While reviews of the film Batman Begins indicate that the caped crusader has made a turnaround of sorts on the silver screen, we can't say the same about him as a video game superhero. Yes, the new Batman Begins game from Electronic Arts and Eurocom certainly captures the fearsome new look of Batman as portrayed in the movie. And the inclusion of high-quality voice work from Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, and the other stars from the film also contributes a lot to the overall package. Unfortunately, the gameplay feels too much like a mishmash of several other well-known gaming franchises and ends up overly simplistic. While the game is still worth a look for Batman fans, you can't help but feel that an opportunity was missed to make something more special.
The game's story follows the film almost exactly. You take the role of Bruce Wayne, whose motivation for crime-fighting stems from witnessing his parents' brutal murder in Gotham City. In Batman Begins, this passion takes darker overtones, and Batman must constantly balance his internal rage with his sense of justice. The game starts off in the Himalayas, where you learn the dark arts of being a ninja from a mysterious sect. Your mentor is a man named Ducard, voiced brilliantly in the game by Liam Neeson. As you reach the end of your training under Ducard and his odd band of ninjas, you're confronted with a moral dilemma. It's there that young Bruce Wayne decides that even his brand of angry vengeance has its limits, and he won't join in the sect's vision of bloodlust as justice against crime. From there the game's story shifts to Gotham City, where you uncover the mystery behind the trafficking of a mysterious hallucinogen.
As Batman you have a variety of moves and gadgets at your disposal. Much like Splinter Cell's Sam Fisher, you can skulk quietly, which allows you to sneak up behind unsuspecting enemies and dispatch them with special stealth knockouts. These aren't stealth "kills," however, because there's no blood in this game, and no one ever dies. You also have the benefit of a radar screen in the bottom left corner, which shows you the location of your objectives and the position of all nearby enemies (even the ones you can't see). From time to time you'll also see a picture-in-picture screen pop up, which can show you nearby conversations between enemies or a security-camera view. Unfortunately, the picture-in-picture screen causes horrible slowdown in the PS2 version of the game; the GameCube and Xbox versions don't seem to suffer this problem.
Batman is also quite an acrobat. You can climb up fences, double-jump and mantle up onto ledges, swing across wires, crawl across ceiling pipes, and grapple up to high places. With these abilities available to you, many of the levels are designed with minor environmental puzzles, forcing you to look around the rooms and buildings and find pathways, such as sneaking into Arkham Asylum without alerting the armed guards outside. This gives the game somewhat of a Prince of Persia flavor at times, but since the pathways in Batman Begins are completely obvious, making your way from point A to point B isn't nearly as satisfying.
Combat in the game is predicated largely on fear--scaring your foes into letting their guard down. While the fighting system in the game lets you punch, kick, and do combination moves to fend off multiple attackers, you'll die quickly against enemies armed with guns. So when confronted with several gun-toting opponents, you need to figure out a way to even the odds in your favor. To do that, a simple fear mechanic is included in the game. Usually this involves simply blowing up nearby explosive barrels or using your batarang to knock over a conveniently located support structure to spill crates near a group of enemies.
And that's about all there is to it. There's no buildup or cleverly toying with your enemies, forcing them to separate. You simply enter a room, tap on the D pad a few times to find all the interactive items, and then sneak in position to batarang the fear trigger, which sets off a scripted sequence and always causes fear in your enemies. It all feels very mechanical and becomes less and less interesting the more you do it. There are certain parts that let you pull off scripted knockouts, such as hanging from the ceiling with your grappling hook over top of an enemy and then dropping down on him, but these also grow old quickly. Even the interrogation mechanic is dull. Certain enemies you'll be able to pick up in the air--you press a button to slug the enemy in the stomach and force him to tell you something. If he doesn't, you punch him again and again until you get the information. Lather, rinse, repeat.
When you actually are forced to fight, the game is like a standard beat-'em-up. You have a punch button, a kick button, and a special move button that does context-sensitive moves. If several enemies surround you, you'll do a helicopter kick that knocks all nearby opponents down. If you're near an exhausted enemy, the button will unleash a lengthy combo or a finishing move. The same button also unleashes a slow, unblockable punch to break through an enemy's guard. You have smoke grenades and flashbangs at your disposal, which can temporarily disorient a group of enemies, allowing you to take them on one at a time without interference. You can't take too much punishment, so the game definitely encourages, and oftentimes forces, you to do as many stealth KOs as possible and use all the fear mechanics available in an area to minimize time spent in combat.
So between all the sneaking, the climbing, the scaring, and the fighting, what else is there to do in a Batman game? Drive the batmobile of course. Two of the game's approximately 10 levels are driving missions, which are unabashedly inspired by Burnout 3's road-rage mode. You'll simply drive a linear path, plowing into enemy cars one by one (these are even called "takedowns" just like in Burnout), while picking up turbo-boost capsules. There's no real explanation for why giant, contrived blinking arrows appear to block off roads and tell you which way to turn (just like in Burnout), but hey, whatever works. These levels are easily the shortest and most uninteresting ones in an already short game, so while you aren't likely to enjoy them much, you won't have to put up with them for long.
While the gameplay is perhaps overly straightforward, the game makes up for it with pretty good presentation values. As you'd expect, all gameplay levels take place at night, and you'll find yourself fighting in a decent variety of areas, ranging from the Himalayan temple at the outset, to abandoned warehouses, Wayne Manor, and the best level in the game, Arkham Asylum. The character faces are modeled after the real-life actors, and they look extremely lifelike. You'll easily recognize Bale, Neeson, and the other stars of the film. The animation in the game can get stilted and spotty at times, but overall the character designs are good and definitely fit the game's brooding theme. The cutscenes are also almost entirely done with clips from the film.
The sound is probably the best aspect of the game, with fantastic voice acting from Bale as Bruce Wayne and Batman and from Michael Caine as Alfred. Neeson is fantastic as Ducard, and most of the other actors also contribute nicely. The music in the game is also quite good, with a dynamic soundtrack adding good atmosphere to the gameplay. Sound effects are also sharp and well rendered, between the thumps and thuds of hand-to-hand combat and the believable impact of explosions and gunfire.
Batman Begins makes for a decent companion to the film. After you spend about seven or eight hours to beat the game, you unlock numerous bonus items, such as interviews with the movie cast, galleries, and more. But as a game it doesn't quite measure up. Though it borrows numerous conventions from other great action adventure franchises, the elements don't end up coming together very well, resulting in a game that feels less than the sum of its parts.