinging his umbrella around like a swashbuckler.

The character animation in all these games is excellent, by the way. The stylization leaves the faces with limited room for expression, so they compensate in the walk cycles and combat moves. There’s one detail I find particularly pleasing: Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy both have a double-jump ability, but they execute it completely differently, Harley going into an aerial somersault like a circus acrobat, Ivy seeming to ride the wind like an earthbound goddess.

At any rate, as usual for Batman, the villains are the highlight. Which I suppose is why they have their own trilogy.

It’s done in a narratively interesting way. After you play an episode of a trilogy as Batman, you get to play the villain version of the same episode. The gleeful destruction feels more appropriate this time around. The cutscenes go into more detail about exactly what the villain was trying to accomplish, and how. Sometimes you’ll be going through the same familiar level geometry that you did as Batman (just fighting cops instead of minions this time), sometimes your path will break away and go somewhere completely new. But you always ultimately wind up in the boss room, where Batman confronted the villain you’re playing, and you know that the level is about to end — specifically, that it’s about to end right at the edge of triumph, just before Batman bursts in and ruins everything. I’ve mentioned before the idea of a Lord of the Rings game where you play as Gollum, where the final level would end right after Gollum triumphantly wrests the ring back from Frodo at Mount Doom, before we see what happens next. It’s a bit like that.

There’s something a little uncanny about the villain episodes, too. When you play as Batman, it feels like you’re playing through a series of challenges and obstacles set up by the villain. But then you get to be the villain in the same situation. To some extent, you’re engaged in setting up the things the way Batman found them, but you’re doing it in a context where things have been set up for you to set them up — including in scenes that, in-story, were improvised, the result of the original plan going off the rails. If the Joker prepared the way for Batman, who prepared the way for the Joker?

Three Failures

Last night, I was tired, and not in the mood for anything stressful or taxing. Going back to Super Meat Boy, or even to the lesser challenge of Heroes Chronicles, was out of the question. So I turned to my largish sub-stack of things bought in recent Steam sales that I haven’t even tried yet.

The first thing I tried was Safecracker: The Ultimate Puzzle Adventure. I suppose it says something about me that a puzzle game — yea, a self-proclaimed ultimate puzzle game — is my idea of something neither stressful nor taxing. But I had every reason to believe that this would be essentially just a gallery of soup cans, where the scope of every puzzle is well-defined and there’s no possibility of negative consequences. After all, that’s what the original Safecracker was. I could be wrong; I realize that it’s not the same game. But I didn’t at first. It was many months after S:TUPA was added to Steam that a discussion in a completely different context (roughly “This is just like that puzzle in Safecracker!” “What? I’ve played Safecracker and I don’t remember any puzzle like this.”) made me aware that it was a sequel. I think understand why the makers decided to obscure this: if it were called Safecracker II, there would be potential customers who would decide not to play it because they hadn’t played the original, or who decided to play the original first and found it so off-putting that they never bought the second. But the title they chose almost kept me from buying it, and I’m their target audience. There must be some better compromise.

At any rate, I couldn’t get S:TUPA going at all on my system. Starting it just locked my machine up with no video output. Possibly it was defaulting to a resolution that my monitor doesn’t support, but even then, you’d think I’d get some background music or something. I have seen this game running on a modern system, though, so it’s probably a solvable problem. But it wasn’t the sort of puzzle I was in the mood for, so I switched games.

Next up, I tried The Ball, a first-person puzzler, which is to say, a game that owes a great deal to Portal, even though the theme here is Aztec ruins (with hints of Ancient Astronaut) rather than sterile white corridors. The main conceit is obstacles that can only be overcome by using a large, unwieldy metal ball, a unique item doesn’t necessarily easily go where it’s needed. Your main control over it is a handheld device that’s something like a ball-specific version of the gravity gun from Half-Life 2: you can use it to attract the ball when it’s in range, and also to smack it like a pinball and send it careening forward. Maybe I was doing things suboptimally, but I found that I used the attract mode to move the ball around most of the time, which means that the ball spent a lot of time right in my face, which is always awkward in a first-person game. The designers understand the problem, and compensate for it by making the ball go transparent when it blocks your view significantly, leaving only some bands solid. I felt that even this cluttered the view uncomfortably.

When I started the game, I noticed that Steam listed some “Last played” data, which struck me as strange, because I had never actually played it before. But then I remembered that I had attempted to play it back when I first bought it, only to have it crash immediately. This time, I fared better: it lasted about a half an hour before crashing, long enough for me to get not quite all the way through the first level. Since this level is pretty tutorial-like, I still don’t think I really have a good idea of what the gameplay is like or how hard the puzzles are.

With that, I gave up on puzzle games and tried out Lego Batman, something that had struck me as a good idea back in 1997 when I played Lego Star Wars. After an overlong intro sequence involving some rather forced slapstick — perhaps my tastes have changed in the last four years? — I made Lego Batman run around and hit people for a few minutes, just long enough to decide that this is a game best controlled with a gamepad rather than mouse and keboard. But my system wouldn’t recognize my trusty DualShock + USB Adapter until I rebooted, and after that, it wouldn’t start the game again. It kept throwing up Windows “illegal operation” dialogs.

It’s likely that all these problems, and probably other recent problems as well (like my difficulties with Arthur’s Knights), have a common root in my hardware, probably that the fan on the video card is clogged with dust again or something similarly foolish. But I didn’t feel like doing anything as stressful and taxing as troubleshooting hardware, so I spent the rest of the evening watching a movie instead. At least I can scratch two of the three games off the list of things I’ve purchased but not actually played.