Monday, 01 February 2010 23:12

Batman: Arkham Asylum (PC, 2009)

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Overview


Never bring a gun to a bat-fight. Batman has been a fixture in the world of DC Comics since he was created in the late 1940's, rising to become one of the trinity pillars of DC's many, MANY superheroes. Dark and brooding, though he has allies in his personal war, Batman has most often stood alone against the criminals that overrun Gotham. His personal rogues gallery includes some of the most colorful figures of villainy ever devised, from the sexy and seductive dryad-like Poison Ivy to Gotham's Crown Prince of Comedy himself, the Joker. Gotham city itself, the protectorate of the dark knight, has grown to become a living, breathing entity over the years, a creature fighting to overcome the sickness trying to devour it. And in all of Gotham, if there's one place that could be called the source of the infection, it would have to be a small island in the middle of Gotham Bay named Arkham Island… the home of Arkham Asylum.

Fields USA Info Image
Title Batman: Arkham Asylum
Dates August 25th, 2009
Company Rocksteady
Publisher Eidos Interactive, Warner Bros. Interactive, DC Entertainment, Square Enix
Genre Action, Stealth, Beat'em'Up, Exploration
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Review


Last (Bat)man standing. Much like the city of Gotham, the history of Batman-based video games has been… troubled, at best. Over the years there have been several attempts to do a good Batman game, but the closest anybody ever came was the original Burton movie tie-in that appeared on the NES. Stop and think about that for a minute, folks. That's a twenty year span in which nobody – NOBODY – could get a Batman game right. And they tried. The trouble is, nobody could get it right. People kept trying to make a Batman Game, and they failed horribly, like most superhero games do. Then along came Rocksteady Studios, who decided to take a slightly different approach: They wanted to make a great game, with Batman. Notice the subtle difference. They didn't go into Batman: Arkham Asylum intending to make a Batman Game, they decided to make a great game with Batman in it.

Whoa. S'cuse me a sec while I sit down from that one. I mean, what a concept… develop a game with the focus on the game being great, NOT ON THE GIMMICK THE GAME IS EMPLOYING!!! I mean, I'm not going to stand here and say that games built on a gimmick can't work and aren't enjoyable. Really, though, how many WiiMote waggling, cover-taking, squad-commanding, party-controlling, combo-counting, slowmo-bullet-timing, backtrack-exploring, shoot'em'upping, FMV-moving, sandbox-wandering, guitar-heroing games can you play before the gimmick wears out and they stop being new, interesting or innovative and become standard ho-hum mechanic? Hey,I love me a good kick-ass game of Gears of War, but the mechanic of "run, take cover, shoot shit until it goes asplodie" is one fairly easy to master, and it's the only one you use for the entire game!

Just because it's bolted down doesn't mean it's sealed shut. So, Batman: Arkham Asylum. The Joker has escaped (again…) and been subsequently beaten to a pulp recaptured by Batman. The game opens as Batman speeds through the streets of Gotham in the Batmobile with the groggy Joker secured in the passenger seat mumbling about bombs and giggling to himself. Once they've arrived at Arkham Asylum, Batman decides to escort the Joker all the way down to confinement, troubled by the fact that it seemed almost too easy to capture him tonight. Why he'd be worried with the obviously stellar inmate security and control facilities available at Arkham, I don't know… Oh, and on the way down, we find out that a rather sizable number of super-max level criminal thugs have been transferred to Arkham's more traditional prison facilities tonight due to a major fire at Blackgate prison. Nothing at all suspicious about that, right? Five minutes and one Joker escape later, and it's up to Batman to take on a small army of henchmen that just escaped and took over Arkham Asylum.

