Batman: Arkham Asylum
PC | PlayStation 3 | Xbox 360
Batman: Arkham Asylum Review
Review By Steve Farrelly @ 01:45am 22/08/09
Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the greatest superhero game of all time. Actually, welcome to one of the greatest action games of all time.
Eidos and Rocksteady Studios, for all their countless media divulgences in the build up to this game's release, simply could not convey the experience players would be having once picking up the controller and becoming Batman. And that is a key word and point; "becoming" Batman, because ultimately the one thing Batman: Arkham Asylum does better than anything else, is put you behind the mask of The Bat and into the controlled, and often conflicted genius that is Gotham's Dark Knight.
Beyond its stunning visuals, brilliant soundtrack and audio, compelling gameplay, progression of power, exploration, tight scripting and line delivery, combat and boss battles - Batman: Arkham Asylum tells a Batman tale not for the feint-hearted. This is no Activision or EA family-friendly spin on a popular superhero license; this is the twisted world of Gotham City and its myriad of psychotic offspring. It's the tale of unreasonable anarchist action; of chaos on a grand scale, and one man's pent-up desire and need to control it all - this is Batman as you've always wanted to see him, and if you're not a die-hard fan, know that at the very least it's the way he should be seen.
And yet beyond the license, beyond Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy's brilliant portrayals of the portraiture comic book yin and yang and beyond the over-the-top yet spot-on interpretations of classic Batman villains, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a stellar videogame. Remove all of the above while maintaining the same formula and you'd still have yourself one of the year's best titles. Thoughtful and innovative, dark and brooding - Batman: Arkham Asylum is the complete experience; taking proven gameplay formulas from the best in the business and adding more than its own share of innovation and playability, ultimately crafting the perfect action game benchmark and blueprint.
But the game is about Batman, and with such a character you also get a serious amount of lore. 70 years of lore in fact, and Rocksteady Studios have made sure they utilise every piece of it they could (at least for the interim), and with it - and what they've developed here - there's no question in my mind this team and their game will spawn an unforgettable series of Batman experiences continually digging into aforementioned lore like so many psychologists digging into asylum patient brains.
Awesome segue out of the way, Batman: Arkham Asylum begins as most great Batman tales do, with The Joker. Batman has actually managed to apprehend the portentous sociopath and rushes to deliver him to Arkham Asylum. What's interesting though, is most of The Joker's cronies have been transferred to the Asylum at roughly the same time due to a fire at their penitentiary - clearly something's up. Batman knows this, and so do you, but being the pillar of justice he is, the Caped Crusader still needs to process old 'aka' Jack White and thus your introduction to the game begins.
From the control outset you know this game is going to be good. Ala Half-Life, Half-Life 2, The Darkness or even Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Batman: Arkham Asylum hands over control of The Batman to you, only minutes into the intro as The Joker is being wheeled and processed through the asylum. There's no interaction beyond following The Joker, guards and the doctors on-hand (save listening to sentries individually regale their Joker experiences or disdain if you walk over to them), but this paced and careful introduction speaks volumes of the game's subsequent presentation: Rocksteady Studios are dedicated to upholding the Batman comic book license in the best way possible, and from here on out they do it with gusto and passion.
The sequence also serves as a heady introduction to the calculated and firm scripting throughout; The Joker's taunts, comments and laughs echoing the game's seriousness in its delivery of the best Batman experience on offer and having the likes of Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy on board, who both served tours of creative duty on the Award Winning Batman: The Animated Series, creates a chorus of both familiarity (between the two main characters), and our expectations for them.
From this desire to represent a clear stamp of almost fanboyish proportions in terms of their illustration of the license, stems - immediately - Rocksteady's opportunity to showcase their own way of giving you the ultimate Batman experience. Whereas listening to the two aforementioned voices stood as something of a retainer (especially for Batman aficionados), it's in the development team's bold and innovative combat system you're really going to remember them.
And this is also where the earlier statement of "becoming" Batman comes back in. Aside from Altair of Assassin's Creed, I've not seen a character so well animated as Batman here. His actions are only exemplified by the animation trees with which they link; each kick, punch, roll, jump or dive linking seamlessly to the action before it, and all - equally - with only one or two button pushes at any one time. It's the Nintendo philosophy of keeping everything simple and uncomplicated, yet here on-screen, it looks like a dizzying dance of action worthy of Yuen Woo-ping branding.
