As baffling business decisions go, LEGO Battles is right up there with alcohol-free beer, reusable loo roll and the Virtual Boy. Who on earth thought it a good idea to combine a toy brand most famously associated with anyone-can-have-a-go, kid-friendly platforming romps with arguably the most niche, exclusive and hardcore genre of them all: real time strategy?
There's no doubt LEGO Battles has a mountain to climb. Can publisher Warner successfully use the cosy familiarity of the LEGO brand to sell a fairly traditional RTS title to a younger audience? It's a bizarre, bold left turn for the franchise and one that's only partially successful.
If you've played an RTS game before there is absolutely nothing in LEGO Battles that will surprise you. At the beginning of each stage you are plonked on a map, in which somewhere an enemy army is hiding. You then have to make some cash by mining minerals or felling trees to build a barracks. Once you've done that, you can then start producing various types of troops which you can dispatch to seek out and destroy the enemy. You can also build defensive towers, walls and more sophisticated heavy weaponry.
There are 90 stages in all, split into three campaigns tied into specific LEGO product lines - medieval, pirates and space. Each campaign can be played from the perspective of either side. For example, in the medieval campaign you can either take on the role of the king or his adversary the evil wizard, with each stage playing out differently depending on who you choose.
At the beginning of each stage you'll receive your mission briefing. Some ask you to seek out and destroy the enemy base, others have you defending your own castle from wave after wave of attackers, while others see you searching the map for treasure or a special object while defending yourselves from ambush.
There's very little that's remarkable or innovative about LEGO Battles. Anybody who has played Command & Conquer or Starcraft will probably quickly tire of its stripped-down, back to basics approach to the genre. For those with lower expectations though, there's actually a great deal to enjoy here.
The gentle learning curve and absence of any intimidating RTS jargon mean that it's easy to pick up. New elements and unit types are introduced gradually, meaning that newcomers to the genre should never feel overwhelmed. The difficulty level rarely rises above 'tricky' but later levels will provide a reasonably stern challenge to any gamer, regardless of experience.
Typically for a LEGO game, it also has a cheeky, infectious sense of humour running through it. The campaigns are interspersed with some beautifully animated cut scenes that never fail to raise a smirk and the in-game sound effects are pleasingly over the top.
Out Of Control
Other than its conservativeness, the other main gripe we have concerns the controls. To select units you either drag a square around a group of soldiers or select them one at a time by tapping them. This can get fiddly when you've got lots to choose from and it's often impossible to pick the correct unit out from the crowd. Irritatingly, you can only select 10 units at a time too.
When you have got your party together more problems arise. The pathfinding is extremely hit and miss, with stragglers in your party regularly getting caught behind scenery or going down the wrong fork of a path. As the tail of your gang is often off-screen, you're frequently left unaware that three or four of your soldiers are floundering behind a rock somewhere, leaving you ill-prepared for battle. If you can look past the control shortcomings and the lack of ambition on offer, there's a fun title here, albeit not one for experienced RTS fans. Whether any youngsters can be convinced to pick it up over any of the more commercial LEGO titles out there is another matter though. Warner, we wish you luck!