You can sense the panic breaking out amongst gamers everywhere. Panic bred from a potential catastrophe. Yes, it's a movie licence and it's being published by EA. After the travesty on a disc that was Catwoman this would not appear to be a recipe for success. It is a pleasant surprise then that Batman Begins follows in the footsteps of its cinematic brother and coming out the better for it.
The game follows the path of the film almost exactly. You start in the role of Bruce Wayne and find yourself learning the skills required to be a ninja from a mysterious sect based in the Himalayas. This acts as a perfect excuse for a training level as you, the player, get to learn all the skills required to play the game. After this the game's focus shifts to Gotham City and an investigation into a hallucinogen that's being smuggled through the city.
Whoops. Strike that, reverse it, and start again.
Whilst the mission in the Himalayas does a more than adequate job of familiarising the player with the controls required, the game decides to start off with a small mission that actually occurs towards the end of the game's timeline. This introduction is almost completely nonsensical as it teaches only some basic techniques that the next mission does a better job of explaining anyway. It's also incredibly confusing in terms of narrative for those who may not have seen the film. This sequence just comes across as a total mess. The shifting of time is a bold attempt at bringing a filmic technique to gaming, but unfortunately fails badly.
It's worth noting at this point that the production values here are absolutely superb. The visuals in particular are stunning. At one point I found myself standing on the perimeter wall of the Arkham Asylum and simply admiring the view across the Gotham river. A true moment of video game beauty. It's also to the game's benefit that the full cast of the film have given their voices to Batman Begins. It cannot be understated how great a difference it makes to hear the likes of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Christian Bale joining you on your journey through the game.
Batman Begins clearly draws its main influence from Splinter Cell. A couple of direct hits from a gun will see Batman cut to ribbons and the 'game over' screen appears faster than you can say "holy stealth 'em up Batman!" The environment must be used to circumnavigate enemies; drain pipes can be climbed, hooks grappled and ledges sneaked along. Once in a more favourable position enemies can be dispatched in two main ways. Batman can sneak up behind enemies and perform a stealth kill of sorts. Despite the game's 12-rating from the BBFC there is no blood, goons instead magically vanish from where they lie after a stiff punch to the face. Alternatively, certain events can be triggered, causing enemies to panic with fear and drop their weapons. These are always triggered in the same way, turning a seemingly non-linear experience into quite a linear one. It is very much to the game's credit, however, that it manages to disguise this. Figuring out an effective way to get past an area leaves a buzz of satisfaction and, much like Activision's Spider-Man 2, really leaves a feeling of being the superhero. Unfortunately, once the enemies drop their weapons the game becomes very unsatisfying.
Combat is simplistic to say the least. One button punches, another kicks, and another provides context sensitive special moves. That's it. No really. That's it. A lot of the time I found myself fighting, not for the thrill of the action, but to get through to the next set piece. The camera has a tendency to get stuck in inappropriate places leaving you open to attack from behind. Fortunately this isn't anything that can't be stopped by a bout of Track And Field esque button bashing, and Flash bangs and smoke grenades are provided to help buy some time in frantic sections. The game is also quite generous with its distribution of check points, meaning that a significant amount of progress will never be lost.
One of Batman Begins' strongest points is its level design. Despite the entire game taking place at night, it manages to create a unique atmosphere for every one of its 12 levels. From the Gotham Docks to the monorail finale, every location is strikingly different. The highlight of the package is the mammoth mission that takes place within the confines of the Arkham Asylum. You find yourself moving from the outside, through windows to the inside. I can only compare it to the temple from God of War, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Being a Batman game it would be impossible to get through without having to suffer the inevitable Batmobile sections, and Batman Begins is no exception. There are two levels where you drive through the streets of Gotham and they lean heavily on Burnout 3 for their influence, even going as far as having other vehicles eliminated with "Takedowns". Speed is gained by collecting power-ups that appear on the road which in turn fill up a turbo bar. The driving feels like the kind of thing you would expect to find in a petrol station arcade machine and really does try its best to spoil the experience of the package as a whole.
Batman Begins is a solid effort that should be commended for trying to become the definitive comic book video game. Unfortunately, it seems a bit confused as to what type of game it wants to be - trying lots of different ideas, but not doing any of them to a very high level. Despite this, Batman Begins is pretty much a must play (even if only a rent) for any Batman fan. The game features a whole host of interviews with the cast and crew of the game to round off a nice package, though I can't see it being of too much interest to those not impressed by the adventures of the Dark Knight.