So the scenario that saw you move from following your captive to becoming his (seeming) prey was a no-brainer – The Joker set a trap and you as Batman, predictably sprung it. Joker's cronies are now your fist fodder, and his unsettled mind your cranial exercise. It's almost a perfect visual depiction of the game's ebb and flow, which sees you shifting between solitary sections of exploration, investigation and discovery to pure moments of unrelenting action, terror and fear (well, as ‘scared' as Batman could become, anyway).
The first fragment of the game sees you escaping Arkham Asylum's processing centre, once free though, you're presented with an entire island to explore – and it's not small. Impressively, there's almost no loading between sections of the game, which is a first, and actually adds to the immersion of the overall experience. And as you would expect with this type of game, you're going to power up and come into contact with more gadgets and options to maintain the heightened level of the Dark Knight.
Without spoiling anything, setting the game at Arkham Asylum has allowed Rocksteady Studios and writer, Paul Dini, all manner of Batman villainy. Almost everyone Bats has ever had a run in with has ended up on the island, and even if they're no longer here, they resonate in some form or another (more on this shortly), it also means in very quick form, Rocksteady Studios have done what the last two Batman films failed miserably to do, and that is represent Gotham (and its islands) as just as much a character in the Batman universe as the likes of Killer Croc, Poison Ivy or Harley Quinn. It's a dark, dilapidated place replete with gothic, gargoyle-infested architecture and spired roofs – the perfect place for Batman to hide in the shadows and strike fear into the hearts of all his victims.
Pacing sees Batman chasing various single objectives. The game is linear in this sense, but you're never forced to follow the narrative directly. You can run off on your own and explore all the island has to offer right from the moment you stand above it, and this is best represented by dealing with "Riddler Challenges"; a manifest of collectibles, riddles and power-ups all set about the island, placed there by the one and only, Edward Nigma (gotta love comic book naming).
The Riddler Challenges are compelling collectibles because unlike so many other forms of fetch-questing, there's nothing arbitrary about what you find. You're always rewarded, whether it's with Character Bios for various Batman-affiliated good-guys or bad-guys, or unlocking new Challenge Modes - the Riddler's challenges become a driving force for utilising the progressive power-ups you gradually earn.
As mentioned earlier, the game does borrow tried and tested gameplay formulas, and one of the stand-outs is in the Metroid sense. Even from the very beginning of the title, when you're walking down that walkway with The Joker contained, you'll notice tantalising areas you want to stick your bat-nose in, and it's plain as day Rocksteady are teasing you with the notion you'll be able to a bit later on, too. This comes in the form of stellar level-design and a great sense of directional objectives - because you're working across a single map broken into various parts, with verticality and subterranean exploratory options, you're almost destined to come back across the same area(s) twice. Moreover, in doing so you're almost always going to have a new gadget that'll allow you to access otherwise inaccessible sections you may remember from a previous visit. It's a concept many games utilise now, but with Batman: Arkham Asylum, it never seems forced or contrived and works incredibly well based on the overall setting.
Batman's items come in the form of two defaults: Batarang and Grapple. There's no limit to how many Batarangs you can throw and his Grapple is a simple case of finding a ledge that displays the Grapple icon for you to use. But the further you get into the game, the more items become available to you. It turns out, Batman being the smart cookie he is planned for just such an incident as this on Arkham Island, and so had a temporary Batcave installed deep below ground. When you eventually make your way there, you'll have access to newer items. Equally, when you first come across the Batmobile (being vandalised by The Joker's hoods), you'll earn an explosive gel gun (used to smash through weak walls and surfaces to both reveal new paths, hidden items and take out unsuspecting goons on the other side). There are eight power-up items overall, though some of these become more powerful iterations of their base form, meaning you'll be finding new tools to use right to the very end, and believe me, everything in Batman's arsenal has a multitude of uses on the island, and it's in being creative and stealthy their Swiss-army attributes really come to the fray.
There are very few bottlenecks in the game, and those that do show up, are basically big arenas that let you tackle bad-guys in a free-flow combo frenzy (Achievements exist for keeping combo counters alive past 10, 20, and 40 - that latter being no mean feat), or with the stealth and guile Batman is renowned for.
