Diminishing returns is too hard a term, but there's no doubt that Telltale Games's once-consistent brand of narrative-focused interactive experiences—look, it's hard to just write "games" again, right after the word is in the studio's name—has been suffering from some unreliability of late. The second season of The Walking Dead couldn't match the red-raw emotional impact of the first, and the comic book spin-off Michonne mini-series, released in three parts rather than the standard five, earned only (very) mixed reviews. Its Game of Thrones adaptation split players down the middle—I enjoyed it, but could see why others took umbrage with its low-impression relationship with the TV show—and Minecraft: Story Mode suffered for, well, Minecraft "proper" not having much of a story to start with.
But with its forthcoming five-part Batman: The Telltale Series—all five episodes will be out this side of Christmas 2016, with the first coming, we're told at E3, "very soon"—the Californian company might just have reignited its fading spark. I watch the first 30 minutes of its debut chapter, which sees the player control both Batman and Bruce Wayne, with the story served in a semi-flashback style. The action sequences which commence the episode—Batman interrupts a burglary at Gotham City Hall, and encounters Catwoman for the first time while there; the two fight, and she ultimately escapes after he's saved her life, as she falls, unconscious, from a particularly tall rooftop—are in the past, the present being Bruce as his butler Alfred's patient, the sole father figure in the orphan billionaire's life delicately removing pieces of broken glass from our (anti-)hero's back.
"A myth can't be killed," the older, wiser man tells his younger, hotter-of-head companion; "You, however, are flesh and blood." Bruce, who at this point, in this story, hasn't been Batman for too many years, is adamant that his course of action is the right one. The crime rate in Gotham has fallen remarkably, though his vigilante justice hasn't made any friends at the police department (Jim Gordon is a lieutenant when we see him, officers in tow, enter city hall only to have to duck and cover from an explosive elevator delivery). He's put the fear into the local fraternity of law-ignoring sorts, as we overhear some of the goons at city hall chattering, worriedly, about this felony-busting phantom. "Will he show?" says one, cautiously surveying the scene around him. "I heard stories, y'know."
Which prove to be founded, as Batman gives one of the armed and armored thugs a headache to go the distance courtesy of a boot to the face. A few flicks of the left stick and quick time events later, and the whole gang is incapacitated—non-lethally, of course. This is action like we've seen before in Telltale productions, with some fast responses required, and a steady aim every now and then. The right trigger is used to activate a brutal finishing blow, knocking the wind and everything else out of Batman's nearest opponent. "Sometimes, you need a monster," Bruce tells his tireless butler slash best friend slash confidante, suiting up in an entirely different fashion for a fundraiser being held at Wayne Manor. The beneficiary, one Harvey Dent, yet to become Two-Face, who's running for mayor and promising to replace the dilapidated Arkham Asylum with a new facility, dedicated to Bruce's late parents.
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Here the present takes over—no more recollections of the Bat's run-in with the Cat. As Bruce, the player must make careful decisions in terms of dialogue options, as not only does Dent need the assembled throng of Gotham's wealthiest—among them a certain "Oz," mentioned only blink-and-you-miss-him briefly, who may turn out to be a certain Mr. Cobblepot, a.k.a. the Penguin, in a later episode (we shall see)—to toss their considerable coin into his campaign, but Bruce has to make sure that he's not sending out any of the wrong signals to snooping reporter types. Yes, Vicki Vale shows up, and while she promises to keep whatever she sees or hears at the Manor off the record, she can't help but watch Bruce like a hawk when mob boss Carmine Falcone shows up. "Let's hear him out before you kick him out," says Dent, leaving the Troy Baker–voiced Bruce to either go along with his friend's wishes, or act aggressively toward Falcone and toss him out on his fat ass.
"I ain't here to chin-wag about politics," Falcone confesses with real venom when he and Bruce are alone. He's here to strike some other kind of deal with Gotham's richest man and resident bloke-in-a-batsuit, and knows what buttons to press in order to get our protagonist heated under the collar. "Your father knew which hands to shake, and which to break," he says, the threat nothing like veiled, "and people don't say no to me, not for long."
In the playthrough, hosted in a fancily decorated mini-Batcave within LA's cavernous Convention Center, Bruce doesn't come close to a deal with Falcone, passing on his handshake and making an enemy of him for the future. But you, when your own time with this game comes, can choose to play Bruce as more of a dick than not, and side somewhat with Gotham's criminal elements. "Allies may become villains," we're told, and also that "regardless of the suit, you're always Batman," suggesting that this is a game in which the two sides to the Wayne persona aren't separated by clear lines, and that events witnessed (or affected) as one will have repercussions for life as the other. DC has given Telltale a great deal of freedom to tell their own story, one separate from any that's gone before. It's also M-rated—the first thing we really see in the episode is some poor guard's head popped like a melon—which guarantees that more of that sweet, slick crimson will be spilled in the coming installments. We're also promised that the game will "delve into the dark psychology" of Bruce Wayne. And, presumably, some of his nearest and deadliest.
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On a technical front, what I see is not the finished product, but even so this overhauled Telltale Tool engine is quite clearly producing visuals that represent a progression from, say, The Wolf Among Us, the studio's previous collaboration with DC (via Vertigo). And the voice acting is superb right across the half-hour—Richard McGonagle, who plays Falcone, somehow manages to make the Voice of Sully sound like the most threatening thing in the gaming world, rather than a comforting blanket of experience. Everything's set up in a really promising way, and while there's no shortage of Batman games on the market—Rocksteady's Arkham VR is coming out this year, too, as are the remasters of Arkham Asylum and City—Telltale might have the most original of the experiences on offer up its sleeves here.
Thirty minutes isn't long enough to really know how good this Batman will be, overall, and we've not seen the crime scene investigation sequences which surely must star in a game about the world's greatest detective. But if the whip-smart dialogue and bruising action sequences showcased at E3 are a genuine indication of what's coming, this is going to be up there with the first Walking Dead and Tales from the Borderlands as a genuine jewel in its makers' still-just-about-on-there, though-it's-been-wobbling-lately, story-slanted-gaming crown.
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