Posted on December 17, 2014, Marshall Lemon Why LEGO Batman Gives Me Hope For Triple-A
In many ways, it feels like Triple-A gaming in 2014 is ending on a sour note.
We have major releases filled with bugs, normally accessible content that’s locked behind paywalls, and that doersn’t even mention hotly anticipated games that failed to set the gaming world on fire at release date. Fans are disappointed, and it’s becoming more and more common to see complaints raised against the Triple-A model itself.
I don’t spend too much time worrying though, because I’m having far too much fun playing LEGO Batman 3. Everything we love about Triple-A games — the epic plots, the open worlds, the massive range of character options — is all here, encapsulated in pleasing LEGO blocks and a healthy dose of fun. Every moment playing this game feels like I’m discovering something new, where rounding a corner reveals anything from the 1960s Batman set to an entire planet to explore.
After completing the story campaign, taking on a ton of side quests, and uncovering all the hub worlds, I’ve barely completed a third of everything LEGO Batman 3 offers. And I want to keep going. I’m having a great deal of trouble remembering any Triple-A game in the past decade that made me feel that way, especially once the main story was finished. Sure, that might just mean this game hits my personal nostalgia buttons, and the series has always had its share of flaws. But I suspect I’m not the only one who knows developer Traveller’s Tales struck upon something a lot of Triple-A titles lack: Unbridled fun.
What’s interesting, however, is how LEGO games have increasingly adopted Triple-A trappings and mechanics without sacrificing this joyful energy.
It didn’t happen in a rushed or haphazard fashion either. First, Traveller’s Tales figured out what exactly makes its LEGO franchises work. Then it refined and expanded the mechanics, slowly experimented with new features, and quickly switched gears when something wasn’t working. This model not only brought Traveller’s Tales success, it made it possible to release multiple LEGO games every year without fans getting tired of them.
By comparison, 2005’s LEGO Star Wars seems modest by today’s standards. It didn’t have any voice actors. Levels were simplistically linear. Yet it struck upon something gamers would see less and less of in a console generation increasingly geared towards dark, modern shooters. It was colorful, fun for all audiences, and effectively designed around both single and cooperative play. Death hindered you for only a second before letting you jump back into the game, without a “game over” screen acting like a slap on the wrist.
And while LEGO Star Wars was perfectly happy to lampoon the prequels, it did so affectionately, showing love for the franchise and attention to detail in its craftsmanship.
LEGO Star Wars proved to be a massive success, leading to a Star Wars original trilogy edition the following year. Shortly afterwards, Traveller’s Tales showed the concept could be applied to other franchises, including Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Harry Potter. Traveller’s Tales could have stuck with the parody model forever, and fans likely would have continued to devour each installment. But eventually, LEGO games started thinking bigger and experimenting with mechanics that were normally only the domain of larger studios.
LEGO Star Wars 3, while not as well-received critically, was still willing to take creative risks. This game was the only one to experiment with real-time strategy mechanics, allowing players to take control of LEGO units on a digital battlefield. Vehicle levels included the ability to jump outside to fight on foot. Combo moves were added as quick-time events to get past certain obstacles.
LEGO Batman 2 expanded the game’s hub into a fully open-world version of Gotham City, complete with the Batcave and Arkham Asylum. At any time between missions, players could simply wander off and explore, whether on foot or driving vehicles like the Batmobile. While the linear storyline could be enjoyed without once exploring the full city, doing so let you unlock new characters, usually by tracking down villains who had escaped during one of Arkham’s many breakouts.
Adding voice actors was a significant shift from earlier games, and one that wasn’t entirely welcome from fans at first. Many argued that it would sacrifice the charm of classic LEGO games, which expressed each characters personality using cartooonishly exaggerated movements and sounds. But adding voice actors increased the ability of LEGO games to tell original narratives. LEGO City Undercover was basically a cop movie parody told in LEGO form, while LEGO Marvel Superheroes and LEGO Batman 3 told new stories inspired by current comic book lore.
Meanwhile, the scope of LEGO games only continues to increase. LEGO Lord of the Rings lets players traverse all of Middle-earth by foot. LEGO Batman 3 frames its story campaign across 13 interconnected hub worlds, reaching from Earth to distant planets like Oa and Qward. While scheduling constraints preventing The Battle of Five Armies inclusion in LEGO The Hobbit, Traveler’s Tales intends to release it as a complete DLC campaign. All the while, each subsequent game continues to push the boundaries for the number of playable characters it can pack into a single title.
Today, Traveller’s Tales has reached the point where it can publish four games a year across various platforms, some of which feature DLC. Elsewhere in the Triple-A world, franchises such as Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty struggle with releasing a fraction of that content annually, leaving fans frustrated with bugs or fatigued with market saturation in the process.
That’s not to say LEGO excels in every area; many of its games have been criticized as repetitive and LEGO Batman’s latest DLC story levels have been atrocious. But after 10 years, we’re not fed up with LEGO in the same way gamers got tired of modern warfare games or realistic violence simulators.
Traveller’s Tales has guided LEGO from a modest parody franchise to a blockbuster success comparable to the rest of the Triple-A market. That’s a hard path for many studios to follow, yet the series continues to improve as the studio refines its development process.
Imagine what it would be like if more of the Triple-A industry followed their example; starting small, experimenting with new mechanics, learning from mistakes, and refining the experience over time.
At the very least, I suspect more gamers would spend more time having fun than complaining about what went wrong.