When we finished up our LEGO The Hobbit review just a few days ago, we ended on a question. With so many great games under their belt, and so many films given the co-op LEGO adventure makeover, where could developers Traveller's Tales go next? To be perfectly honest, we weren't expecting an answer until the giant gaming convention E3 kicks off in June - but instead, we received a top secret invite to a top secret event in a top secret part of the country, where, with the top secret curtains drawn and the lights turned down (almost like a bat cave, you might say) the studio revealed all about it's out of this world plans for it's latest game - LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham.
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In fact, out of this world is probably the most fitting phrase to use, as LEGO Batman 3 looks set to let the caped crusader (and plenty of other DC heroes and villains) boldly go where no man has gone before - into outer space...
Rather than being based on any films, the plot here is another original creation, which we're promised will be an entirely legitimate reason to pull as many DC Comic goodies and baddies together for an interstellar adventure. With the Joker up to his usual tricks, the Justice League teaming up to fend them off, and a nefarious mastermind lurking in the shadows - the somewhat lesser known Braniac - the character list alone is already shaping up to be a who's who of DC's finest. In the single level we saw, Batman, Robin, Superman, Cyborg, Wonder Woman and The Flash all made appearances, alongside perennial baddies Lex Luthor and the Joker, Firefly and Cheetah. But while DC fans will doubtlessly appreciate the enviable character roster and fan service, knowledge of who everyone is is strictly optional here - with the game's writing catering to new players, and plenty of slapstick comedy to keep things moving along, you'll be able to follow the plot even if you've only ever heard of Batman.
Speaking of whom - sadly taking a more serious role than his LEGO Movie "my gossssh" rendition, LEGO Batman 3 looks set to build on the earlier games in several ways, bringing with it plenty of new Bat-features. The level we saw started off with a typically cheesy cutscene, in which the Joker and Lex announced they'd rounded up a veritable super baddie army in an attempt to take over a place called the watchtower - a space station by any other name. Ever alert to the call to action, Bats is raring to go - just as soon as he's managed to make his way through his base to get to the Bat-rocket.
Starting off in the Bat Cave, which will serve as one of the game's hubs (we'll have more on that later), the notable changes came thick and fast. Perhaps most usefully, where you previously had to find special switches throughout the levels to switch between Batman or Robin's super suits, now, you can do it on the fly. Simply hold one of the buttons to bring up a wheel, and you'll be able to choose which outfit you want, with each having its own range of special powers and upgrades, and both Batman and Robin having some new fashions on show.
Robin's latest stylish garments are the illumination suit, an outfit that essentially turns boy wonder into a battery powered boy lightbulb, but makes him rather useful for lighting dark passages; and the techno suit, which not only automatically grants him the intelligence required to crack computers, but also lets him call in a miniature "toy wonder" - a toy Robin on a hoverboard. Batman, meanwhile, looks fetching sporting the newest look in his collection, the Bat-spacesuit, which along with running on fuel canisters you'll have to hunt out in the levels, comes packing both of this season's must-have accessories - a jet pack, and a laser. You never know when you're going to need it.
As per tradition in the LEGO games, the level we saw seemed to offer the same mix of baddie bashing, stuff smashing, and basic puzzle solving we've come to love, with one tradition that's carried over being hacking into PCs. With a locked door ahead, we switched to Robin's techno suit and stumbled towards a computer to spark a hacking mini-game, which seems fancier than anything that's gone before. Loading you into a Tron style, isometric maze, it's up to you to try and stay on top of the platforms as they collapse, raise, or even turn into a Mexican wave, as you try to make it from one side to other. Do it successfully, and you'll have hacked into the system, unlocking the door in the process. Quite why Batman has to hack into his own system is anyone's guess, but with the job safely done, it was into the Bat-rocket, and off into the stratosphere - but not before accidentally roasting one of the Bat-ducks in the Bat-pond with the Bat-rocket's Bat-thruster...
