I’m about halfway into the new Batman game, and I already love it.
And it’s not because it’s actually a great game. The thing is clunky in twenty different ways, not in the least of which is that Batman can’t actually jump, which is a usually sure sign that at some point in the middle of production the developers had to make some hard choices about time, money and a “truly free roaming environment” and ultimately decided that that roaming free is something better left for ethnic gangsters running around inside of full scale recreations of modern American cities. But Batman interacts with things well, and it isn’t broken, for the most part. Eidos clearly allowed the team to polish up what they had until it, well not gleamed—until it did whatever it is that dull metal does when you polish it up very well.
To be honest I wasn’t much expecting to like the story either. I’m a huge fan of the Batman Animated series. In retrospect it wasn’t just a seminal work for television Animation, but it actually did an amazing job of cementing the fundamental character of Batman as a media property—certainly more-so than the nonsensical (but successful) movie version of the sixties TV show that proceeded it. But more often than not writers of literary media end up coming off as parodies of themselves when they create something interactive, but Paul Dini, the heart and soul of the Animated Series works wonders here.
They game also uses two of the iconic voices of the series, Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hammil (The Joker), to recreate the Batman and the Joker, respectively. But these aren’t the same versions of the characters you may remember. They’ve been “re-imagined” into character designs that reek of the kind of “grit” that usually tends to be a clear sign that the creators are desperately to convince people to ignore the substance of their product. It didn’t work in Gotham Knights, last year’s anime “prequel” to Batman Returns. Conroy played Batman there, and it was awful.
So, as you can imagine, my expectations were fairly low going in, but against all odds it works. Everybody involved seems as if they were working together to make something good, and what comes out is completely unique. There’s a hint of pure nostalgic fanboy love without it reeking of it like an unwashed forty-year-old in a ill-fitting costume.
Ultimately what you get here is a fairly straightforward Batman story, no matter how many times the Dark Knight growls “No Jim, this time it’s different.” The Joker has turned Arkham Asylum into his playpen, giving him a chance to put all the series greatest (and not so great) villains to work for him. The closed environment is a smart choice, and it means that The Joker can get on the intercoms/video screens and constantly taunt Batman without the player feeling like he’s being held back from kicking some clown ass purely for game reasons, although early on it does do exactly that early on.
But what makes it game work so well is that it’s great Batman. It understands how to use the license in a way that allows the player’s expectations to pave over all the clunky bits. And that, frankly, is fucking amazing, because if there’s one place where games usually fail spectacularly it’s in expressing dramatic expectation as gameplay.
And despite some clunky control choices, everything you do feels Batman-y. From your “detective vision” that lets you find needles in haystacks, to being able to hang upside-down underneath gargoyles (de rigeur for the well appointed nuthatch) and pluck unsuspecting bad-guys into the air., to the ability to dodge and weave between multiple enemies. Encounters in this game are tactical, fast-moving and fun. It’s closer in experience to a game like Tony Hawk than Street Fighter, and manages to pick up on many of the same notes that made Wolverine such a blast to play.
It’s also got lots of crawling, climbing, and general exploring (but no jumping), along with a few (moderately frustrating) puzzles. And even thought it’s a little linear, with a number of rooms that seem to have been designed only to be entered and exited by air-duct, it keeps moving at a brisk pace.
And like any good modern hardcore title the world also feels stuffed. There’s lots of goodies to find (courtesy of the Riddler) along with a (very) light RPG style upgrade system that seems to have managed to get right what it is that other games, such as Prototype got wrong.
In fact it’s like Prototype in a lot of ways, except that it works. Prototype was close, but in the end it was the attempt to push all that into a truly free-roaming world that seemed to kill it. Maybe it’s a good thing that Batman can’t jump after all.