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: Game Review - Batman: Arkham Asylum (PS3 Version)
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Sep 21st 2009
It feels kind of useless to be reviewing "Batman: Arkham Asylum" at this point. It's like a band that's just finished performing a fantastic single, received a five minute long ovation and I only started applauding halfway into the next song. But for a game like this, the developer Rocksteady deserves all the praise it can get, so I throw my two cents into the wind in the hopes someone will read yet another opinion on how good "Arkham Asylum" is without going "nooooooooooooooo shit."
The Batman captures The Joker. Again. Only this time, The Joker seemed to go down far too easily. Suspicious, Batman takes him to Arkham Asylum, from where so many inmates escape I expected its main gate to be a revolving door by now. When The Joker finally finds himself out of Batman's reach, he escapes the guards and Harley Quinn is revealed to be in control of Arkham Asylum's security system -- which turns Batman into a guest of honor in a party thrown by The Joker.
The plot is written by comic author Paul Dini, who does an excellent job for the most part. He understands that Batman is, after all, totally fucking nuts. Let's describe him, shall we? A multi-billion-zillionaire who wears a costume that only very vaguely resembles a bat and that looks quite ridiculous to be honest and refuses to kill anyone even after said anyone has murdered half the supporting cast and fails to be contained by any institution or prison you throw him in.
A particularly interesting moment is when Batman can stop the Joker before the shit hits the fan, but doing so would result in The Joker's death: so Batman stays his hand and lets The Joker go ahead and murder... a lot of innocent people. So, as it is quite obvious, Batman is a genius crimefighter and also completely insane. It's one of the things that makes him interesting and believable, and Dini fortunately understands that, toying with the notion especially on the sequences when you're fighting Scarecrow's fear gas.
But there are some nitpicks, like some of the moments Batman is talking to himself -- one hilarious bit is when we see a bunch of dead guards and Batman goes, "The Joker's been busy. These poor guards didn't stand a chance!" Kind of strange why they're EMPLOYED then, isn't it? You'd think being a guard in Arkham Asylum would train you to handle murdering clowns, but then again it's been established by now that the asylum might as well be a hotel for nutcases for all its efficiency.
Dini only truly fails in the ending, where he seems to decide that, this being a game, the narrative should end with a bombastic, action-packed climax rather than a more appropriate, cerebral one -- and it could end with a combination of both, but he preferred to solve all the questions raised about Batman's sanity and his relationship with the Joker with a simplistic one-liner and an ending that... feels like it doesn't really end anything. In fact, like most games these days, the ending screams SEQUEL, and I really, REALLY wish game developers would worry more about telling a story with a beginning, a middle and an end before they start to even consider another one.
(continued in comments)
Sep 21st 2009
Still, the plot is always interesting and there's just the right amount of story and gameplay. Setting the whole thing in Arkham Asylum is an obvious excuse for Batman to fight his most famous villains, and the game delivers on that in varied and interesting ways. Each villain has their own style of fighting Batman -- the Scarecrow uses the fear gas, the Killer Croc is sneakier than he seems and just as dangerous as he seems and Poison Ivy protagonises a "Dead Space" like boss fight. This is hugely important in keeping the game always fresh.
Mostly, the gameplay is divided in three: sneaking sequences, fighting sequences and going-from-one-place-to-the-next sequences. Rocksteady shines in all of those, adding brilliant gameplay elements to all of them. One gadget that is important for most of the game is Batman's detective vision, which allows you to see through walls, find secrets, spot enemies and even see their heartbeats, all with a bluish filter. Some have asked, "why the fuck should I turn that OFF, then?". I have to admit it's a pertinent question, but the game does look way better on normal vision, so do train yourself to switch it on and off regularly. You whining little bitch.
The sneaking sequences usually consist of Batman and a room full of heavily armed thugs. In order to proceed, you must clear the room, and the game gives you a large number of options on how to do that. You can either do it at ground level, or climb on conveniently-placed gargoyles on the walls with the help of your quite staggeringly efficient grappling hook. From up there, you can oversee the whole room and take the thugs out one by one. Or three at the same time, if you wish.