Most of the time, you have a choice as to how to handle these areas, though the further you progress into the game, the more fiendish The Joker becomes. Most areas are breached through ventilation shafts, and through Batman's "Detective Mode" (basically a sort of thermal vision), you can detect the number of hostiles in a room, whether they are armed or not and what elements of the room you can interact with.
For the most part, pretty much all 'arena' sections like this come with built in gargoyles for Batman to perch himself on and grapple between. There are also narrow shafts built into the floor Bats can clamber in and stay out of sight, while corners can also be fixed to, to wait for an unsuspecting goon to come along and become a pawn in your game of Bat and mouse.
There's no amount of fun I've had in toying with the enemy greater than in this game. There's also a serious element of contextual awareness that spreads across every element of the entire experience, but for the purpose of this point it's in how the enemy responds to your actions, and The Joker's consistently aware remarks to both you and his goon squad as you progress.
Taking down one bad-guy with a Silent Takedown from behind, for example, should see you immediately grappling to the nearest gargoyle. The Joker will then remark to his henchmen across the loud speaker "I swear there were more of you a minute ago", to which the remaining henchmen will respond by flooding to the baddie you just knocked out. They'll mutter among themselves and the more bad-guys there are that you take down one by one without being seen, the more spooked they'll become; shooting at shadows and sounds and truly freaking out.
On the topic of contextual awareness, Batman: Arkham Asylum is perhaps one of the most rewardingly progressive games ever made. What I mean by this is, the further you get into the game, the more aware you are of changes your direct actions have made to everything. The Joker's bantering across the loud-speaker, how his henchmen will react to you - how Batman himself looks (his suit gradually gathers tears and rips, which remain consistently and believably throughout the experience) is all presented as believable progression. There perhaps has never been a game that has made me feel like I'm making a difference as solidly as this - even Batman's demeanour and tone change the further in you get, almost to a point where he's just had enough of The Joker's games.
And he will play games. In fact, there's a particular part of the asylum that ever so slowly changes, and whenever you visit it, your perspective changes and you're faced with The Joker's mind games. It's not necessarily a game-changing area to visit, but it contextually adds to the experience and fleshes out various motives and mindsets, creating one of the most visceral games in the action genre ever.
But it's not all intellectual, there's a visual element here, too. Rocksteady Studios have pushed the Unreal Engine to new heights, and while I was annoyed at seeing things like sprite-based leaves and shrubs (fast becoming a thing of the past), it really only just came across as disappointing in the face of the rest of the game, which looks amazing. Batman is rendered perfectly - his facial expressions, lip-syncing, animations and animation trees (as mentioned earlier), are all spot-on. Collision detection throughout is also the best I've ever experienced, with even Batman's cape only *barely* ever clipping into the environment. When you hit a bad-guy, it feels like you've just hit a bad-guy.
Lighting is great, and the overall game is completely gothic and dark - perfectly befitting the story's tone.
This is another point about the game; Batman: Arkham Asylum really is a mature title. There's no blood and guts, but there doesn't need to be - there's enough inferred you know you're not just playing against a street hood. The Joker and his cohorts are murderers. Through and through. And this shines across the whole experience (especially with Mr Zsasz - a serial killer who targets woman). Fans of Batman need only think of Alan Moore's Joker and the tone in which he wrote the Batman universe and you're on the money (though arguably, Paul Dini is even more twisted).
At the time of writing this review, I had been playing the game every night for more than five hours a night on the Hard setting (which is highly recommended as like Dead Space and BioShock Normal and Easy are a bit too flakey) and am still only 70% of the way through. Add to this the game's Challenge Mode which offers single scenarios ranging from simple combo-building fights to strict rule-set stealth challenges, alongside an option for “Downloadable Content” in the menu, and you have a game worth twice as much as you're going to pay for it.
I can't stress enough just how compelling the entire experience is and I've shied from revealing too much on the story front, or anything relating to Arkham Island exploration and beyond. Just know that from this point on, licensed games should be changed forever, and if Rocksteady remain at the helm of this new Batman videogame series, I'll continue to spend hours and hours becoming the Dark Knight.