Archive for December 13th, 2010

Games: Batman Arkham Asylum

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Get Your Gameface On

The best thing about Batman Arkham Asylum is that it’s a movie/comic book inspired game that is everything that the recent James Bond Blood Stone isn’t  – as EA, who have nothing to do with this title, say, it’s all about the game.  And this is a brilliant, tight, atmospheric, immersive, highly entertaining game. And I spent the best part of last weekend playing it from start to finish.

Batman - mysterious man of many faces not to mention numerous artistic styles

It helps that while Batman is every bit as elemental a  force of nature as Bond, he’s far more amenable to interpretation. Witness the wide variety of artists and writers who’ve been associated with him and his success in comics, cartoons and films.  And it’s equally useful that he’s been developed for a range of audiences, from the young kids who watch the Saturday morning cartoons, to the adolescents who read the monthly comics and pack out the cinemas all the way through to the oldsters like me who remember when Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight first came out (and have the original 4 comics to prove it thank you very much). It ensures that this visualisation of Batman, while indisputably unique, fits perfectly into the canon of Batworks.

And while the Game is written by animated cartoon series writer Paul Dini, it’s palpably based around the  core book that centres around Arkham Asylum itself, Grant Morison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth which, like the game itself, is intended for older readers. There’s both badness and madness within these walls and it’s not just confined to the inmates, the very walls of the place exude insanity. Similarly, Batman is clearly built on the big, hard, almost psychopathic hero inspired by Miller’s The Dark Knight, a Batman familiar to more mature readers and the latest movies rather than the quip-cracking Clooneyesque Adam West hero of yore, or the do-Gooding crime fighter of the kiddie cartoons.

Make no mistake, this Batman is big. Pro-wrestling, WWF, Xtreeme Fighting big. Masses of muscle beneath the old leotard and not an ounce of fat to be seen. He’s also mean and broody and you’d better believe he don’t take no nonsense from no one. His sheer size fits in perfectly with the dark undertone of threat that suffuses the whole game. And it’s a sense of threat that extends throughout all elements of the game.

The Dark Knight wanders aimlessly through the corridors of my old primary school looking for crims. Note, I probably kicked off some of those tiles. Sorry.

The visual design matches all of this and is fantastic. It’s dark and vicious and unclean. The interiors have that depressing distressed institutional feel to them, eerily reminiscent of my late victorian primary school and the sort of hospitals where patients are left in corridors to die. They feel spooky, creepy and old, perfectly in keeping with Arkham’s own story. Out in the open it’s equally dark and inhospitable. The sense of place you get is outstanding, it’s clear, this is not a nice place to be. It feels unique and the characters have a three dimensionality to them that I’ve not seen before in a game.

The gameplay more than lives up to the setting – it’s a good bit of stealth, some kick ass fighting, a lot of mazey moving about, a little bit of basic detecting, with enough open ended exploration and reward searching to make each section feel different each time you play. And while I would have liked a bit more of the open ended exploration, this is being really nitpicky. It takes a good half-day to rush through and there’s still a whole load of stuff I hadn’t got around to.

Woof! Batman lays into one of the many crims under the Joker's influence.

All the controls are intelligent – it’s not just a case of button mashing, although that will take you a certain distance. It’s easy and intuitive to move around, while the sneaking and fighting are just the right balance of ease and sophistication. And moments when you come into a room with multiple guards can be dealt with in a variety of ways, usually involving some kind of tactics for separating the opponents and the taking them down individually using stealth rather than simply having a great big fistfight out in the open. The moment you find yourself having to take out seven hardcore crims armed with machine guns without taking a single shot makes for a genuinely tense experience.

And there’s a wide variation in game styles within the game, as the third person stealth fighting style gives way to a 3d platforming mode every now and then. Anywhere else this would be a jarring clash of styles, but here even this is woven seamlessly into the storyline, being those moments when Batman is under the influence of Scarecrow’s fear toxin.

The gameplay falls on just the right amount of challenging, there were the inevitable moments of frustration, and after a while I could have done without the taunting cutscene loading thing after each death, but the challenge was never so great I felt it was unfair or gamestopping. However, occasionally you need to actually die to be given the hint you need as to how to actually defeat your enemies, which is kind of irritating.

If it has a flaw (and we’re being super picky here) it’s that the bigger boss battles, Bane, Poison Ivy and the Joker, along with pretty much the whole Killer Croc episode, become very linear and set piecey. There’s one way to defeat them and that’s it and it’s sometimes a tiny bit monkey see monkey do button clicking to onscreen prompts. The final Joker scene especially.

Other than that it’s sins of omission. I ended up wanting more. More levels, more of Batman’s archetypal enemies as I’m not big on Bane and Poison Ivy is a bit limp. I wish the island on which Arkham is built was bigger with more areas to explore, more baddies and more rewards to discover. Which is exactly what the upcoming Arkham City, due out this year, threatens to do. Sweet.

[review pros="Fantastic gameplay, Great storyline, Hugely atmospheric" cons="Boss battles a little predictable" score=90]