You can drop down from a gargoyle, grab a thug and go back up, proceeding to hang him from the gargoyle by the foot. Or you can drop down from a gargoyle, open your cape and glide all the way to a thug for a meeting between his face and your boots. You can use the grappling hook to grab three thugs at the same time, pull them over a railing and have them fall ten feet to uncounsciousness (it'd be quite funny if one of them fatally broke his neck, but I guess their rippling muscles and the fact they all look like even tougher versions of Mickey Rourke make that impossible). You can use your explosive gel to blow up a weak wall next to a thug, or the floor below him, or above him. You can sneak up to one and perform a silent takedown. And the best part is that the more thugs you neutralise, the more nervous the remaining ones get, until they are shooting their guns blindly at loud noises and begging for mercy while Joker teases them from the intercom.
You have, of course, to suspend your disbelief at the fact that even if they spot you on a gargoyle, if you escape their shooting and hide yourself again, the thugs forget about the gargoyles like nothing happened. They are kind of idiots, but sneaking in games often requires a lot to be overseen, like in the Splinter Cell series, where enemies always fail to notice the three glowing, bobbing green dots from Sam Fisher's goggles in the shadows. And to the game's credit, the thugs do booby-trap the gargoyles later in the game.
More and more options keep opening up as you upgrade Batman's arsenal with the points you get from your overall performance in the game, not just on the sneaking sequences, but also on the fighting ones. The combat system is nothing short of superb. You hit square to attack, triangle to counter-attack when a little warning shows up over an enemy's head, circle to stun enemies with your cape and x to jump over their heads. The more attacks you successfully perform without missing one or being hit yourself, the more your combat multiplier increases, giving you the chance to perform takedowns or throws, and also handing out way more upgrade points. The objective is, whenever possible, to take down an entire room of enemies in a single, flowing combo. And not only the game manages to make that intuitive, it looks INCREDIBLY good. Batman's animations are flawless and the punches and kicks are painfully strong, with a good variety of enemies that require different techniques to be taken down. And the only little, stupid nitpicks I have are regarding the fact that, while connecting combos, Batman can leap from one side of a large room to the other with preposterous agility, and that, when being knocked out by a final, overwhelming hit, the enemies clutch the area of their bodies where they were hit -- which looks realistic most of the time, but some times it looks amazing that they can still be conscious enough for that after some of Batman's bone-shattering kicks.
As the icing on top of the cake, there's an action camera that beautifully captures the last thug in a room as you kick his ass into dreamland. Gorgeous stuff.
However, to say the gameplay is "divided" into those sequences is a bit unfair -- "Batman: Arkham Asylum" struggles to be constantly fresh and varied, and it really is. Over the course of the game, you find yourself fighting huge aberrations, sneaking silently on sewers, looking for Riddler's riddles (an interesting and surprisingly addictive mini-game that is entirely optional), fighting several different thugs, fighting the dark corners of Batman's mind (courtesy of Scarecrow), gliding enormous distances with your cape -- way more variety than you'd expect from a game that happens in a small island. It's all thanks to Dini's story, which always finds new situations to put Batman in, and Rocksteady's good gameplay ideas. There's some welcome little additions too, like character biographies that are far from being a boring read.
(continued in comments)
Sep 21st 2009
Technically, "Arkham Asylum" is amazingly competent. What immediately stands out aside from the good sound effects are the voiceovers. Guess who steals the show. As the Joker, Mark Hamill does his typically excellent job, even making some of Dini's less successful one-liners into something acceptable. As Batman, Kevin Conroy's strong voice is efficient, if ocasionally a bit cheesy ("These poor guards didn't stand a chance!", for example, even though this is largely Dini's fault). The cast as a whole is efficient and Ron Fish's soundtrack fits the gameplay and the mood of the story well, and has some memorable tracks.
And while I concede I'm sick of the Unreal Engine used for EVERY GAME these days... "Arkham Asylum" looks very good. The level design is exceptional, the animations are amazing, the modeling can look a bit stony but this is clearly part of the game's visual style. It should also be said the physics are very well-implemented, and the way thugs react to your punches and kicks, aside from the aforementioned nagging nitpick of clutching their wounds, couldn't be better.
With a single-player campaign that's lengthy enough, and challenge rooms and riddles to keep you occupied for a while after it's over, "Batman: Arkham Asylum" is a brilliant game that marries gameplay and story in a very balanced way and provides a varied and fresh experience. It also gets the main thing right: you feel like Batman while you play this.
The only exception being, of course, that he's nuts and you're probably not.
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