Monday, 15 November 2010

Batman Returns - The Sega Megadrive Review

Batman Returns (1992) - Sega
Sega Megadrive
Also for Sega CD, Amiga, Atari ST, SNES, Atari Lynx, PC, Sega Master System, Gamegear

Well, that wasn't easy... or especially fun. I'm having trouble remembering a time when a game frustrated me as much as this one did. Not just the gameplay, but the insensitive handling of it's subject. Something got lost in the translation between Batman the hero and Batman the Sega Megadrive video game adaptation. Batman, to me, has always been as agile as he has been strong, as intelligent as he is resourceful. He can, with limitless patience, hang weightlessly from a rafter until a bad guy passes beneath whereupon he drops, as heavy and devastating as an anvil. Originally he was a detective at heart, since 1939 The Worlds Greatest Detective has been using his deductive abilities to put away criminals as much as he has used his fists. With no 'superpowers' to speak of, years of rigorous physical and mental training, together with his obsession for justice have placed him equal among peers such as Superman and The Flash.
This is Batman. These are the things that make him great.
The video game maker is charged with the task of allowing the player a glimpse into what it is like to be the hero for a few hours. So what is it like to be Batman on the Sega Megadrive?
I died eight times within the first 20 minutes of play. Batman walks like his boots are filled with lead, with all the swagger of a deep sea diver. The difficulty level is pitched so high and the controls feel so sluggish making controlling the hero only marginally less awkward than pushing a bus sideways. He can jump, about a foot in the air. He can swing on his grapple rope from ledge to ledge but in most cases this is unnecessary as most platforms can be reached easily. On the plus side good use is made of the weapons (Bat-a-rangs, Smoke bombs, even a swarm of bats can be summoned) with most being very effective against enemies, particularly bosses, bringing in a small element of ammunition preserving strategy.

"Penguin! Follow the sound of my voice so that I may punch you! OK?"
In keeping with the movie, the levels are dark. Really. Dark. Which doesn't make navigating them from start to finish especially easy. In many cases it's not clear whether you should be traversing a level from left to right or from bottom to top. The game developer could argue that this uncertainty shows variety and encourages exploration, but with each painfully sluggish step in the wrong direction (and each enemy encounter guaranteeing the loss of two of my health points) with very little reward other than, maybe, a health boost to make up for what was just lost during the 'exploration' of the level, my patience became more and more worn.

If you have seen the film then you know that the two main villains are The Penguin and Catwoman. This shortage of boss types makes for some creative decisions from the game design team. The game has seven levels but only two real bad guys. Other than the identikit henchmen that litter each level, Catwoman makes frequent mid-level visits to somersault around like an s&m Sonic the Hedgehog. She is an ammo drain with the artificial intelligence of a glass of water. Five well timed punches to the face and she runs off to lick her wounds until the next mindless encounter. Those creative gaming decisions I mentioned? Well, remember in the film where Batman had that long, drawn out, battle with the statues in Gotham Square? Yes, you do. They threw cogs at him and spat fire! Come on, think. Batman could only beat them by standing on their knees and kicking them in their concrete faces for 15 minutes. Oh, you must have missed that bit, then because it's in the game! And there was that other bit that must have been cut from the film where Batman had to fight a twelve foot juggler who hurled flag stones. That's in the game too.

Not jogging your memory? No?
Batman Returns on the Megadrive is not just a shocking misrepresentation of one of the most well loved heroes of all time, it's also a misjudged representation of the film and a shockingly lazy game in it's own right too.


Monday, 8 November 2010

Batman: Arkham City - Deadline

I am insufferably excited about the next Batman game, sequel to Arkham Asylum, Arkham City. It's due Autumn 2011 which should give me plenty of time to complete the 45+ Batman game challenge that I set myself.
To the right of this text I have added a permanent sidebar detailing all the Batman games I will be playing over the next twelve months. It's not an exhaustive list of every game on every format. Some can be safely missed out. For example, Batman Begins on the Playstation 2 is essentially the same game as on the Gamecube and Xbox so there is no need to play all versions. Whereas Batman the Movie on Atari ST is different enough from the C64 version to warrant playing both.
I'm making the rules up as I go along to some extent but by the time Batman: AC is released next November I should have played everything I need to.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Batman Begins - the Playstation 2 review

Batman Begins - 2005
Action Adventure
Electronic Arts
Developed by Eurocom
Also for Gamecube, Xbox, Gameboy Advance and Playstation Portable.

Fifteen minutes into Batman Begins: The video game, Liam Neesons Ducard character is leading me around his mountaintop ninja refuge in an effort to teach me the basics of the game during a fairly standard but well thought out 'tutorial' level. Things are going well. He has subtly and tactfully shown me that I am able to sneak up to a foe to dispose of them silently from behind, that I am to 'mind' my 'surroundings', encouraging me to examine the environment closely if a path is not immediately obvious (playing the game on 'easy' simplifies this for the player, putting a target reticule onscreen where an item can be interacted with). I can swing on ropes, interrogate enemies, punch, kick and generally 'be' Batman/ Bruce around really quite lovely environments using intuitive controls that rarely feel loose or clumsy. The character has a good weight and every punch that lands feels solid and damaging.

Then it happened.

 "Well done, Wayne," intones Liam Neeson (all voices in the game are original movie cast voices), "You have mastered the art of the 'double jump'"

I'm sorry, Liam. The what, now?

