Batman is an incredible superhero who has had nothing but bad luck in video games. His streak of misfortune rivals those of Star Trek and The Simpsons. Here you have a master detective, nearly undefeatable martial artist, and deeply disturbed psyche with a rogue's pantheon of even-more-disturbed classic villains just waiting for a chance to blow him away in some spectacular citywide Armageddon, and we get tripe like Acclaim's Batman Forever. I guess the temptation to let the license sell itself is too great for most developers to resist.
To the Batpoles!
Because of his spotted past in the console wars, I was tempted to let Batman grapple off into that long, good night. However, the combination of developer Ubi Soft and the style of Batman: the Animated Series convinced me to give the Dark Knight another chance. And rest assured, Vengeance is every bit as smart as the cartoon. Stylistically speaking, everything in this title is handled with loving care and complete faithfulness to the original, from the "Dark Deco" look to the authentic voices.
Of course, cartoons are one thing, video games another. As an interactive experience, there is a lot here that is disappointing. What could have been a fresh, immersive bit of role playing turns out to be a rather formulaic run through a graphically impressive but ultimately unknowable setting. Gotham City remains just beyond arm's length, beckoning the player to explore, but never truly allowing access. The game holds you by the hand and leads you through a linear, strictly scripted adventure. It is maddening to look out at the horizon and realize just how little real estate you get to tread in this game. Guardrails that seem easy to jump over really represent invisible walls beyond which you are restricted from exploring. And those invisible walls are everywhere.
You guide Batman from one encounter to the next almost on rails, with the bare minimum of environmental interaction. There is little thrill of discovery after a scene loads or a boss appears, as you just forge ahead taking the prearranged twists in the path, turning the prescribed corners. Had this been a 16-bit platformer, we wouldn't have a problem, but in these days of sprawling adventures set in large, explorable locales, you can't help but be let down. When Bruce Wayne goes undercover on a fact-finding mission, you are put into a little square area where you simply have to avoid some slow-panning searchlights, then you enter a door and have to jump over some boxes while avoiding a couple of small fire-breathing toys. Nothing Batman couldn't do with his cape and cowl on. There is a plot device - donning a disguise - but not the gameplay it demands, since that would involve leaving the rails.
This kind of wasted potential recurs throughout the game. Batman: Vengeance is ambitious in scope, incorporating exploration, puzzle solving, hand-to-hand combat, flying, driving, and platforming. Unfortunately, every one of these elements is significantly flawed.
The flying and driving scenes are laughable. Anyone hoping to zoom through the air/streets narrowly escaping death while engaging the enemy in all-out war had better take a pill. These chases, viewed from a dull third-person perspective, are barely functional and are notable only for how underwhelming they are. If you mess up, you get knocked back a few centimeters so you can try again. The Batplane can be stopped by a highway sign and the Batmobile can't chase a crappy Volkswagen Bug knockoff without resorting to a grappling hook to turn corners. Even then, you need to set off a bomb in the enemy's car to make him stop.
To engage an enemy in fisticuffs, you walk up to him and either attack or wait to be attacked. This contact initiates a mode reminiscent of Z-targeting in Zelda, where Batman slowly circles his opponent. You can string together some rudimentary combos, but the engine is hurt by the lack of precision jumping moves and of throws and holds that do not require a full power meter and special button combination. No one is expecting a deep combat system, but it would be nice if it didn't feel like Batman is fighting with a 200-pound weight around his neck. Thankfully, the fistfights are kept to a reasonable number.
Including puzzles was another good idea poorly executed. The brainteasers here feel like rejects from Myst, especially one lock on a warehouse door that has spinning number wheels with an eye, an ear, and a pair of lips drawn underneath (shudder). A couple of the other puzzles involve hitting switches (yawn). The first and most interesting set of puzzles has you connecting colored tubes to let a liquid flow throw. It plays a lot like a Rubik's puzzle with all the color matching and cube turning. Unfortunately, the downhill slide from there is pronounced and the last "mindbender" is so pathetic it has to be experienced. It's ripped straight from children's learning software, and any first grader stumped by it for even a minute should be driven out of town in shame.
"Where does he get those wonderful toys?"
Since there are so many different play modes in Vengeance, the controls change according to what situation you are in. During normal walking around, Batman is controlled with the analog stick. The A button is used for jumping and gliding, B is used for punching, and X makes Batman crouch and wrap himself in his cape for some extra protection. Y is used primarily to open doors and get you up and down ladders, but it is also used to handcuff bad guys and hug the wall for stealth action. The L button puts you in touch with Batgirl, who apparently exists only to sit, fully costumed, at a computer station in the Batcave until called out on a mission.
Pressing R will switch the game into first-person mode. From there, you can manipulate the C-stick to look around and press the A button to use an object from the Dark Knight's inventory. You can cycle through the available options in real time or you can pause the game while you select. As expected, Batman's preferred arsenal consists of Batarangs (in regular and electric flavors), nets, a grappling hook, and remotely activated explosives. The Bat Grapple can only be used in select areas. You cannot just fly around at will. Rather, you wait until you see a flashing Bat Signal and then shoot at a preordained spot. The game is even nice enough to point the way with an on-screen arrow. Uh, thanks for the "help", Ubi Soft.
In a fight, A becomes the kick button. As you clear levels, you earn points that unlock power moves that you then activate by pressing the L trigger in conjunction with another button. There are five such moves, but you will probably only unlock four of them your first time out. Unfortunately, if you break out of combat and then attempt a power move, your L button will access your communicator and Batman will stand there looking at a blank screen like an idiot while the enemy prepares to knock him totally senseless. If you are put in a hold (common thugs have them, but the Bat doesn't - go figure), shake the analog pad rapidly back and forth. Be warned, though, the game is very picky in this area. As a result, I watched the surreal scene of the puny Joker taking out Batman with a series of mounted punches while I vainly shook my controller and cursed loudly.
As a rental, this may be "Game of the Year" for comic book fans, but its 8 to 10 hours of gameplay are not distinguished enough to warrant a purchase at the release price. Collectors may be interested in the animation, since you can view animated cut scenes on request once you unlock them, but most gamers will be left a little cold. If you must own it, consider waiting for a price drop. We who realize the potential of this license must send a message to the 'powers that be' that we want a Batman game worth the name. This title is a huge step in the right direction, but it's not nearly enough.
If you are a major fan of the animated series, Batman: Vengeance is a dream come true. Besides a slight jaggedness in some lines and questionable lip-synching, this game looks and sounds just like the cartoon. If you are looking for a challenging, rewarding Batman game with which to spend some quality time, keep waiting.
· · · Nick