The Dark Knight returns: Batman Begins interview

We look at the future of Batman by blowing his past wide open...

The Caped Crusader's had a bit of a rough time lately. Forget The Joker and The Penguin. Over the past few years, Batman's mortal enemies have been substandard movies and videogames.

But all that is about to change. This summer sees the release of Batman Begins, a totally new instalment in the film series that rewrites history and explains how Bruce Wayne came to be Batman.

Christopher Nolan, London-born director of Memento and Insomnia, is sitting in the director's chair and Christian Bale (American Psycho, The Machinist) is taking on the role of the superhero.

Unsurprisingly, EA has swooped in to bring the videogame version of the movie to PS2, Xbox, Cube, GBA and PSP. Like the film, EA hope their re-imagining of the Batman universe will spark a renaissance in the Dark Knight's videogame fortunes.

To find out how, we sat down for a chat with Ben O'Donnell, Associate Producer for Batman Begins.

Before we start, isn't Batman a bit of a rubbish superhero? Let's face it, he's just a rich bloke with loads of gadgets...

Ben O'Donnell: Ha! Well, the thing with Batman is that his powers stem from a very troubled and menacing past. He's not superhuman. He's not Superman and he can't jump tall buildings or anything like that, but he's a very successful person, and a very successful hero, because he's extremely intelligent. That's one of the most interesting things about the new film and the game: Batman isn't just strong and powerful, he's actually a hugely intelligent person. But underneath it all he's just like you and me, and that's especially compelling.

But in the game he has plenty of powers and gadgets, right?

Ben O'Donnell: Yeah, of course! You're right, he really relies on his gadgets and you can't have the best gadgets unless you've got a bit of money, so it's actually really lucky that he's a rich bloke!

So what's the main focus of the Batman Begins game?

Ben O'Donnell: We're tagging Batman Begins as a stealth action game, so the whole development process has been targeted with that in mind. We've implemented Fear and Reputation mechanics that feeds into the stealth aspect of the game. By being stealthy you instil fear into your enemies, rendering them helpless. That lets you get in close and use your martial arts to defeat them. Batman can't just wade in there and take on three guys armed with machine guns, simply because at the end of the day he is human, and as you mentioned already that's something both the game and the film want to communicate.

The whole game is set up so that you have to use your stealth abilities to manipulate the environment in such a way that you can then get in there and take out your enemies. You use your close combat for the final attack, but you need to disarm your enemies with fear first.

Then as you begin to drive that fear home word will get around about you. That's when the Reputation mechanic comes in. You'll hear enemies talking about whether you're a ghost and spreading rumours about your powers. This gives you an even greater advantage because the sense of fear will be heightened.

Talking of stealth, we've heard there's a Splinter Cell connection on the dev team. Is that right?

Ben O'Donnell: Yeah, JT Petty was the scriptwriter for Splinter Cell and Rod Schnieder who is our lead producer worked on Splinter Cell too, so we've got a really good stealth heritage. We've added a nice twist to our stealth, though, because while Sam Fisher is quite passive in his stealth we're encouraging players to use the environment in a much more aggressive way, like a hunter playing with his prey.

Can you give us some examples about how the Fear mechanic works?

Ben O'Donnell: There are many different ways to instil fear in your enemies. Using your environment is probably the most important, and we've designed the levels specifically to allow you to use as much of the 3D space as possible. Being Batman, it's essential that you use height to your advantage, so you'll be able to cling on to high wires or pipework to get a more powerful vantage point over your enemies. The idea is to let them know you're there, but to stay in the shadows and freak them out.

Then there are the environmental objects you can manipulate to your advantage. Smashing things, dropping things or blowing things up are all effective tactics you can use to initially spook your enemies.

And finally you've got all the gadgets in your inventory you can use. For example, you've got flashbangs, and you've also got a High Frequency Transponder which is a sonic device that attracts swarms of bats to attack a specific enemy, scaring the daylights out of him in the process.

Do you have to scare each enemy individually?

Ben O'Donnell: No, because we've worked in a feature called Fear Inheritance. It's kind of like watching a scary movie with a friend. If they're freaking out, it's more likely that you'll get scared too. So if one of your AI enemies sees their mate getting panicked, or getting attacked by you, then they're more likely to panic themselves. That's good for you because they're less likely to attack effectively.

This adds a puzzle element to the game, because in every level you have to work out which enemies are the biggest threats and disable them first. For instance, it's important to target the guys wielding the heaviest weapons first, and the guys with the most influence over their mates. If you can make him drop his weapons and freak out you've got a great window to get in there and take out a whole group of enemies.

Catwoman used a fear mechanic last year, but it was pretty passive. Your enemies got scared and just sort of sat there. Can you be a little more brutal in Batman Begins?

