Xbox Review: Batman Begins

Batman Begins - a good game? It was bound to happen someday...

Just talking about games such as Batman and Robin, Batman Beyond, Batman Forever or Batman Forever: The Arcade Game with someone who reviews video games should trigger something in their head which will make them talk about how horrendous those games were for months. Batman video games are sort of like president jokes on a late night show to a video game reviewer. Hell - I could probably base an entire stand-up routine derived from those games.

So, now, hot off the heels of the 2004 smash hit mega blockbuster Catwoman, Electronic Arts offers up a second serving of the Batman universe to gamers, in correlation with the caped crusader's brand new movie Batman Begins. I'm a bit hungry since what Catwoman served made me throw up everything I ate for the entire year of 2004, so I booted up Batman Begins for the XBox with hungry eyes, licking my chops, perhaps looking for a cannon fodder Batman game I can make fun of once again. But what EA delivers this time is a very satisfying experience, even if there are a few rough spots.

The main hook of Batman Begins lies in its rather innovative scheme of fear. While companies like CAPCOM have made series after series of games trying to make you wet yourself, Batman Begins reverses the roles and puts you in the driver's seat of terror. Sure, you can say Haunting Starring Polterguy used the fear mechanic already (in a game made by EA in the Genesis days), but Polterguy didn't rock the faces of injustice with spiffy black boots.

While most peoples’ image of Batman stems from the family-time spandex romps with Adam West, this game sticks to the dark tones of the comics where Batman isn't a very nice guy and strikes fear into those who even think about jaywalking. A player's actions in the game actually register on a "reputation meter," which, when at a high level, freaks the enemies out even more and gives the player a definite advantage. And that's what makes this game fun. While you can almost always just walk up to the enemies and let your fists do the talking, there's more fun and benefit to be had by taking a look at the environment and thinking things through.

Batman Begins wouldn't be a true Batman game without all of rich-boy Bruce Wayne's fancy gadgets, and this game doesn't disappoint. The trusty batarang and grappling hook are indispensable tools of justice and are the key to most of the game's "fear events." For example, one level has you outside a pier warehouse door surrounded by armed guards. By sneaking your way into a control booth, you can hack into crane controls and guide a hanging box over one of the guards. Dropping the box of course knocks out the guard, but that's where the fun begins. All the other remaining guards will freak out, drop their weapons and run over to the scene in a panic to investigate. In their panicked state, they won't notice Batman creeping up on them to put his fist in their Adam’s apple.

However, the fear aspect doesn't just end at pre-fight benefits. When Batman performs such acts, fear is indicated not only by an onscreen meter, which rises with these actions, but by the heart rate of any enemy in the line of sight. By cranking up the fear factor, the enemy not only loses their weapons, but it effects their ability to fight - whether it be they are easy to dispatch or they are so scared they just fall to the ground to cower in fear. When the fear meter is at its max, the enemies may even hallucinate, with eerie cut scenes seen through the eyes of the spooked thug of a demonic-looking Batman marching toward them and grabbing them by the throat.

The game allows Batman to wreak havoc in a variety of different environments. These are recognizable to fans of the series, such as the Wayne Manor and Arkham Asylum, as he tracks the arch-villains The Scarecrow and Ra's al Ghul in order to thwart their schemes. The XBox version of the game carries some very nice visuals, most notably is the fluidity of Batman's cape. While it has a few occasional quirks, the cape has great animation that fits well with what's going on onscreen. There are a few animations, such as some of the climbing and shuffling animations, which look a little hokey, but everything else looks great, even the subtleties such as the mass traffic driving underneath you as you navigate high altitude buildings.

The sound in Batman Begins also plays a key role in setting the stage of the environment, whether it's the frantic music of urgency after being discovered by enemies or the ambience of the stage while Batman is sneaking around. The music cues in when it's appropriate and really stresses certain actions such as the stealth attacks. The voice acting is well done for the most part, with the cast of the movie reprising their roles for the video game.

But while many aspects of this game are rock solid, there are a few nagging issues, which mostly stem from control mechanics. The most bothersome of the issues is the targeting lock-on. The game requires a player to use the directional pad to select targets to lock-on to when the appropriate indicator appears onscreen. Not only does Batman sometimes not respond appropriately to the situation, but changing focus can also occasionally swerve the camera to a very undesirable position. And while the camera mostly keeps tabs of the action very well, there are instances where the camera can become stuck in enclosed spaces. This does not enable you to see what is below when you are coming out of a ventilation shaft, for example.

While fighting is an integral part of the game, I feel the system could have been a little more robust. When punching and kicking, Batman seems to be stuck in canned animations, which doesn't feel fluid and takes away the sense of control. While the system is better than say the melee combat from GTA, it could have been plotted out with a few more combos or some more rewarding maneuvers from more intricate inputs. While the fighting system does its job and offers jumping, vaulting, multi-target and counter maneuvers, it still feels a tad bit shallow as a lot more could have been done with it.

Lastly, the explorative game play wears a little thin as you get further into the game. Plotting ways around masses of thugs requires a lot of exploration and attention to detail and, to me, searching for a pipe on the ceiling to shuffle across five times in one level starts to become a little tedious. Thankfully, the level design in Batman Begins balances the aspects of stealth, fighting, exploring, etc., fairly well, so you won't find yourself doing the same thing repeatedly back-to-back within a level.

After a jaunt through the grit of Gotham City, it's easy to say Batman Begins is the best Batman game that has come out in a very long time - I'd say since Batman Returns for the Super Nintendo. The latest installment brings us a healthy balance of various game play styles and puts a twist on combat, which rewards you for scaring the crap out of baddies. The reactions of the enemies are priceless and urge you to continue on to see how else the Dark Night can spook thugs. That and it doesn't hurt that the driving scenes use the Burnout 3 engine and game play (Thug takedown!). Despite a few quirks, Batman Begins is a very solid effort and a fresh departure from the suckfests of the past games in the series. Be sure to pick this one up after you've watched the movie of the same name - hopefully that won't suck like the last two.

The game is rated T (Teen, recommended for ages 13+) by the ESRB.

**** out of *****

Comments (1)

Batman video games are sort of like president jokes on a late night show to a video game reviewer.

Actually, the original Batman game for the Gameboy was utterly awesome. I still play that from time to time.

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