Good afternoon, ladies and gentlecritics. I present to you my second TEM Review! This one should be interesting (it's a negative review of a game that the Critic ranked highly – this should be fun!)
I also put considerably more effort into the video review, so if you have about 17 minutes to spare, I would recommend watching it.
Without further ado, here is my review of the GameCube version of Batman Vengeance.
Batman Vengeance (GameCube)
VERDICT: 2/5 (Mostly Negative)
Video Review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jq0V4gMZTE
Comic book characters are notoriously tricky to portray in video games, and Batman is no exception. This is a crime-fighter who hates guns, refuses to kill his enemies, and relies as much on gadgets, stealth, and detective work as he does on his fists.
It's no wonder, then, that for a good fifteen years, developers of licensed Batman games ignored what made Batman unique as a character, and focused on making a good game first before tacking on the Caped Crusader as an afterthought. I mean, you can't tell me that Sunsoft's NES Batman game or Batman Returns for Sega Genesis would have lost that special something if they had been about, say, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Thankfully, the 6th generation of consoles brought enough horsepower to handle a Batman game that could make players feel like they were playing as a comic-accurate version of the Dark Knight. According to my research, the game we'll be reviewing today, 2001's Batman Vengeance, was only the second serious attempt to give comic fans not just a good video game, but an authentic Batman experience, and led to the creation of several more titles that culminated in Rocksteady's legendary Batman: Arkham series.
Unfortunately, while Batman Vengeance is an important game, it's not a very good one.
STORY AND PRESENTATION
Batman Vengeance is set in the same universe as the 1997 animated show The New Batman Adventures, and takes advantage of the license for its storytelling style and aesthetics. Mark Hamill, Arleen Sorkin, Tara Strong and the legendary Kevin Conroy all return, among many others, to reprise their roles from the show. The game uses cel-shading to replicate the feel of New Batman Adventures' art style. The character models show their age, particularly around the mouth and eyes, along with a few lighting errors and some blatantly unfinished cutscenes. And since this is a cel-shaded game from the pre-Wind Waker days, it has that distinct "molded clay" look, especially in full motion video. There's also a weird, selective motion blur that shows up for no real reason during certain cutscenes.
Still, despite these awkward issues, Batman Vengeance does a passable job of emulating the look of the TV show on which it's based.
Speaking of television, the story is split into five episodes. Episode 1 starts off with Batman rescuing a woman named Mary Flynn, whose son Toby has been kidnapped by the Joker and is being held ransom for $5 million. It then turns out that "Mary" was really Harley Quinn in disguise and the whole thing was a trap so Joker could kill Batman on his own terms. Batman wins the fight, but with Joker hanging on for dear life over some broken scaffolding, he tricks Batman into letting go of his hand, sending the Clown Prince of Crime tumbling down to his apparent death. Stricken by grief, Harley seemingly quits her life of crime. Batman, however, remains unconvinced that Joker is really dead, and uses a tracking device he gave "Mary" earlier in the game to monitor Harley's activities.
The next two episodes have Batman stopping dastardly crimes by Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy respectively, while episodes four and five tie the three story arcs together and reveal how The Joker was behind everything, because let's be honest, this is the Joker we're talking about. Alas, the self-contained first three episodes are definitely superior to the final two, where the storytelling starts to get a bit muddied. Episode four is a complete genre shift where Batman narrates half the episode in flashback as if he were on a film noir set, which is about as jarring as you'd expect.
After a brief jump in quality which we'll talk about later, the budget really starts to fall apart during the second half of Episode Four, as well as all of Episode Five. There's less use of full-motion video, in-game cutscenes sometimes last less than five seconds, and there's a disjointedness to the story that makes it painfully obvious that Ubisoft Montreal had to cut some major corners to get the game out in time.