Alright, I think today I'm going to start with the voice work to be found in Batman: Arkham Asylum, for one particular, major reason. You see, Rocksteady decided to kick things off by doing one thing that was absolutely guaranteed to go right: they imported damn near the ENTIRE VOICE CAST of the DCAU Batman animated series directly to use for the game, including Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman, Mark friggin Hamill as the Joker, and Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn. Shame they couldn't get Bob Hastings to complete the major roles as Commissioner Gordon, but Tom Kane did a damn good job of it. Between you and me, I'd have loved to see them get Gary Oldman for him, though, who for those that don't recognize the name is the actor who plays Gordon in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

Stealth man, stealth. Meanwhile, the soundtrack side of the game is pretty awesome too, with music that, to me at least, seemed to draw from both the Danny Elfman score of the Burton movies and the more recent Hans Zimmer soundtracks from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The game itself was composed by Nick Arundel and Ron Fish, and I thought that it worked out really well, honestly. I might have liked the soundtrack to have a bit more presence during the stealth sequences, but aside from that I've got no real complaints.

How does it play, though? I mean, this is Bruce friggin' Batman Wayne we're talking about, not some chump with full-body cybernetic combat armor and a hacking AI sharing his brain. As fans of the comics know, Batman refuses to carry a gun – though many of his vehicles are traditionally armed – as a personal weapon, instead relying on his extensive physical and martial arts training in combat in concert with stealth. I'm happy to report that that's EXACTLY what the game focuses on too, equal parts martial arts and stealth, which is achieved through Predator Rooms and Freeflow Combat. Fighting in Arkham Asylum is simple – you have an attack button, a block button, and a stun button. That's really all you need, and while the game is setup to allow you to mix in baterang throws for stuns, using the batclaw to draw opponents in, and dodges, the combat system is tuned in such a way that you can easily handle upwards of fifteen enemy combatants at once with just your attack, block and stun buttons.

He's gotta be asking himself... was going for that pipe really worth it? The typical Freeflow Combat takes place with unarmed, or melee-weapon armed opponents, and consists of Batman doing what Batman does best – kicking all kinds of ass. Press the attack button while pressing the thumb stick toward an enemy, and you'll get an attack appropriate to the situation. It might be a punch, it might be a kick, it might be an elbow to the face or one of Batman's trademark backhands – the game takes care of the movement for you so that you can concentrate on keeping the fight moving fluidly. Your block button works in the same way – when an enemy is attacking, you just have to press your block button once and Batman will block the attack and make the sorry sod pay for it – and make it look damned fluid. The more attacks and blocks in a row you make without missing, the higher your combo meter goes. The higher your combo meter goes, the more fluid and spectacular Batman's fighting gets. Later in the game, when you're fighting larger numbers of enemies and get in a good groove, you'll see Batman flying back and forth throughout the group of enemies with rapid strikes and sharp counters. You can get into more advanced combos too – flinging a quick baterang, for instance, is a great way to keep a combo going, serving to stun an opponent and sometimes knock a weapon out of their hands. Using the batclaw can drag 1-3 opponents toward you, pulling them off balance and making them drop their weapons as they fall forward. Fluidity and rhythm is the name of the game in Freeflow Combat.

The other side of the coin are the Predator rooms. These are situations in which your opponents are armed with guns, and the fighting is far more subtle and even psychological. In these rooms, stealth is king. Batman can take a beating, but he can't take a full assault rifle clip at close range, so you need to find ways to take enemies out without being detected. You might grapple your way up to a higher vantage point, then drop down as an opponent walks under you, leaving them hanging upside down. The other enemies in the room will hear the shouts and come running, but by then you should be long gone. You could drop down silently and lay a landmine trap at the top of a ladder, then from across the room do something to draw an enemy into climbing that ladder, only to be blown off the top and be incapacitated by the fall. Maybe you might hide in a vent under a floor grate, and pop-out to grab an unsuspecting opponent as they walk over you. And all the while, as you whittle their numbers down one by one, your enemies grow more and more terrified, until the slightest sound might make them jump and shoot – like a boiler letting off some steam, distracting them for just an instant… An instant in which you can strike.

