It's no coincidence that LEGO Batman 2 arrived just ahead of The Dark Knight Rises' inevitable stranglehold on the cinema box office, but you'd struggle to imagine two more diametrically-opposed interpretations of Batman. While Christopher Nolan's movie is all portentous glowering, scenes of apocalypse and threat-laden soliloquies, Lego Batman 2 is a joyfully manic cartoon caper.
It's very much in the vein of the previous Lego games (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean and of course the previous Lego Batman), with the only true surprise being a move to fully-spoken dialogue instead of the wordless gobbledegook of every one to date. LB2 is hardly resting on its laurels though, having amped up the presentation and scale considerably without sacrificing the series' hallmark gonzo humour and all ages-friendly challenges.
Calling it Lego Batman is a minor misnomer even if it's a sensible marketing strategy, as this is really about the DC Comics pantheon all playing together in an absurdist marathon of destruction and construction. While the likes of Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter all get their moments in the spotlight, Superman is the most prominent addition to the cast - bringing a smug streak a mile wide and a snarkily passive-aggressive relationship with Batman in addition to invulnerability and flight.
The game isn't exactly reverential to the DC heroes and villains it stars, but somehow distilling them down to their core essence - Batman is grumpy, Superman is vain, Robin is desperate to be noticed, the Joker's just amusing himself - makes it a more appropriate tribute to this venerable comicbook stable than any number of po-faced, mega-faithful adaptations would have been.
The game itself is, broadly, as Lego games have forever been - a mixture of simple action and lateral-thinking puzzles, made with shared-screen two player in mind. Each of a huge roster of heroes/villains have their own special powers, or in the case of Batman and Robin particularly can equip suits which enable further powers, such as electrical control/immunity or a freeze ray. it's a matter of working out which powers should be used at which moments and in which combinations to progress further or take down a boss character.
It's playful throughout, and much more about the joy of what happens next than the frustration of figuring out how to do it. The levels can run on a little too long, and with save points few and far between, but it's very hard to begrudge that of a game that keeps on throwing new gags and supervillains at you at this kind of hitrate.
Between the side-on, puzzle-orientated missions is an open world Lego Gotham to explore more or less at will, either on foot or in a selection of vehicles (more of which are gained by hunting for secrets in the missions). The city is packed with distractions, and if the fact that Batman is allowed to go around blowing things up and mowing down innocent civilians seems to jar with his heroic nature, it just has to be waved away as part of the consistent silliness of the game. Rather more problematic is the way the controls and camera are significantly different in the open world than they are in the missions, which leads to both confusion and disappointment in the fixed perspective and restrictive scenery of the latter. It's two games bolted together but not quite blended. Two very good games, fortunately, but they'd potentially make for one far better game still if they were part and parcel of each other.
Still, the tone, cheer and visual ingenuity reliably papers over such cracks. LB2 is most reminiscent of the latter two, much-maligned 90s Batman movies, but that it's Lego rather than George Clooney with rubber nipples, that its presentation has essentially no limitations as it's all pixels, and that it's a string of gags rather than trying to have any narrative substance means it gets away with the high camp and colour-clash spectacle.
Yet another variation on the very familiar Lego theme it might be, but the charm, variety and good-natured, self-deprecating humour means it winds up feeling pretty much as fresh as this series has ever been.