Friday, 9 October 2009

Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Not just another night on the job for the Caped Crusader, as he takes on an island full of thugs and psychos - and that's before he gets to the Joker...

As I slipped the disc into my xbox, I have to confess, I was feeling both excited and nervous. Batman has a chequered history with videogames, as do most superheros. I'm reliably informed that there were enjoyable games back in the days of the SNES, but I was about two years old then, so not really up to the job of playing them. In recent years, we've had LEGO Batman, which was fun but hardly an immersive experience.

Can Arkham Asylum do any better? Well, it has good grounding: the script is by Paul Dini, one of the writers from the excellent animated series, and writer of some of the best Batman comics of the last few years, in my opinion. In addition, voice work was provided by some of the cast members from said animated series, specifically Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. However, this is not based on the cartoon; while the game isn't set within any specific Batman continuity, it could easily be slotted into the universe of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The Joker here is a psychopath, not the Clown Prince of Crime. I should also point out that Mark Hamill is one of the best parts of the game, as he takes over the asylum's radio system, broadcasting throughout the game to you and his troops - his 'encouraging' asides are hilarious, yet also chilling, capturing the essence of the character perfectly.

We get off to an atmospheric start that owes much to Half-Life - controlling Batman as he escorts the Joker (strapped to a trolley, Hannibal Lector style) through the halls of Arkham Asylum, complete with sinister commentary from Joker. However, it isn't long before all hell breaks lose...

The first thing to say? The game looks fantastic. Minor characters such as the goons that you spend most of the game beating senseless look largely the same, with maybe five different character models, but each major character is brought chillingly to life. Batman is superbly realised, right down to the rivets on his armour, and the stubble that forms on his chin the further into the game you get - even more impressive when you take into account that you spent most of the game looking at his back; the detail is hardly necessary. Similarly, we don't *need* to see his costume getting torn, or his cape shredded, but it's an impressive level of detail, and it is applied to the game as a whole. The various locations of the asylum all look real, and very, very grimy. Arkham would be closed down, were it a real hospital, but it makes a fantastic game world - especially when you get outside, and aren't restricted to running around corridors. One of the best moments in the game, for me, was grappelling up a clock tower, before swooping off the top and gliding hundreds of yards across the island. It looked magnificent. There are a few odd stylistic choices - many of the main rooms in the game have gargoyles in, which is odd even for a lunatic asylum, but they are a useful game device (of which more later), so I'll give that a pass.

The next aspect to comment on is the combat, as not only does it make up a large portion of the game, but it is the first 'proper' aspect of the game that you will play. At first, it seems simple. You have three buttons: attack, counter, and stun (sweep with your cape). To succeed in combat, you simply have to work your way through the attackers with combinations of these buttons. However, this simplicity is deceptive. Combat earns you experience, and you earn more experience with more varied combat. For instance, you could punch one guy, run away, hit another, run away, rinse and repeat. Or, you could focus several attacks on one guy until his friend runs up behind you to hit you over the head with a lead pipe. You could then hit the counter button, causing Batman to rip the pipe from the thug's hands, smack the thug with it, before cracking his head down into the ground, before seamlessly whirling back to kick the other thug in the face for a finisher. Later in the game, you can upgrade gadgets, so that you can use Batarangs in combos, and your grapple gun to yank people towards you. At times like this, you really feel like the Dark Knight, and a real force to be reckoned with.
That sensation is only heightened in the 'Predator' rooms. That's right, the combat system is varied! You get traditional combat, and you get stealth play. These rooms play like Sam Fisher or Solid Snake in dress up and with cooler toys. You pop into a room, and find that there are (generally) six or so thugs, all heavily armed. Because this is a 'realistic' take on Batman - or as close as you can get - there is no way you can take them on face to face. You have to hide in the shadows... So, to take an example: swoop up onto a gargoyle, waiting for a patrolling goon to wander past. Dangle from the gargoyle, and yank him up to the roof, before dropping him away, suspended from the gargoyle by his feet. While his comrades are investigating his screams of panic, spray explosive gel on a wall. When they return to their patrols - now nervous, and looking into the shadows - wait for one to walk past before blowing the wall down on top of him. As they run to the latest disturbance, swoop down from another gargoyle, feet first into someones neck, before slamming his face into the ground. Once again, you really feel like Batman, and not just a generic video game character. There's an extra twist to this system from the 'Detective Vision', which allows you to moniter peoples heart rates. There's a certain sadistic pleasure to be had from watching your foes go from calm, to nervous, to terrifed - eventually, instead of shooting you on sight, they will drop their weapons and cower away from you!

However, while it does add something to the 'Predator' rooms, detective vision is probably the worst part of the game. It baths everything in x-ray vision, allowing you to see thugs through walls, track fingerprints and traces of cigarette smoke through the level, and generally give you a vital edge. But basically, it's a way to give you signposts to your next objective. It isn't quite as blatent as putting an arrow at the top of the screen (Bioshock, I'm looking at you), but you switch to detective vision, look for a sign post, and follow the trail. It works, within the game's world, and it's certainly the sort of thing Batman might conceivably have, but... It just feels a bit cheap, somehow. On a similar note, many of the boss fights are essentially the same, with the final fight being a little bit of an anticlimax.

And, essentially, that's the core of the game. Beat people up/stealthily take them down, interspersed with finding the right thing to follow, and then heading to your next objectives. It is only rarely that the game deviates from this formula, and to say more about those would be to reveal spoilers. Rest assured though, that the three appearances by one of Batman's iconic foes are some of the most memorable parts of the game. Replay value is added through the wealth of collectibles to be found - the Riddler starts contacting you, leaving you riddles and secrets to find, and some of them are inspired. However, once you've found everything, there isn't an overwhelming urge to dive straight back into the main game.

Where the game truly succeeds though is the note-perfect recreation of the Batman universe. This isn't an action/adventure game with Batman trappings; this is a Batman simulator.

8/10: Some minor flaws and a potential lack of replay value stop this being a perfect game, but this is an essential purchase for any Batman fan. Highly recommended.

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