I dare say, the pervasive use of the Lego brand across gaming leads me to believe they’re just pumping out games for the hell of it, at this point. More recent efforts to qualify the releases with specific Batman, Indiana Jones, and Star Wars Lego kits have brought Lego games back into relevance after the mind-numbing Bionicle Heroes outing. In order to keep the brand in the public eye, Lego Battles serves as an extension of the toy line’s more thematic sets, and is actually a formidable RTS game, in its own right.
The six available themes each branch into their own storyline driven campaigns, where they’ll fight off other factions. Each faction has a main Hero unit, of which there can only be one per army, at any given time. The heroes are based around some of the more popular themed minifigures, with additional storylines and acts unlocked as you progress. There’s a stifling amount of content to unlock in the game, and a lot of it unfortunately relies upon the player’s willingness to search out every level for treasure chests, which will enable them to buy characters with studs (small blue Lego pieces), which are also found in campaign levels. Maybe it made sense for the console Lego games, where it was far easier to tell where pieces might be (like inside of every destructible object on the screen), but when a map is pervaded by “the fog of war”, and you’re spending more time exploring than you are with the actual story-related objectives, something has gone horribly wrong. As out of place as they seem, at least there’s incentive for a second play-through, or more. After all, you never know when the mood will strike and you’ll feel compelled to scour the beach as a pirate on a search for some studs.
Much of the storyline uses repetition of similar devices. A number of things are missing, so find them. Make your way through the maze to the exit. The enemy’s attacking, so kill them off and repair what they damaged and find the exit. Simple ideas, dragged on repeatedly. Whether you’re playing as the Pirate, Mars, or King sets, the objectives will always seem familiar. That‘s not to say they‘re all bad. In example, in an early Pirate level, sharks are killing everything that comes near the water, giving players a good reason to familiarize themselves with the badass Barracuda pirate ships. Every story contains a few acts which are displayed as treasure maps with nine areas on a grid, for the level select screen. Each map hosts about six or seven of the themed locations. The level of detail, as shown in the cut scenes preceding and concluding every act leads to several highly amusing scenarios involving the interaction of the minifigures. Travelers Tales is obviously catering to a young crowd with Lego Battles, and it’s important to keep that in mind. Voice acting, as such, is fairly simple and by-the-books. Once you’ve stabbed a hole into your touch screen after your pirate makes a cliché pirate noise for the 1,000th time, your DS will wish there had been a couple more voiceovers per character. I understand why they’d do this – most RTS games do – but the DS voice overs aren’t quite strong enough to hold water.
Lego Battles wants to be a real RTS. There’s the typical emphasis on resource management, which includes mining areas that automatically generate revenue, or harvesting bricks with “builders” from trees and variations on trees, specified to fit the themed environment. It can be irking when you’re clicking on things that might look more like the resources from the last map, than what the current map considers resources. Otherwise, this element of the game is standard, even if you’ll never wind up spending a huge number of the bricks. Said builders are the sole units responsible for forming buildings, as well. I found it peculiar that when builders drop resources at drop-off points, they’re automatically deselected. Command & Conquer games always did a great job with managing the harvesters in those games. What they’ve done needs to be the model for all future RTS games relying on harvesting resources. Exceptions could be made for a series which has more intuitive ideas, but that’s not Lego Battles. Besides, it has been over a decade, and the C&C model remains intact. Again, there’s really not enough to spend the resources on, seeing as the unit cap has been set to a very slim count of 20 mini-figures plus any additional hero characters.
20 minifigures and a Hero character do not qualify as an army. In truth, the tight imposed limit is probably a blessing in disguise, so it’s probably not worth dwelling over. Lego Battles handles navigation poorly. First and foremost, if you’re left handed and hold the DS in your right hand, the game becomes almost impossible to play. In order to navigate beyond the present screen position, you have to either drag the stylus in the intended direction, in effect often deselected the units you’re attempting to move, or have to swap out the top and bottom screen and tap the area on the levels map. What’s more, there’s never any guarantee your character will go where you’ve tapped. Once they’ve met any of the objects scattered about each level, there’s no telling if they’re going to diverge in the opposite direction and stand there until directed around the object. It amounts to the player always having to watch their characters moving, at all times. I usually try and direct them carefully, and still wind up surprised by the number of characters whom are left behind on the sharper corners of a map, or the ones whom just decided to stop due to a partially-harvested resource that they ought to be walking over.
Obviously, the control scheme has to be a bit crowded if you’re condensing a hotkey-heavy genre onto a touch screen. I’d be forgiving, but Lego Battles seems to have gotten the most important commands down into a couple of bars – one blue brick and a subsequent red/gold one below it (red for builder queues, gold for magic hero commands), so they do seem to have this part right. These work about the same way as they did in games like Starcraft, where clicking the special results in the desired temporary effect. Some of these are actually fairly entertaining, like Captain Brickbeard’s absurd ability to summon monkeys or crabs on unsuspecting opponents. Giving crabs is far more awesome than receiving them, by the way.
Lego Battles supports up to four players in multiplayer, allowing for more practical, balanced skirmishes, compared to ones with the cheating computer players. Sadly, there’s no wireless multiplayer capabilities in the game, that could’ve made all the difference really. Although, I can’t stand the idea of mixing and matching your favorite members of a faction, in a multiplayer match. It throws out the potential for true balance. Any semblance of order each faction once had is removed at once. This is probably the one aspect which is keeping Lego Battles from being taken seriously in the RTS community.
Or maybe it was the inability to accurately move players about the map. Or just the fact that it’s a Lego game, by and large, disguised as a lite RTS title. Whatever it is, Lego Battles is still a fairly good game, but these complaints keep it from being anything more than that. It’s too bad, it had quite a bit of potential to do something different, on the DS.