Unfortunately, while Freeze and Poison Ivy's plans are decent Saturday Morning cartoon villain schemes that are dumb in just the right way, when we eventually find out what Joker's been up to behind the scenes, it's just – nothing. Joker claims that he wants to burn Gotham to the ground and frame it on Batman, but when I went back and looked through all the cutscenes, I could only find one instance of either Joker or Harley trying to frame Batman for any sort of crime, and that was just an excuse for the police to chase him. It's a classic case of Joker hijacking a perfectly acceptable story, and you can bet that's not the last time I'll be saying that about a Batman game.
However, despite these flaws, the actual writing is passable, and the voice acting is good enough that even the cheesiest lines sound oddly endearing.
If there's one word I would use to describe the feel of Batman Vengeance's gameplay, it's fractured. The controls are usually either too sensitive or not sensitive enough, and shifts in gameplay occur with almost audible clunks. There are occasional minigames to break up the action, but they don't feel rewarding or entertaining. For instance there's a set of three Pipe Dream clones in Episode 2 where you have to line up electrical currents of the same colour, and while it's genuinely challenging on its own, any tension is sapped away because the game gives you a whopping fifteen minutes to complete all three puzzles, which is way more than you need. There's also a valve-cranking setpiece in Episode 4, which has you undertake the incredible cognitive challenge of holding down the Y button until the paint on the wheel matches colours with the light. Riveting.
As for the on-foot gameplay, it's a decidedly mixed bag. Movement control is awkward, and the camera tends to focus exclusively on Batman's back, making navigation in tight corners very awkward. Platforming in particular is tiresome, especially in one thankfully isolated sequence in Episode 3 involving "weighted" platforms that have terrible simulated physics. At least the freefall minigame, where you have to save NPCs from falling or jumping to their deaths, is pretty fun, even though it's criminally underused.
Stealth initially appears to be an option when dealing with the worst criminal scum that Gotham has to offer, as Batman has the ability to hug walls for cover and even use a stealth takedown on enemies. However, opportunities to actually use stealth are few and far between, as most enemies from Episode 2 onward will attack Batman as soon as he enters a room, and Episode 3's enemies are only vulnerable to the electric Batarang. In fact, some enemies are even programmed to attack Batman as soon as he crosses a certain trigger on the floor. It's incredibly frustrating how much stealth is emphasized in the tutorial when you barely get the chance to use it.
And so, the majority of the time you'll be fighting thugs in hand-to-hand combat. The melee system is simple enough – you walk up to an enemy, the game switches to a "fighting" camera, and the brawl begins. You can block, punch, and kick, and eventually you unlock the ability to do special unblockable moves which can be performed after building up a power meter. The fisticuffs are, in theory, rather manageable, but some unfortunate issues crop up. First, the game occasionally breaks out of combat mode for no particular reason, which would already be annoying by itself if it weren't for how special moves worked. You see, at least on the GameCube version, the L trigger has two different functions – one to call Batgirl for advice, and the other as a button you hold in conjunction with an attack button for a special move. If you're trying to perform a special move when the game randomly decides to break you out of combat, you'll be left helpless for a few seconds as Batman puts his Bat-Communicator away, allowing the AI to get in a cheap shot. Speaking of the AI, enemies can be quite aggressive – their moves are hardly telegraphed and they seem to block at random, meaning there's no real rhythm or flow to the combat. Even worse, later enemies have the ability to wrap Batman in a bear-hug, a move which cannot be blocked or dodged, meaning you just have to tank it while you wiggle the stick to break free.
And since the game is trying to make you play more like Batman, when enemies go down, they're not dead, just unconscious, and will get back up after a few minutes. This is where one of the more annoying gameplay mechanics comes into play: the Batcuffs. Enemies will continue to get back up and fight unless Batman handcuffs them while they're down with a press of the Y button. Of course, Batman's supply of handcuffs is limited, and he never has enough of the things to subdue every enemy in the game. Thankfully, you can grab extra handcuffs scattered in hidden areas in certain levels. Unfortunately, the Heads-Up Display doesn't show an ammo counter for the batcuffs until AFTER you've used one, meaning that in order to check how many batcuffs you have in your inventory, you need to pause the game and go into the Items menu, which completely kills the flow of the game.