Oooh, he's gonna be feeling that one in the morning... This dual-combat style mechanic goes a long way toward keeping the action pretty fresh throughout the game, with some Predator rooms doubling as puzzles that have to be solved in a specific way, while others rely on your ability to neutralize opponents. Beyond that, Batman: Arkham Asylum functions similar to other backtracking exploration games like Metroid and Legend of Zelda, where certain sections and paths that are blocked to you early in the game become available as Batman recovers equipment needed to proceed. For example, early on in the game you receive a supply of explosive gel that can be used to setup traps for enemies, and more importantly to blast through damaged walls, but some weakened walls are out of range for you to spray the gel on. It's not until later, when you get the upgraded version of the batclaw, a tool which fires a high-strength tether to something which can be used to pull that object toward you, that you can pull those walls down. I hesitate to call Arkham Asylum a sandbox game, though it does fit that definition, because while you are mostly free to explore, the game itself is pretty linear and straightforward.

Now, that's not to say that everything is roses with Arkham Asylum, and I have a couple comments on areas that came up a bit weak. First and foremost, you fight a grand total of four types of regular mook, plus one upgraded mook that gets supercharged and turned into a boss fight at one point. That's it. Of those four types, the only real challenges are the gun-wielding enemies. The others, your free-flow targets, are literally there purely to get pummeled. They occasionally throw a little curveball at you – one enemy, for instance, wields knives, and you have to stun him or in some way get him off balance before you can do damage, while some others carry tasers that require you to attack from behind to avoid being damaged, little things like that. Once you master the combat system, they're no threat at all.

I sense Poison Ivy might be involved in this... Second, on a much larger scale, is your fight with Killer Croc. Now, I'm not spoiling anything here – this is a fight that's setup throughout the entire damn game, from the very introduction on in. I was looking forward to one hell of a spectacular throw down… Instead, what I got was the absolute slowest and annoying fucking possible section of the game. They could have done almost ANYTHING else for that section of the game and it would have been awesome, but instead it's probably the weakest link in the entire game.

Also, the Riddler challenges. Now, I have no problem with this portion of the game per se. However, the riddle solutions and especially the question mark line-up puzzles REALLY needed to have their hit boxes tuned a bit better. I should not have had to spend fifteen minutes trying to line up a puzzle JUST RIGHT because for whatever reason I was just a hair off. That's annoying and unwelcome in a game, and serves only to break the action. Same thing goes for some of the riddle solution. As long as I'm in a certain radius of the object and pressing the capture button, I should just get credited with the solution. I shouldn't have to be at precisely this spot looking at precisely this angle with the solution precisely dead center. Again, we're breaking up the flow of the game. Is Batman really going to stand there all fucking night trying to get the perfect snapshot of random comic reference #42 when the rest of the island is going to hell in a hand basket? C'mon.

Is it just me, or have I seen that fallen bell before? Finally – and this isn't a complaint so much as an observation – Arkham Asylum might be viewed by some as having some minor identity issues. Throughout the course of the game, you at times move normally, have to sneak through venting ducts and whatnot, perform the afore mentioned Freeflow Combat, deal with Predator rooms, do some old-school side-scrolling platforming – no, really – do the Riddler trophy hide-and-go-seek thing, and deal with the Killer Croc section fiasco. The guys over at Rocksteady sure didn't scrimp on play styles. I can see some people coming away frustrated that they couldn't pick on one mechanic and sticking on it, though. Not me, mind you, but some people, yes.

Graphically I have to say that I was both very impressed, and very disappointed in Batman: Arkham Asylum. First things first, it runs on the Unreal Engine 3.5, the same engine that Gears of War 2 runs on – and here's the scary thing, it's not all brown!! Heh, standard jokes about Unreal and its tendency toward games rendered in gray and brown aside, it did a spectacular job here. The PC version also runs the Nvidia PhysX technology for machines that have that capability – I run an ATI 4870, so I don't get the hardware acceleration through my GPU for it, though of course it does still run through my CPU. The environment and set pieces are awesomely detailed, and really Arkham Asylum should serve as a damn good demo for what the Unreal Engine can do for a non-sepia toned world – it's a damned vibrant game!