While recent LEGO games have had a pretty similar structure, LEGO Batman 3 looks set to offer something a little bit different different. Most recent LEGO games have had a kind of "open world" hub for you to explore at your own convenience, from The Hobbit's LEGO recreation of Middle Earth, to the Avenger's take on New York City in LEGO Marvel Super Heroes. Serving as both a handy way to get to each of the levels, and as a place they can stuff full of side quests and collectibles by the dozen, it's been a reliable format, but LEGO Batman 3 looks set to shake things up. Instead of one hub world, the plan here is apparently to have several instead, with each being themed around a certain planet in the DC Universe. While our knowledge of planets in the DC world is somewhat limited, we do know that one of them will be a Green Lantern planet (for more on that, make sure you check out our exclusive interview) - and each will have its own fair share of side quests and collectibles to be found.
But back to the task at hand. Now safely in outer space, the gameplay changed format somewhat markedly, transforming into a space shooter minigame that borrowed heavily from PS4 launch title Resogun. With the whole "Beyond Gotham" approach, apparently space-themed minigames and stages will be a more regular fixture in LEGO Batman - although they won't all work quite the same as this one. Moving left and right, or up and down across a 2D plane that wrapped around a cylindrical station, all Batman had to do was defend himself against the Joker's rockets (which are like normal rockets, just with a pair of chattering teeth strapped to one end), making use of his never-ending bat-laser, and the power ups at his disposal, including a smart bomb which wipes the screen clean. When playing in two player co-op, the second player will take over Robin's ship as you team up against the baddies - but after clearing all the waves, boy blunder soon finds himself overpowered. Taking a Joker missile to the face in his ship, before somehow managing to get Batman blown up too when he tried to rescue him, things start to look bleak, before a passing Superman happens to fly past and save the day, with a little help from Wonder Woman in her handy spaceship.
Still, with the best part of the Justice League together (including Flash, who's tagged along for the level), it was on to the space station, and working our way towards Joker and Lex. As usual in LEGO games, each of the super heroes has their own special powers, many of which you'll need to rely on in order to finish the levels - or find secrets on later playthroughs when you've unlocked a new character. In the space station, it wasn't Batman's spacesuit or Robin's techno suit that came in the most handy, but actually the speedy Flash, who put his speed to good use on the, er, handy treadmills that have been left lying around. Jumping on board, and mashing a button to get up to speed, Flash can run so fast he causes the machine to short circuit, opening doors, destroying locks, and otherwise opening up other parts of the level. With the door open, it was on to the outside of the ship, as the gang continued their path to the top.
With enemies everywhere, and a fair amount of fire coming our way, it was clear that a bit of strategising would come in handy. While you can happily take the baddies head on, sometimes it's easier if you can manage to distract them somehow - and that meant switching to Cyborg, to take advantage of his special powers. Like transformations. Able to transform into a number of special suits/modes, including a giant suit, which transforms him into an unstoppable big fig, as first seen in LEGO Marvel with the Hulk, Cyborg also has access to a stealth suit, which makes him completely invisible to enemies by turning him into that most commonly seen object on the side of a space station - a washing machine. Oh, and it has a built in laser, too. Walk, jump, or blast enemies making your way through the space station, and the baddies won't pay you the blindest bit of notice, assuming you're just an everyday, common or garden walking washing machine with a giant pulsating laser. Actually, that explains a lot. We were wondering where our washing machine had gone...
In traditional LEGO Batman fashion, though, it won't only be the goodies that you'll have at your fingertips. While we don't want to go into too many details, the baddies in LEGO Batman 3 are probably more misguided than totally evil - and after you've reached a certain point in the game, you'll be able to play as them too. While there's no information yet on which baddies will be available (Harley Quinn and Bane would probably be a shoe in though), we'll be keeping our ears to the ground for any new updates.
Either way, having seen the game running, this has shot straight to the top of our most wanted list, as many LEGO games do. Offering the same great co-op mix, the same drop-in, drop-out action, plenty of humour, and a plot that's packed with nods to the DC fans, while being accessible to those who're less clued in, this is shaping up to be another must buy LEGO game. Set for a release this Autumn - so not long at all, then - be on the look out for plenty of updates over the next few months. In the mean time, feast your eyes on the first trailer below: