I should start out by letting you know that I’m a big fan of Batman in all his incarnations (well, most of them at any rate). I watched The Animated Series, and own several cels from it, as well as Batman Beyond, and the new Justice League. I also own both Frank Miller “Dark Knight” works (though somewhat regret that DK2 ever saw paper). And I sometimes catch the old live-action series on Nick at Night.
Zowee! They don’t write TV theme songs like that anymore. For children of the 60’s like myself, Batman: Vengeance is based, not upon the man-in-tights Adam West jaunt, but rather the 90’s animated series, which really had more in common with the dark Frank Miller graphic novel. I was hoping that Batman: Vengeance would give me a chance to kind of experience a Batman cartoon from the inside. Well, in many ways this console port succeeds, but in a couple of crucial ways it fails, and the result is often more aggravating than fun to play. Disappointment abounds. And that’s a fan talking. The average Batman neophyte is probably going to completely hate this game.
I’ve got to start off by giving the kudos. The graphics are perfect, not so much in the eye-popping manner of Unreal Tournament 2003, but it all looks exactly like an episode of the cartoon. The moody landscapes with splashes of garish neon, the darkness and shadow – all that translates very well from the console. Maybe some scenes are a little too dark, as you can sometimes have trouble seeing that doorway or ladder in the shadows, but I’m willing to cut them some slack in the name of atmosphere. Dialog likewise is snappy, all voiced by the actors from the cartoon series, and the sound effects could as well have been lifted from Batman:TAS episodes, and probably were. The music is rousing, exciting, dismal, suspenseful – all good stuff. And the plot, penned by writers from the series, is far more solid than I think you usually see in what essentially amounts to a 3rd person fighting game with the occasional driving sequence thrown in. The FMV cutscenes are heaps of fun to watch. Thus ends the kudos.
If I had to pick the one thing that really fails in this game, and is probably the weak link in many of these 3rd person games, it’s the camera. The damned thing just doesn’t know where to point. Occasionally it settles on the standard ‘above and behind’ location, but I’ve run along a ledge and taken a corner, and the camera had swirled sickeningly around the corner after me to kind of run along side, or sometimes ahead of me looking back so I’m running at the camera. Neither one of those is letting me know where I’m going, or more importantly, when the ledge ends. And I once came to a stop in a dead-end hallway, and the camera circled a full 360 around me, as if it had no idea where it wanted to go. It finally, I s**t you not, ended up looking past what I’m pretty sure was my right ear at the wall next to me. Beautiful. The game designers acknowledge that their camera work is awful by giving you a camera reset key, which returns it to the ‘above and behind’ view. Two problems that I see with that. One, if you know your camera sucks, you should keep working on it until it improves. Two, even after hitting the camera reset key, I found that sometimes the camera wouldn’t “stick” – it would return to behind you, but then wander off again to find some other view that it liked better. Seriously, bring a Dramamine. The game has a first person view for using Batarangs, the Batgrappler, and other Batgizmos, but you can’t do many of the practical things like jumping or fighting in the first person view, so it’s not as functional as I could have hoped.
And while I’m on the subject, Batman has got a host of Bat-doodads in his utility belt, which is as it should be, but the usage of them in the game is limited. The Batgrappler, which Batman uses in the cartoon to climb just about anything or span the distance between two buildings, can only be used in specific places in the game, when a grappler insignia flashes on the screen, and even then can only be fired at a specific spot. The restriction on the usage is frustrating, and makes the game feel sort of puzzle based. I’ve got to jump here, but can Batgrapple there – it’s terribly arbitrary. Batarangs can fortunately be used just about anywhere to knock the gun out a thug’s hand, and that’s cool. You have to use Batcuffs to restrain a thug after you knock him out, or he’ll get back up and come at you again no matter how many times you beat the snot out of him, and I think that’s pretty stupid. Other stuff in the utility belt (remote charges, electric Batarangs, and such) can be used anywhere, but were obviously included for a particular situation or to solve a particular puzzle. One interesting side note, that really doesn’t have anything to do with Batstuff but I can’t think of where else to stick it, is that Batman can take a slew of gunshots and even several shotgun blasts at point blank range without dying. He’s one tough Bat-motha.
The controls are clearly set up for gamepad, and I don’t have one. The alternative let me assign keys on the keyboard, which worked OK, but I had a little trouble controlling direction using the keys, and I found I would frequently pass guys I was trying to fight. From there I moved to the joystick, but my joystick only has two buttons, and I need four for the game, so I’m using the joystick, and a couple of keys. Oh, and the game for some reason defaults to the mouse for the first person view, so now I’m using the keyboard, mouse, and joystick to play this game. Running and jumping, and then gliding using the cape is a lot tougher than it should be, and the same button that makes you punch also makes you creep along a wall or climb a ladder if you’re close to one. So I’m punching walls when I want to climb a ladder, and creeping against a wall in mid-fight. It’s kind of a mess, and I should point out that I didn’t have this problem with The Thing. If you’ve got your heart set on Batman: Vengeance, you might want to pick up a gamepad to go with it.
True to the average console game (though again, The Thing wasn’t like this) the game autosaves at preset points in each level. So if you go through nine tough jumps, any one of which can lead to your death if you miss, and beat up a few goons, and then miss the tenth jump, it’s right back to the beginning of the level for you. And you’re going to have to go through those exact same jumps and goons to get to the tenth jump; absolutely nothing changes play to play. So much fun, you want to bang your head against your monitor. I’m sure this comes as no surprise to regular console players, but us PC players like to save early and often, call us what names you will.
The presentation and polishing of Batman: Vengeance is all first-rate. It’s the crappy camera management and the twisted control scheme (without the game pad) that make it more of a chore to play than it should be. I finished the game because I really wanted to know how the story ended, but when it was all over I felt like I should get a “I completed Batman: Vengeance” T-shirt for all the work I had done. The next game that I review had better be better, or I’ll be exacting a little vengeance of my own.