Ben O'Donnell: Definitely. We've worked very closely with the stunt coordinators from the film to ensure that we capture the combat perfectly. Batman uses a martial art which is a really dirty street fighting-style discipline that uses knees, elbows, headbutts and that kind of stuff. It's a very fluid control system and it's been especially designed for group combat, so if you finish off one guy with a big uppercut you'll turn immediately to the next threat. Visually, it looks like you're playing a fight scene from the movie.

You've also got a context sensitive attack button that lets you pull off special air and ground moves. It's useful to know when to use that, because it can get you out of some really tricky spots. So, yeah, you can be as brutal as you like. The combat system's great so it'd be a shame not to use it, so once you've used stealth to turn things in your favour you can get in their and start punching.

What's the balance between stealth and fighting?

Ben O'Donnell: I'd say it's about 70/30 stealth to fighting. The main part of each level is solving how to get your enemies into the best position to attack them, but then the final violent splurge is going in for the kill.

Okay, tell us about the gadgets Batman has and how you can use them.

Ben O'Donnell: As in the film, everything's grounded in reality, so the gadgets are all things you'd expect to see now or in the near future. You've got hacking tools to hack into CCTV or electronic machinery, which can give you an edge on security systems and traps. The there's the more visceral devices like the Batarang, Flashbangs, Smoke Grenades and the HF Transponder. All these things can be used whenever you want. It's not like you're faced with a problem and there's only one way to get around it. You can tackle any situation in any way you want. The idea is that the gadgets become second nature to you - just like they are to Batman - and you learn exactly when to use a specific tool.

How do you know when you can use your gadgets to interact with the environment?

Ben O'Donnell: We've added a context sensitive system that highlights every object of interest in a reticle. It's a lot like KOTOR, in that everything that is of any use to you is picked out, and you can scroll through objects of interest with the D-pad. So instead of having to go up to everything and manually checking it out, we show you. This way you instantly know where you can use your tools, like your Grapple Batarang for instance.

Do you research new gadgets as you go through the game?

Ben O'Donnell: Yes, You're given new gadgets to play around with as the game progresses. I don't want to reveal too much about that, but you're drip fed things to keep the experience fresh and to keep you learning new skills.

Is the Bat Cave playing a part in the game?

Ben O'Donnell: Yeah. In the film Morgan Freeman plays Batman's assistant, he's almost like Q from the Bond films. The Bat Cave is your retreat. In fact, we actually have a great driving sequence in which you have to race Rachel, your love interest, back to the Bat Cave because she's ill. It's a race against time because her energy is draining. It looks awesome - the leaves are billowing past the Bat Mobile and you're only seeing everything at the last moment because of the speed and the darkness. It's a great sequence and it really captures the style of the films.

Let's talk about the driving sequences more. How much of a part do they play in Batman Begins?

Ben O'Donnell: There are several driving sequences throughout the game. I know it's usually a little awkward to combine game genres like that but I think we've done a great job of making these sequences really feel part of the whole and not just tacked on. The Bat Mobile is a real icon in the Batman legend, and in Batman Begins the Bat Mobile is this huge, almost tank-like machine. That really lends itself well to some great sequence where you're racing through Gotham, bashing police cars out of the way and destroying obstacles with heat seeking missiles. You can see we've spent a lot of time developing these sequences and they really feel part of the overall experience.

How close are the movie and the game?

Ben O'Donnell: Very. The developers have worked heavily on Bond games before so we're very good at getting likenesses spot on. It's very important to have Bond look exactly like Bond, and to have Batman look exactly like Batman. It's amazing how close everything is to real life. Christian Bale looks exactly like Christian Bale, as do all the other characters. It's all about making an experience that is very in keeping and consistent with the film.

On top of that, the game follows the plot of the film closely while also expanding on some of the elements by introducing new environments and new characters to create a much larger game experience. To get that ten hour game experience from a two hour movie we had to elaborate, but we've done it in a way that will really please fans and stay true to the plot of the film.

The Batman franchise, in terms of videogames, doesn't have a great history. What do you hope Batman Begins will do for the future of the franchise?

Ben O'Donnell: Just like the movie, we're basically trying to start the whole thing afresh, and certainly from a point where fans of Batman would like to see it. Batman started out as this dark, menacing character and the films especially just got too cartoonish and fantastical. You shouldn't make light of the Batman character in that way. Chris Nolan's vision in the Batman Begins film is spot on, and I think that by using the stealth and fear mechanics in the game we're really tapping into that attitude. It'll appeal to fans, but it'll also be a lot of fun to play.

So the name is appropriate then, because the film and the game are both returning to the beginning of the Batman legend?

Ben O'Donnell: Yes. All credit to Chris Nolan, who I think has done a great job on the film. Batman Begins is not a prequel, a sequel, or a continuation; it's a new beginning. It's a damn shame to write off Batman because of a few bad movies and games, so we're taking things back to grass roots. That can only be a good thing.

Batman Begins will be available for PS2, Xbox, Cube, GBA and PSP in June, coinciding with the cinematic release of the movie.