"The 'double jump'", he continues talking in my head while the PS2 controller hangs flaccidly between my legs, "It's a video game mechanic that allows the character to execute a second jump while midair from the first jump"

Yeah, thanks, Liam or Rhas Al or whatever your name isn't. I know what a double jump is. I have been playing video games for over 25 years you know. I'm just wondering why you felt the need to tell me about it.

"I didn't write the script. I'm just reading the blasted thing," I think I pissed him off. But, hey, he pissed me off first, "I mean, Jesus," he continues, "It's only a video game!"

"Now, Master Wayne, You can collect all 100 gold stars and save the Princess."
 And, so, the spell was broken. Instead of being so immersed in an entertainment experience that I forget where I am, I'm sat on a couch, in a room as far removed from the Batcave as is possible, having an imaginary argument with an actor.
Imagine you're in a cinema watching The Matrix. Agents are firing a volley of bullets at Neo, who is dodging them in some inexplicable but completely believable way. Then the house lights go up and a Wachowski brother stands in front of the screen with a megaphone telling you about this awesome thing called 'bullet time', how it was done. Then he walks off telling us to enjoy the rest of the movie. Fat chance.

Video game mechanics, the constants, the nuts and bolts that make them games with challenge and progression are never going to go away. They are required. The tutorial level, for example. However you dress it up, the player needs to know how to play the game without resorting to the manual, so the need for a hand-holding excercise will always exist in some way. In that regard Batman Begins was doing just fine. It didn't take place in Wayne mansion or the streets of Gotham, but a functional environment (in the film as much as the game) that I had no desire to explore beyond its linear, tutorial boundaries.

Don't get me wrong. As the months go on I will be playing a whole host of very 'gamey' batman titles, with power-ups and endless platforms. But those games were merely products of their environment and time. Using camp, visceral subject matter to make a similarly camp, visceral game. But Batman Begins was supposed to be a credible reboot for the series. No more Neon, no more camp, no more Bat-nipples: everything had a reason and purpose and wasn't beyond the boundaries of possibility. So why that ethos couldn't have extended to the game is beyond me.

The real shame here is that Batman Begins is a good game, although very linear, and through much of the experience I felt I was being ushered from A to B without actually having to figure anything out for myself (leave your detective abilities at the door), it's short enough to make a decent rental and the varied levels make for good eye candy. There are easter egg style secrets like new suits and upgrades (that bizarrely are all handed to you after your first playthrough, making repeated play a bit redundant), and it's a real blast driving through Gotham against the clock, Burnout style in the Tumbler. Woefully underused and in a way it made me wish the game was just a driving game, or that the game only existed in the form of download content for Burnout.

As a real fan of what Christopher Nolan did with the franchise for Batman Begins, it's a real shame not to see that innovation and ignorance of constraints applied to something just as dear to me as the Caped Crusader. The Video game.


Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Batman Begins - The Unwrapping

My first Batman game arrived today. I let the Batmen open it. Y'know, for safetys sake.

With a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, the Batmen approach the brown package like brooding, spandex wearing kittens.

Specialist tools are required to break through the multiple layers of paper and plastic bubbles.
Well, not really "required" as such, but he's been dying to use his blowtorch since he got it last christmas. He'd just sulk otherwise. Hey, you try living with him.

The Batmen are visibly peturbed that it's not Weekend at Bernies on BluRay (wait 'til christmas, guys) but they all gather in front of the TV anyway to see how this one turns out.

Hey, who invited him?

So, it's Batman Begins on Playstation 2 that I will be playing first. Never played it before. The box promises original cast voices, stealth, action, batmobile driving sections. The front of the box has logos of DC, EA and Warner Bros. Surely between them they can make a decent game. On the back of the box, in tiny writing, it says, "Developed by Eurocom" they did Quantum of Solace for PS2
... shit.

I'll let you know how it goes. 

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Holy waste of time, Batman

This is something I've been meaning to do for a while, now. Over the course of the next few months I will be playing and reviewing EVERY BATMAN GAME EVER! I'm fully aware that they are all, with a few notable exceptions (Arkham Asylum, Caped Crusader, Returns), absolute shit, but I'm gonna give them a go anyway.

I'm laying down a few bat-rules for myself:
  1. No Bat-Emulators -I hate emulators. I'm sure in the future, as components wither and die, they will become the only way to play old games. But for now, while old consoles are cheap, available and working, we should be seeking them out and using them.  All games will be played on their intended consoles, computers. I want the load times, refresh rate, game speed, control pad layout, etc. to be as authentic as possible. It's a big deal for me. The game playing experience, as an organic whole, should always include the original machine the game was coded for.
  2. No Bat-Cheating - It's a very rare event that I will use a cheat for a game. I mean infinite lives, ammo, etc. I MAY, on occasion, refer to a guide to advance beyond a particularly troubling part of the game. But apart from that, it's man versus machine.
  3. No Bat-Cribbing - I won't read or refer to any review or preview material until my own review is written. I have no idea what scores Gotham Racing, for example, received. I don't want my view influenced or clouded by preconceptions. 
  4. No Bat-Quitting - I will play each game to its thrilling conclusion. Yes, even Batman and Robin.
 For about me please visit my other blog here.
In the meantime, why am I doing this? Well I'll let the Dynamic Duo themselves ponder that one.

Robin: "If we close our eyes, we can't see anything."
Batman: "A sound observation, Robin."

Indeed... now, let's fight some crime!