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The Lego Games of 2012: Batman 2 and Lord of the Rings

One of the more notable surprises for me at E3 this year was just how incredibly good Lego Batman 2 looked – and not in a “for a Lego” game kind of way. This new trailer doesn’t offer much of a peak at the game, but it does show the new voice work and, as much as I liked the “Legoeese” of the previous games, it looks like it’ll add some dimensions those other games lacked. However, there’s a lot more to this one, and the upcoming Lord of the Rings game, than some solid voice work…

So, Lego Batman 2. It’s got a full range of DC Superheroes, but then you probably new, at least, about characters like Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Flash all making an appearance. Executive Producer Ames Kirshen, however, told me the game would have “dozens and dozens” more of DC’s both well and lesser known characters. When I started going through the list of Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Guy Gardner, etc. he merely smiled and said he wasn’t allowed to say more.

He was willing to tell me, however, that the game, despite all these characters being available, does still center around Batman, with the Bat Cave remaining the home base for all that you do. Taking a page from Arkham City, the game lets you travel, with relative freedom, throughout Gotham City, with numbers on the main map indicating progressive mission points you can tackle.

I didn’t see a lot of the game’s characters in action, but I did get a good long look at The Flash, and hot damn was that cool. The Flash is a tricky one. How do you make a character superfast without making him impossible for the player to control? They got it done. The Flash looks amazing on screen and has just enough precision control to make his speed powers effective. Likewise, flying around with Superman to the tune of the John Williams score playing in the background gave me a great big geek smile.

Make no mistake, this looks like a joyous DC superhero game, not just a Lego game with DC super heroes in it. It’s coming out in a week, so if I’m wrong, there’ll be plenty of chances for you to all call me stupid.

The other Lego game on display was the Lord of the Rings game. I didn’t get as good a look at this one as I’d of liked (no hands-on time), but per Publishing Producer David Abrams, this is another fully voiced game and the overriding goal is to pay homage to the films. (As a fan of the books, who thought only the first film truly nailed the spirit of the story, I was rather put off by this, but I recognize I’m in the minority there.)

What really stood out here, however, wasn’t the attention to detail brought to Lego-izing this iconic setting (though it’s considerable), but the number of RPG-lite wrinkles they’re adding to usual Lego model. Characters will have small inventories to manage, a fully explorable and unlockable “hub environment” for Middle Earth, upgradeable items and weapons, and quests to solve. One such example I was given included the need for the party to make a fire, something only Samwise Gamgee can do and something he can only do if he’s got a tinderbox in his possession.

There’s also some new twists to co-op play, including the ability for characters to go into completely separate, but concurrent, questlines when the story demands it. The example I saw took place in the mines of Moria where Gadalf battles the balrog in freefall on one side of the screen while the party escapes on the other. It looked well-implemented and these games have already come a long way with using the split-screen effect to make sure co-op players aren’t driving each other crazy moving in opposite directions. (There are times I dread it when Ana and Kyle boot up Star Wars or Indiana Jones.)

I asked Abrams if adding all these new wrinkles risked making it a little too hard for younger audience to get into, while not being enough to bring in more dedicated RPG players, and he said the team is working hard to ensure that doesn’t happen and the game remains just as accessible as the rest of the Lego game family.

Would I play these games if I didn’t have kids? Certainly, I wouldn’t see myself playing The Lord of the Rings solo if it weren’t for the fact that my progeny adore the games (and liked me reading The Hobbit), but Batman 2 looks cool in a way that makes me want to play it, not as a parent-child bonding experience, but as a gamer.

GAME Saved

GAME shop front - bought out from administration and will now continue trading

If you’re in the UK you’ll be aware that the high street’s only specialist video games chain GAME hit the buffers recently. If you’re not then you might have caught my post about it a few weeks back. Either way, some limited rejoicing is probably in order because on the brink of liquidation, it’s been bought out and will resume trading. Well, I say “bought”, but given that the company is £85 million in debt, the actual price was probably pretty nominal.

The reason why rejoicing is to be officially limited is because it seems to me there are still some pretty big questions that have been raised by the failure of the chain which have yet to be answered. GAME was certainly insanely profligate, buying up rivals and retaining their stores even if it meant outlets only a few yards apart on the high street, but is that the only reason for their failure? You’d have a hard job arguing, I think, that the advent of bigger downloadable content, online retailers and deep discounting by supermarkets hasn’t had anything to do with it. Indeed right after GAME collapsed, the UK’s biggest supermarket, Tesco, tried to aggressively position itself in the marketplace as its heir apparent.

But some smart retail brains clearly think the chain has a future, otherwise they wouldn’t have been willing to take on those millions of pounds of debt. I’m guessing this is partly down to the release of a new console generation somewhere in 2013 or thereabouts – there will certainly be significant high street demand for that. Beyond that things look rather more difficult, especially if the rumours about Sony demanding consumers pay a mark-up to play used games turn out to be true and Microsoft and Nintendo follow suit. That would probably virtually destroy the trade-in market, and then you’ve got the spectre of full games being available as downloadable content eating into physical disc sales. I guess someone thinks they can make £85 million profit before DLC takes over the market.

I hope this isn’t true, and I think there’s a glimmer of hope of the horizon. It seems to me that alongside its acceptance into the mainstream, increasingly video gaming is becoming like most other mass-market media split along a line between dedicated hobbyists and the general public. You see the same thing in art-house cinema versus the multiplex, in massed ranks of airport paperbacks versus deliciously dusty specialist booksellers. I can see a future where the casual market still wants to buy new games in a physical store and is interested enough to want advice from keen hobby gamers. In my personal experience the staff of GAME, who’ve been the ones to suffer most through this whole saga, and many of whom will now hopefully keep their jobs, fit that bill, being enthusiastic and knowledgeable without being scary or overbearing. It seems they’re well placed to send GAME into the one market niche where it might survive, and prove into the bargain yet again that a firms’ greatest asset are it’s people.

I wanted to take this opportunity to apologise publicly for the atrocious puns I employed in the titles of both my articles about GAME stores. Sorry. I know it was wrong, but I just couldn’t help myself.