Growing pains

  Batman begins with promise
By  |  October 24, 2005

 Batman Begins
Published by Electronic Arts/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment | Developed by Eurocom/Electronic Arts | For PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Nintendo GameCube | Rated T for Teen

"Criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts." That was Batman’s credo from day one, but it was never captured on film as accurately as in Batman Begins. The video game gets it right too, presenting a stealth-action game in which Batman’s physical dominance of his opponents depends on his first using fear to penetrate their mental defenses.

Stealing from the best, the makers of Batman Begins have drawn inspiration from the Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid series. Batman must keep to the shadows and remain silent, aided by tools similar to Sam Fisher’s optic cable and lockpick and Solid Snake’s area radar. Most of the gameplay has Batman sneaking around, whether by climbing up pipes and fences, shimmying on wires over gaps, or creeping through vents.

Batman Begins’ biggest departure from other stealth-action games is an "area fear" meter. When enemies are in groups, armed, or otherwise emboldened, they present a formidable challenge to Batman. (Gunfire makes short work of the Caped Crusader — this isn’t a game you can slug your way through.) When they’re afraid, they drop their weapons and even try to escape.

The fear dynamic is well executed throughout. Skulking through the shadows, you’ll overhear criminals spreading rumors about "the Batman" and claiming not to be afraid of him. Then when you initiate one of the many scripted, fear-enhancing scenarios, such as knocking out scaffolding supports or causing a gas explosion, the thugs will panic. The gameplay problem is that each scenario presents only one option for advancing. You can’t throw a Batarang unless the game has provided a target, and the game also aims for you. Don’t think you can take out individual lights or pick off foes one by one unless the game says you can. There’s just not much room for creativity. And though Batman has several context-sensitive fighting moves, like a ground attack or a multi-attack, combat is an inelegant, button-mashing affair. None of this does much for Batman Begins’ replay value, particularly because it’s a short game.

There are, of course, two levels in which you get to drive the re-engineered Batmobile. Here again Batman Begins delivers a mostly pleasant surprise. EA would seem to have ported the code from its own Burnout 3: the Batmobile scenarios provide slow-motion takedowns (it even says "takedown" on the screen) and a convincing sense of speed. The blue spheres representing nitro boosts that adorn the streets of Gotham detract from the gritty verisimilitude established in the on-foot levels, but the vehicular missions’ only real shortcoming is their brevity.

More disappointing are the two levels at which you play as Bruce Wayne. Bruce lacks many of Batman’s cooler capabilities — it’s annoying to get deep into the game and discover that things like gliding and grappling have been taken away. Who wants to slog through castrated imitations of the Batman levels? You’d have more fun pretending to be a drunken playboy offending his party guests.

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