Crispy Gamer

LEGO Batman: The Videogame

Ensconced within a darkened suite in the San Francisco W Hotel, Traveller's Tales and Warner Bros. Interactive proudly showcased its forthcoming LEGO Batman: The Videogame (why they need the last two words, I don't know). There is reason for their swagger regarding the much-hyped fall release: T.T. has previously struck a chord with lovers of Western pop culture not only by making cute dolls of LEGO and retelling the Star Wars saga, they've given the little characters soul and a grim determination that, arguably, even the space-cowboy heroes from Lucas' epic saga didn't have. But that was merely the beginning.

With LEGO Batman, T.T. is trying to do it with a more time-honored popular icon from a comic book, the Bob Kane-created Caped Crusader. In the LEGO retelling, of which one of 18 levels was shown, Kane's forbiddingly resolute Batman of the 1940s has morphed into the Dark Knight of the new millennium. Batman is dark and grim, a confident, brave hero who looks like he could turn into an anti-hero at any moment in this tale of DC Comics' most feared villains who have escaped from Arkham Asylum. Everyone from the Joker to the Penguin is angry, too: They won't stop until they cause mayhem on a scale Gotham has never before seen.

And the disk to be released on every platform imaginable just might be better than the previous LEGO Star Wars offerings. The backgrounds, based on a storyboard artist's careful pen-and-ink concoctions, are luridly detailed. Not only does Gotham City have a gritty, urban air, the city itself seems to be alive with rats zipping around and an army of bats flying near a ghetto-like clothesline on which the morning's wash whips in the breeze outside tenements that appear dirty and dingy.

Yet there is bright color in most everything, especially in an area that is the Joker's lair, an abandoned amusement park that recalls the heyday of Coney Island. When a fight takes place on a creaky old roller-coaster and we were told that we'd be able to play the levels as the villains, too, I wanted to rip the controller from the producer Loz Doyle's hands and romp all night. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to indulge, not even to move the character around. Ah, this wacky age of hyper-controlled, micro-managed marketing and PR. Don't you just love it?

The level shown was full of ingenious LEGO weapons, everything from a tiny, radio-controlled vehicle that helped Batman and Robin set some bombs, to a larger, one-person helicopter from which Robin grappled and then hung onto a silver runner. When the game drops, you'll also pilot vehicles like the Batmobile, Batwing and Batboat. Throughout all this, the blocky characters will move almost like humans with, for instance, Robin very carefully trekking across a wire high above the street, throwing out his arms to achieve balance. Throughout your crime-fighting travels, you'll collect LEGO studs and bricks, which unlock content and bonus levels. On the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3, the PSP and DS, you'll have multiplayer abilities, too, via the various Wi-Fi connections each platform supports.

During the demo, the short, silent cut scenes enhanced the dialogue-less gameplay, especially one in which Batman kissed Catwoman. Here, Batman had the very human look of love/hate on his plastic LEGO face. Ah, women villains. To use the words of Steven Wright, you can't live with 'em and you can't shoot 'em. While many have said this Batman recalls the old '60s TV show, I saw it as an amalgam of Batman comics, movies and, yes, the TV series. There's no one influence, no retelling of just one story. It was Traveller's, Warner's, DC's and LEGO's tale, a completely new thing that appears to have nothing of the too-many-cooks-spoil-the-broth conundrum -- at least not in this level.

Yet there was a challenge to be remedied: The artificial intelligence still looked a little wonky. When Batman battled some henchmen and the villains surrounded and engaged Batman in fisticuffs, they did so all at once, as if one were no smarter than the other. Producer Doyle assured us that this was being fixed by the Traveller's team in the United Kingdom even as he demoed.

The upshot? At this point, the game looks like it'll be fun for young and old alike. Fans will admire its nods to the comics while non-fans will love the LEGO characters so much, they'll likely become fans as well -- if the full game is as good as the level that so craftily was demoed.

This preview was based on a publisher-driven demo of the game. The game will be released in fall of 2008.