Batman Begins Hands-On

We slink through the darkness of EA's film-inspired return to bat action.

The highly anticipated Batman Begins is out next week, and it marks the first cinematic appearance of the Dark Knight sure to please hardcore fans of the comic book since at least 1992's Batman Returns. (C'mon, those Joel Schumacher movies don't exactly count.) Just in time for the release of the movie, Electronic Arts is readying an action game starring the Caped Crusader for all three major platforms, and we just got an advance build to see how it's shaping up. We're pleased to report that on first impression, Batman Begins furthers that recent, baffling trend of movie-based action games being, well, surprisingly good.

At first glance, Batman Begins looks like a simple character-driven third-person action game with heavy beat-'em-up elements. Indeed, there's a lot of that going on here: You've got punch and kick buttons that you can use to form combos, and when an enemy has been pummeled enough, you'll be able to do a flashy finishing move that makes the camera change to a cinematic angle. You've also got a spate of tools to work with, such as a grappling hook that will zip you up to greater heights and some electronic gadgets, like a hacking tool that will let you determine access codes and the like. The game uses a nice unified targeting system to highlight both enemies and environmental points of interest, so you always know what you can interact with in a given area.

In spite of all that, you might be surprised to learn that from a design standpoint, Batman Begins is largely a stealth game. You've got a radar that shows the range of sound you're making in terms of a circle around the dot representing your character. Enemies are represented with dots that are color-coded based on what kind of weapon they have, and you'll see a cone that indicates each enemy's field of view. You can put Batman into "stealth mode" at the touch of a button, which will make him walk around all stooped over and cause him to not generate any sound with his movements. This will let you get up behind single enemies and perform a single-button stealth kill, which is pretty easy to pull off as long as you're not too sloppy about getting too close.

Batman Begins melds this stealth gameplay with an innovative fear mechanic whereby you can essentially make enemies easier to defeat by scaring the living daylights out of them. You can do that in at least a couple of ways that we've discovered so far. For one, that radar display is useful for indicating which enemies are armed with what, because you'll naturally want to take down the guy with the Uzi before the guys who are just packing knuckles. We saw some instances where performing a stealth kill on the armed enemy would make his lackeys back away in fear, which allowed us to rough them up without a whole lot of opposition.

The game's unique fear mechanic mixes well with its stealth and beat-'em-up elements.

The other way we've found to strike fear into Gotham's criminal element is by manipulating specific elements of the environment. For instance, in a sewer area we were able to covertly fiddle with some valves to blow several pipes open, which spooked the thugs we were after and made them drop their guns. We were then able to move in and take them out hand-to-hand without a lot of difficulty. Only once so far have we used part of the environment to actually kill an enemy--by using a crane to drop some cargo on him.

Much more often, though, we've simply caused some kind of havoc in order to put the fear into our enemies and then moved in to take advantage of the situation, settling matters with punches and kicks. Batman Begins is very much a stealth game in one particular aspect: If you try to jump a group of armed thugs without any preparation, they'll gun you down without a thought--and it takes only a couple of shots before it's game over. Apparently the bat armor isn't all that tough after all.

Tell All Your Friends About Me

EA has wisely removed the clips of the film itself from our build of Batman Begins (though they'll purportedly be in the final version), and our unfinished build of the game simply contains a list of some playable levels that you can access from a menu, with few in-game cinematics available. So in other words, it's hard to get a sense of the film's (and thus the game's) storyline from this version. We've played several levels from various parts of the movie, such as the famous Arkham Asylum and several nondescript, dingy areas of Gotham City. There's even a training level set in the Himalayan monastery where Bruce Wayne apparently undergoes much of his training (as glimpsed in the movie's recent trailers).

A number of batmobile-powered driving levels will help spice up the game's action.

It's also certainly worth mentioning that EA has managed to snag every major actor from the movie to reprise his or her role in the game. The list is certainly impressive: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Katie Holmes, and even Morgan Freeman--how many of them did you ever expect to hear or see in a video game? On a technical level, the use of stars this big all but ensures quality voice-overs, and there's also a certain geek appeal to ripping through the streets of Gotham in the new tanklike batmobile and hearing Morgan Freeman's dulcet tones come rumbling over the radio.

Speaking of which, Batman Begins also has some driving stages that (perhaps not so shockingly) play a lot like Criterion's Burnout. These are forgivingly arcade-style to the extreme, since you don't really have to worry about varying your acceleration or braking to get around corners. You've got a nitrous accelerator that you can lean on at any time, and there are tons of pickups around each level to replenish it. You can also make the batmobile hop, which looks a little comical but hasn't presented itself as a practical function as yet.

As you speed toward your objective, the cars of bad guys and corrupt cops are marked with little floating triangles, and you'll have to smash into them or run them off the road to get--no lie--a "thug takedown." Sound like Burnout? It does, but that's fine by us, since the latest iteration of that crash-happy series is one of the best things to come down the pike in quite a while. From the piecemeal setup of this build of the game, it's hard to tell how much of the full game will be made up by these driving sequences, though it's important to note that the two such levels on offer here include what seem like fairly important story developments.

Bonus for diehard movie fans: The full cast of the movie lends its voices and likenesses to Batman Begins.

Batman Begins is quite a nice-looking game, even on the PS2, which is typically the most underpowered of consoles. It seems to be using a graphical style similar to last year's Catwoman, with lots of soft lighting, high-contrast effects, and other niceties going on. The in-game likenesses of the actors are also shockingly accurate to their onscreen counterparts, so it's nice to see that the solid gameplay has been matched by similar production values. The game is scheduled to ship next Tuesday, just one day before the opening of the movie, so you'll be able to get your bat-fix real soon. We'll have a full review soon, so stay tuned.

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