Speaking of Items, what would Batman be without his wonderful toys? In Vengeance, many different gadgets are usable, like Batarangs, a grappling hook, flash bombs for getting out of fights, and even a remotely detonated EMP. However, almost every gadget can only be used when entering an awkward first-person view. The first-person controls are actually okay when moving around – in fact, there were points where it was more responsive than the regular controls – but trying to line up a grapple shot or a Batarang throw is unbelievably awkward. Other gadgets vary in their usefulness. The stunner, for example, serves no real purpose, since an enemy who's hit by it will just fall on the ground and is completely invincible while getting up from the stun. On the other hand, the deployable net, which is essentially a one-hit knockout weapon, is very useful, but it's so rare you almost never get the chance to use it, and by the time you find a healthy supply of them in Episode Five, you're fighting enemies who are immune to nets, so again, why bother?
The lack of usefulness for the gadgets is also what makes the boss fight against Mr. Freeze so disappointing. While every boss has its problems, the Freeze fight is probably the worst. He can only be defeated by using the remote EMP, a gadget that was never required before and is only ever used one other time after this fight. Even worse, you have to lure Freeze underneath explosive tanks which are not only moving vertically on a conveyor, but also horizontally, meaning that sometimes you'll just have to waste your shot because the tank you rigged to explode will have disappeared or is no longer lined up properly to damage Freeze. It's one of the most tedious sections of a game that's already tiresome to play.
The vehicle sections are just as bad. These mercifully brief action setpieces have you controlling the Batplane and Batmobile while chasing down an enemy vehicle. The Batmobile has you chasing Poison Ivy's car through the streets of Gotham, while you dodge projectiles and press either the L or R buttons in accordance with the arrows appearing on screen. It somehow manages to be both incredibly boring and very unfair. Meanwhile, the Batplane chase is a tedious flight through Gotham skyscrapers and above a highway, which would have been much more engaging if the game didn't make it an instant Game Over condition whenever the Batplane hits something that slows it down...and this includes obstacles as innocent as directional signs on the highway.
None of these, however, can compare to the first level of Episode 4, which is one of the worst levels I have played in a very long time. You're tasked with infiltrating the Gotham Gasworks, which are two incredibly long sequences with large, multi-objective maps, very few health pickups, and only one checkpoint in the middle. To make matters worse, enemies have significantly increased AI compared to the third episode, they're all equipped with machine guns and can stunlock you with the unblockable bear-hug whenever they want. I actually found the best strategy was to exploit a glitch I found, by getting them to fall into bottomless pits. So much for Batman's no-kill rule!
That's not to say that I hated everything about this game, however. One level later in Episode 4, where you're being chased by a SWAT team through the rooftops of Gotham City and eventually take down a helicopter, is genuinely fantastic, and was by far the most entertaining part of the game. I also liked the brief levels where you get to play as Bruce Wayne, seen here disguised as a stoned Russian bearfighter. You have to sneak around a warehouse with a crazy passcode system straight out of Raccoon City, navigate an interesting jumping sequence without the ability to glide, and solve a clever door-switch puzzle. That being said, there was one sequence during his stealth level where I opened a door and the searchlight outside, which was still moving during the loading animation, immediately spotted Bruce without any time to react, leading to an instant game over.
Overall, as much as Batman Vengeance tries to feel like more than yet another beat-em-up, its other gameplay styles are either too broken or not developed enough to make much of a difference.
In conclusion, while I appreciate the effort to make a Batman game that wasn't just a simplistic side-scroller, the end product simply does not work. Perhaps the team was too inexperienced, their budget too limited or their ambitions too grand, but Batman Vengeance feels unfocused, clumsy, and at points just plain unfinished. While the story is passable and the voice acting is very good, it's the gameplay that lets Vengeance down – mechanics are underutilized, poorly explained, or just don't function the way they should. While it's not a complete write-off, I can't say I enjoyed my time with this game, and I only recommend it for comic fans who are interested in seeing the baby steps in game design that led to 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum.e interested in seeing the baby steps in game design that led to 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum.
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