Batman Begins is quite aptly named. Because, you know, it's a game of that film [which last night someone described as "the best film in the last 90 years". Discuss - Ed].
Also because it's a game that takes up quite a few ideas - 3D platforming, third-person fisticuffs, really simple logic-based gadget puzzles, stealth killing, driving and the like - all of which are the beginnings of an interesting game, but never really evolve into anything.
The over-arching idea is that Batman's job is to strike fear into the hearts of villains by building up a myth, a terrifying icon - a kind of Kaiser Soze of Gotham City. Obviously this is an intriguing premise, and word has it that the film does a very good job of exploring it. The game, however, only begins to explore it.
Take the stealth aspect, for example. As you move Batman around one of the game's third-person action levels, you can click in the left thumb-stick to enter sneaking mode, which sees Batman stalking along in a hunched manner worryingly close to Star Wars Episode III's General Grievous. Having used the radar in the bottom left to identify which guard is the gun-carrying danger-man, Batman can sneak up behind him and press B to do him in. Then the other guards without guns run up and he fights and kills them.
But you can also strike fear into your enemies, forcing then to drop their weapons. You do this by causing inexplicable mayhem and then leaping up to deliver a terrifying and violent finale - usually by pressing B when prompted. Taking out a stanchion holding up a pile of explosive barrels, uncorking some vents that send enemies hurtling across the room, grabbing a bad guy from above and killing him quietly so that his chums don't even realise he's gone until they turn around. And so on. These all up the "Area Fear" rating.
The problem is that the game only lets you do these things when it wants. There's no freeform Gotham to explore, full of potential and a complex criminal element. It's just: player enters room, player surveys room for bad guys or items lit up by icons, player immediately figures out what to do, player does it, player moves onto next room.
That's it. There are no complex patrol routines to figure out. Not even any complex controls. The most you'll have to figure out is that you can't actually take the bad guys out until they've had a chance to finish chatting loudly about something to do with the plot and dispersed.
The rest of the game is exactly like this, and only the actions and settings vary. A typical section may have you picking a lock (wait for bolt to move round, press A, wait for second bolt, press A, etc.) or hacking a security camera to see and avoid infrared beams (hammer the A button) before doing the prescribed takedown routine. Your only options for mixing it up are things like flashbangs and gas grenades - which only work on enemies already forced into a state of panic by your jump-through-the-hoop actions up to that point.
Even the platform sections work like this. You ascend a building by jumping on the chain with an icon on it, climbing it, jumping to a ledge and pulling yourself up, hitting the Batarang button to unhook a rope ladder, jumping onto another ledge, climbing a pipe, and so on. If it doesn't have an icon on it to point it out, your path out will simply be the most obvious geometric object within your line of sight.
Prince of Persia worked a bit like this, except it forced you to think laterally, mind your Ps and Cue-spike-trap-buttons, and marshal your supply of wind-back-time sand. Batman Begins never really threatens to hurt you outside of combat, and even if it does it will let you pick things up again from a checkpoint less than a minute earlier.
Oh, and the driving I mentioned reminds me of James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing. Drive along, hit other cars, nitro-boost occasionally, blah blah blah.
But even so Batman Begins isn't an awful game. It's rarely inspirational, but it does have its moments, and it gets a few basic things very right: it's a game that tempers its own limitations by never really frustrating you, so you just proceed through relatively entertaining or at least halfway satisfying sections without being given the opportunity to throw your hands up and declare that you can't be arsed to go on if it's going to be frustrating and uninspired. It simply isn't both very often.
Plus it looks very nice and does a few things you'll chuckle masochistically about. "Looks very nice" is subjective, admittedly - I liked the fiery red aura of the streets below as Batman clambered over rooftops, the soft-lighting effects and that glossy shine on the Batsuit that Argonaut tried last year with Catwoman. Here it looks pretty fitting, and not at all like a layer of reflective moss. Fair enough, the camera's a bit of a mess sometimes, but most of us are used to that by now.
The animations are often a bit quirky, the enemies identikit and the locations places you've been countless times before, but it does manage to do it all without pissing you off too much - and tends to borrow ideas properly rather than half-heartedly, even if it's only borrowing stuff it's played about half a level of in another game.
The "chuckle masochistically" element is part of its staying power, too. Swooping down on frightened enemies is far more fun for the fact that Batman's gliding animation has him spreading his wings and swooping properly. Not in the Tim Burton Batman noir style that made the first scenes of the original-original film so iconic, but in a manner that befits the character.
And when you drop down to grab an enemy, the game cuts to a little close-up of Batman lurking upside down behind the confused bad guy, waiting menacingly for him to turn and realise that there is a six-foot god-knows-what about to haul him into the rafters and do horrendous things to him.
To end on another "aptly", Batman Begins is never going to set the world alight. It's too simplistic, formulaic and unadventurous in its approach, and you feel a lot like a passenger for the most part. You might as well just watch the film. But, on the other hand, it's really quite inoffensive, and perfectly capable of holding your attention without being overly frustrating if you can get past the fact that it's nothing special.
The thing that upset me, though, was that by the time I got through most of it there was a real sense that these ideas - however basic - could have been applied so much more exotically and with so much more freedom than they have. That's what I want; games that show you the ropes and have you directing the whole play by the end. Not games that keep you backstage and just give you the odd glimpse of the performance through the curtain now and again - by way of unlockable film clips, as it happens. Spider-Man 2's movie-game had the right idea and let itself down in other ways. Batman only begins to have the right idea.
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