What was that about the inmates running the asylum? Now for my disappointment – I can't say I was particularly thrilled by the character design for the enemies. Now, take this with a grain of salt. I'm not saying the models themselves were bad per se. They hit the same levels of incredibly detailed, beautiful work that the environment did, and honestly, I think that Poison Ivy is the single best looking model in the entire game. They did a damn nice job with Batman and Commissioner Gordon too. With that said, for most of the criminal cast, they were going for an exaggerated, slightly campy evil look, with the worst offender being the Joker. I mean, his mouth is so wide he practically could have done one of those old Reach toothbrush flip-top head commercials. I REALLY hated Harley Quinn's dominatrix outfit – c'mon, gimmie back that slinky red-and-black jumpsuit she wore in the animated series. I dunno, I just didn't really like the design for most of the enemies. Those comments aside, I'll give 'em credit where it's due, the Joker was suitably lanky and menacing, Harley Quinn had every ounce of her usual bouncy, manic personality – helped in no small part by the voice acting, mind you – and the cast of regular mooks was amusing, if somewhat less than diverse. Really, would it have killed them to make three or four more models for the hapless henchmen to cycle through?

One other observation about the graphics, and I'll move on. For all the beauty and effort that went into crafting the set pieces of Batman: Arkham Asylum, I spent the vast majority of MY play through seeing in electric blue through the detective mode view, which really kinda defeats the purpose of all that hard work. The reason for this is very simple; it gives you a substantial advantage in detecting ambushes and viewing/planning stealthy movements as you move about. And oh yeah… YOU CAN SEE THROUGH WALLS!!! That, quite simply, makes it the defacto viewing mode for any Predator room, and, due to the enemy highlighting, means it gives you an edge in picking out the odd gun-armed enemy in Freeflow. More to the point, you also spend a fair amount of time in it as you trace evidence trails. Personally, I think they'd have been better served if detective mode wouldn't have turned the world blue (or red, or pink, or purple, depending on the evidence mode) but still highlighted enemies and displayed those that were behind walls.

I think the Joker went this way. Story wise, fans of the animated series will be pleased to know that Paul Dini was the writer for Arkham Asylum, and while it doesn't fall within the confines of the DCAU, it's a pretty damn solid story. There's a lot more going on at the island than appears at first blush, and there's even a fair amount of stuff happening off the island too. For instance, while dealing with Joker's takeover, the Riddler hacks into your communication com to taunt you with a rather large assortment of trophies and riddles that he somehow had time to plant all over the island. It's worth searching through to collect these, just to hear his ongoing reaction, despite the positioning issues noted earlier. Setting that aside, this is just plain good storytelling. Maybe a bit short, maybe a hair disjointed, but nothing outside the realm of believability for a video game.

Overall


Save yourself from hell!Ok, so what did I think overall? Easy enough, I enjoyed it. Plain and simple, I just plain enjoyed the game. It's a well rounded story with excellent control, fluid combat that jives perfectly with the mythos of the title character, and great pacing and soundtrack. There's a lot going on here to keep the plot and gaming fresh throughout the course of the entire game, and while Batman: Arkham Asylum does have a few dents and dings, overall it's a pretty damn good game. It was a great treat to hear Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill trade barbs as Batman and Joker again, all wrapped up in a package that represents one of the very, VERY few GOOD superhero games out there. I would have liked it to be longer – but then, I suspect that most players would have liked that – and it would have been nice to have had more variety out of the generic mooks. With that said, Rocksteady did a damn good job with this, and I have to call it a well recommended game, especially for those that like a good beat'em'up type game.

Additional Info

  • Writing: Groovy (+5)
  • Pacing: Groovy (+5)
  • Graphics: Groovy (+5)
  • Controls: Groovy (+5)
  • Voice Acting: Groovy (+5)
  • Soundtrack: Groovy (+5)
  • Replay Value: Groovy (+5)

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