Remember the imaginary LEGO conflicts that once raged on your bedroom floor? LEGO Battles transplants that warfare from your inner child's mind to the screens of the DS in a real-time strategy game that's worth a try despite a couple of distressingly deep chinks in its plastic armor.
LEGO Battles features themes drawn from the popular Castle, Pirates, and Space sets, giving each a distinct look and feel, from the bright green grasses of a medieval field and the rolling blue oceans of the tropics to the pitted orange-red surface of Mars. Though the names and graphics for the buildings and units change depending on which of the six campaigns you're tackling, basic functions remain the same, whether you're calling a powerful Hero unit like the King from his stone home or summoning skeletons from a mausoleum.
While the top screen changes constantly between information screens and the map, the bottom screen always displays the battlefield, and it's here that you select units with a tap or a dragged bounding box, tell builders where to start on new structures, and order attacks. A handful of color-coded command bricks line the left side of the screen, and touching each reveals a context-sensitive list of actions, buildings, upgrades, and magical spells.
This arrangement is natural and intuitive. You can build a barracks, drop a lumber mill, and set workers about deforestation in seconds, and then focus on exploring large maps filled with obstacles, enemies, and hidden collectibles. It's occasionally hard to fathom why you can't build on a particular stretch of ground, and some buildings aren't different enough from their neighbors to be immediately identifiable, but most basic outpost management tasks are easily accomplished.
Unfortunately, you'll run into trouble when you order around units, because the path-finding is downright awful. To herd a group of warriors around a corner or through a natural chokepoint, you must keep them selected and tap the screen incessantly just to keep the poor dopes from getting confused and stopping altogether. That's irritating enough when it happens near an enemy camp, but you must also babysit the workers who provide basic resources or they'll sit idle because they couldn't reach their destinations with a straight line. If you hate micromanagement, this sort of nonsense will drive you up the wall.
The other major difficulty stems from the overhead angled viewpoint, because it lets units and buildings overlap. Often you'll tap a crowded screen to attack a tower or specific enemy unit only to find that you've instead accidentally issued a move order or changed your selection. You can assign but one defined group to the right trigger, so one false move can kill your ambitions for all but the simplest assaults in both the solo campaigns and otherwise decent local wireless multiplayer engagements.
What's peculiar is that LEGO Battles remains lukewarm fun even in the presence of these frustrations and in the absence of any genuine tactical challenge. The most satisfying moments actually come after you've finished bashing some villain to bits, and can simply relax and explore the remote corners of one of more than 90 maps for spinning blue studs, special red bricks and minikit pieces. Meanwhile, mixing and matching units from all three themes in free play mode is novel enough to make you look past the difficulties for at least a little while.
LEGO Battles certainly drops the baton on a couple of essential basics, but its light-hearted tone, unit variety, hidden trinkets, and sheer volume of maps keep it a good value for dedicated fans of this angular toy world.
Jun 15, 2009