|By Zach Patterson||Tuesday, 13 Oct 2009|
In trying to properly assess this new Batman game, I found myself in a quandry. Is this game great? No question. But it’s pretty easy to write a review and just say “This game rocks! It’s got Batman! Buy it!” And if that’s all you are looking for in a review, then read no further. This is a great game, and you should buy it. However, this isn’t just a good game. It’s a true Batman game. This is a hard combo that rarely ever work when translating comics to the video game medium. Let me explain. When trying to design a game for a comic book, there’s always certain limitations you have to deal with. X-Men games have struggled off and on throughout the years in trying to give the mutants superpowers, but not make them too powerful. The same goes for Superman. This usually leads to draining power meters and a fraction of their true powers from the comics. And rarely does it ever feel “right”. Then there is the game direction, which is almost always the killer for licensed comic games. As someone who collected comics for a solid decade, I can safely say that, while comics can tend to be superpowered soap operas, they also tell legitimately compelling and emotional stories that often transcend the medium and offer something more than dudes with superpowers beating up thugs and villains. So why is it that so many comic book video games are simply dudes with superpowers beating up thugs and villains? Sure, in a game like Maximum Carnage, you can play as the titular heroes Venom and Spider-Man, but the game is just essentially a beatemup. Or then there’s a game like Genesis X-Men, where it’s a reasonably entertaining platformer for its time, but it doesn’t really feel like reading the comic book. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this approach as long as the game is good. Batman has had several good games that happened to feature his likeness. But there is something exciting and refreshing and impressive about a game like Arkham Asylum that takes the entire Batman mythos, gets to the core of his character, explores his history, and then builds a game that makes you feel like Batman. This is, in my opinion, the most authentic comic book-to-video game translation made to date.
The reason for this is that the creators took Batman seriously, and set out from conception to make a true Batman experience. Batman doesn’t just plow through city streets beating up endless parades of thugs. Batman is a character that is human, but extremely smart and uses his environments and his technical wizardry to his advantage. Arkham Asylum understands this fundamental idea, and builds the primary experience off of that. Early on, you discover that taking on armed enemies hand to hand usually ends poorly. Batman is not invulnerable, and a couple incidental shots will kill him promptly. This makes you learn how to use the environments to you advantage. The game features an excellent stealth mode that seamlessly integrates into the game experience. You stand in the shadows, under floor grates, and in the rafters in many areas watching the enemies like prey. Unlike a game like Metal Gear Solid, where the goal may be to simply evade detection and get from point A to point B, Arkham Asylum puts you in the role of Batman and lets you hunt. These segments reminded me of the scene in Batman Begins where Batman begins picking off goons on the pier one by one silently and flawlessly, and with each one down the enemies become more nervous and more terrified. It’s one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve felt in a game to be able to patiently survey a room from above, look for a stray enemy, then use a variety of ways to incapacitate him (remember, Batman doesn’t use lethal force, so you don’t kill here, also a nice touch).
Now if you for some reason bungle the stealth and alert the guards, you’ll be thrown into battle, where the game also excels. While I was expecting some sort of Devil May Cry/God of War type combo system that has infected seemingly every popular action title nowadays, Arkham Asylum went a different route, and produced, in my opinion, a far superior system. Combat has a definite flow to it. Batman, of course, is just a guy who is extremely fit and trained in martial arts, so it would make sense that he would need to outsmart his enemies as well as counter and outmaneuver them. The battle system starts simple, but allows so many possibilities. Initially, it seems like just a punch button, and a counter button. As you learn it better however, you see that you can string punches into combos, watch enemies for a visual alert that they are about to attack and counter them, then roll in several of the special finishers moves, while never breaking the original combo. As the combo builds, Batman moves faster and more viciously from enemy to enemy. If you happen to be too far away from an enemy to continue a combo, you can toss a batarang at them to mix it up. It works so well because it’s simple to learn, difficult to master, and the game continues to add little wrinkles as you go, with new enemies that require special techniques to defeat. I never once dreaded having to go into a battle, or any stealth parts for that matter. Both parts are done amazingly well. Additionally, the game
goes the extra mile by including quality platforming elements, tons of worthwhile secrets that are liberally sprinkled throughout the game, legitimately interesting puzzles, and iconic, fun boss fights. The game doesn’t throw every single Batman villain ever at you, and I appreciate that. We focus on a few villains, and you can tell a lot of love went into integrating these characters into both the game and the plot in a way that made sense.
At this point, I’ve written a thousand words or so without mentioning the story. While the game excelled at getting to the heart of Batman with the game mechanics, it really shines with a truly excellent story penned by noted writer Paul Dini. Arkham Asylum was the perfect place for a Batman game, as it is a labyrinthine prison ground that has a variety of areas to contain the many supervillains. These areas then become the basis for the plot to move forward. As the Joker runs wild and slowly leads Batman through the game, you must go through the sewers and end up encountering Croc, or explore a greenhouse that becomes a deathtrap with a crazed Ivy in it. And what is great about the world is that it changes with the plot. When Ivy’s plants run wild, every other area of the game changes its look and becomes completely different. However, Joker is the real driving plot force here, and he is a real treat. Mark Hamill reprises his role as the Joker from the animated series and pulls off one of his best performances as Batman’s most formidable foe. He relentlessly talks and taunts you over the PA system, watching you on the security cams as you roam the asylum. His ultimate goal remains a mystery throughout the game, but little clues here and there slowly reveal his agenda in what is a pretty creative use of the villain Bane. In all, while I hesitate to spoil too much, this game had a plot that would have made an amazing comic book mini-series, which is remarkable. The way the game uses Scarecrow in order to change the gameplay and also subtly tell Bruce Wayne’s backstory in a trippy, unsettling fashion is one of the many highlights of integration of the gameplay and the story. There’s simply so much to like about the game. Many of the hidden extras are actually interesting, as there are interview tapes that document more about the villains, sometimes in amusing, sometimes in scary manners. Then there are character profiles to find that give you backstories on nearly every Batman character, even ones you’ve likely never heard of. And then there are hidden stones that chronicle the history of Arkham and tell a mysterious story that compels you to find them all. The extras here were interesting enough for me to find all of them, and that is saying something. And the game rarely ever makes you feel like it is deserted or devoid of life, as there is usually stray prison guards trying to hold down the fort, or criminals to confront, or a commissioner to save, etc. For a locked down asylum, it’s a rather alive world. Then there is the more tangible video game things to like. The game looks amazing. The characters are unique and interesting interpretations of the comic and movie versions, mixed in with the animated series voices, which is just great fan service. The game looks amazing in high definition, as Batman looks highly detailed and shows signs of wear and tear as the night goes on. The lighting and visual effects are striking too, and each area and segment to the game seem to have a certain unique aura to them. The controls, likewise, are tight and lend themselves well to what you are required to do through the game. They are simple, but responsive, and it took little time for me to find them second nature. The score is appropriately Batman feeling, and does a wonderful job of supporting what is going on during the game at that particular time. I really don’t have much to criticize about the game. I suppose I could say that while the introduction is amazingly cinematic and entertaining, the first hour of gameplay or initially underwhelming. The first areas are kind of soulless, metallic corridors that just get you used to the mechanics. Once you arrive at the Arkham prison yard, the game really opens up and allows you explore some giant environments. I mean, that’s really it as far as complaints. This is a total and complete Batman package. It serves as a great Batman story, stays true to the character of Batman with its gameplay, and most importantly, is a blast to play. This is my unquestioned choice for game of the year right now, and should be on everyone’s must play list.