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More Gushing About Games I Love- Batman: Arkham Asylum

more-gushing-about-games-i-love-batman-arkham-asylum

It’s only rarely that I get a game that I really find worth spending the time and effort writing down the words that entail how I feel about it. Usually it’s always good. In this case, Batman: Arkham Asylum is no exception; it is stellar.

I’ll let you know when I get and play through a game that repulses me enough.

(fyi, some minor spoilers in this review. be prepared, although it’s been a good couple of months since its release, I think you can handle it.)

Anyways, the low-down on this stellar title.

Mechanics

Outside of combat, Batman plays remarkably like some Nintendo titles; the Metroid Prime series comes to mind here. Investigating trails, finding hidden objects and structural weaknesses in walls that bar your path, all this is done through a sort of visor-like vision system called “Detective Mode”. Turning on Detective Mode bathes everything in a blue-purple hue and allows you to see NPCs through walls. This is especially handy for rooting out the occasional ambush party, but also the Riddler makes an appearance to give you his own brand of brain-twisting riddles based on famously vague clues. You’ll be doing the solving of these riddles through looking in Detective Mode and holding down the switch from Detective/normal vision to trigger Batman’s environmental analysis photo-flash that captures the answer to those riddles. Doing these riddles and finding trophies the Riddler scattered around Arkham whenever he could (must’ve been on pretty damn good behavior for him to be let around the island so much) gives Batman extra XP to purchase upgrades with and unlocks various rewards outside the main game.

Batman is by no-means a straight beat-em-up, but its combat system is remarkably easy to jump into, allowing you to crush thugs’ faces with all the force and authority the cape and cowl carry. It’s all fine and dandy mashing buttons and you will get places doing that; however, for those of us more invested in the game, you’ll realize that there’s a pattern, however subtle, underlying all the beautiful chaos your fists introduce. Soon, building the combo-count becomes more than just an occasional opportunity to use those kick-ass bat-moves, it becomes a very real and very desirable mountain to climb. You’ll be chaining together strike after strike, interspersing them with brutal joint-twisting takedowns, cape-dazes, batarang tosses that disarm the gun-toters and goon ending faceplants.

That and when it comes down to it, it just looks so damn cool! The fight animations chain together super-smoothly. It’s a terrible letdown on the player if they get hit since the beautiful dance of face-mashing grinds to a screeching halt because someone tagged Batman on the back of the head. Narcissists and perfectionists need apply here. All others still might want to, since I’m sure you’ll get addicted to the thrill and splendor of pulling off a perfect uninterrupted chain of whoop-ass on a room full of 20+ angry convicts.

FYI: The count on some of the more packed areas can reach 30. For some of the challenge modes: 60, easy.

This is by no means easy; the enemies are smart, they’ll pick prime opportunities to strike the way they know how, and the remarkable thing is it feels totally natural the way they fight against you. Crowding around you in a circle, running in, taking a cheap shot with a fist to the back of the head, or taking a lead pipe to your shins, finding a gun cabinet and breaking into it for some firepower in a fistfight– these are all surprisingly smart things the enemies do given the circumstances. You’ll see how in a fight they pick opportune moments to attack, highlighted by a blue halo of lightning bolts (or red depending on their armaments), the “Bat-Sense” as it were though thankfully not called that, and this represents both an incoming attack and an opportunity to counter. If you’re not careful, the goons can actually land some decent combos themselves, doing some significant damage to Batman. This is not only a challenge, this drives home the atmospheric point that these are dangerous men, Arkham inmates, that Batman contends with, and for them to even land so much as a three-hit combo on Batman indicates how dangerous these people are. It makes the imperative of the situation SO MUCH more significant.

(A walkthrough of “Sewer Bat Extreme” challenge level from dualwielder.com just to illustrate what I’m talking about)

Driving home this point even more: the fact that guns can kill Batman quite quickly. Batman’s armor can really only take no more than a couple salvoes from an assault rifle or shotgun before he dies, and that’s already ridiculously strong body armor by realistic standards. This is why Batman’s counter to this, and the flipside of the combat system, is stealth.

As a trained ninja, Batman can creep along, staying out of sight, staying quiet, and thus out of the crosshairs of armed Arkham inmates. In his quest to regain control of the Asylum from the Joker, Batman will need to clear out his goons, however heavily armed they may be. To this end, Batman has quite a few options at his disposal. Most simply, he can sneak up behind an armed inmate and do a silent takedown. Easy, right? The possibilities mushroom after that. Most rooms with armed inmates will also be accompanied by conveniently placed stone gargoyles around the ceiling area, allowing Batman several convenient perches to observe the room from and hide on when the goons get too wise about him. Getting up to these gargoyles only requires looking at one and hitting the grapnel gun button, which fires a line onto the gargoyle and zipping Batman straight up to it wherever in the room he might be. From these gargoyles, Batman can fling batarangs, jump and glide down to kick an inmate in the face, or best of all, hang down from the gargoyle and string up an unsuspecting inmate as he walks past– more like a spider honestly, but there’s no denying the effectiveness. Batman’s explosive gel gadget also works as an impromptu shock mine, blowing out walls to knock inmates out, weak floors to drop them from a height, or just on a floor to take someone off his feet. The Batclaw, used normally to yank grates off high walls or objects from their elevated perches can also be used to latch onto unsuspecting inmates and have them suffer a little tumble over a railing and onto the floor below. Youch.

No one said this was your father’s Batman. The best part? If you screw up, it’s not game over, you can still transition to standard ass-kicking in hopes of salvaging the situation, and you can if you move quickly enough in beating people or escaping to the rafters by grapnel. It’s not the most realistic stealth system, but it’s forgiving and most importantly fun.

Huge props to the fight system team for this, because the behavior and the challenge level here are all totally Batman appropriate and support the atmosphere immensely. To engage opponents with lesser AI programming would make the enemies unbearably stupid in a fight, and would likely find cheap gimmicks introduced by the game makers to make the combat more challenging. Not so here. Seriously– huge, huge props to the studio for making pounding a criminal’s face into the pavement so enjoyable.

You then might think then, that if the goons are so much fun to fight, the bosses have got to be spectacular!

Ehh. Not so much. To be honest, Arkham sort of makes you wish the super-villains weren’t around (GASP– more on this later). What super-villains you do fight are based on the tried-and-true “follow this pattern or suffer” formula of boss battles. There’s nothing particularly WRONG with it, but it’s by now quite hackneyed and you wish there was so much more innovation on this end than there is. The boss battle with the Joker at the end is a particular victim of this lack of innovation– you would believe that the Clown Prince of Crime would do something more clever than dose-up on super radioactive-steroids to fight and finish Batman, and then not even engage him wholly one-on-one for length of the fight.

Now I’ve I sort of wished the super-villains weren’t around– what WOULD make you wish they were around?

Atmosphere (Graphics+Sound+Quality Story=Awesome?)

So far as Rocksteady built the game, the super-villains in Arkham are more paragons of personality rather than actually combat-worthy foes. Their designs are incredibly detailed and fit their established personalities to a tee. What really shines here is the way they’ve been brought to life by firstly the animators and secondly the iconic voices lent to the game. I’ll just drop two names for you here: Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. Both of these voice actors are in utterly top form as they portray Batman and the Joker, respectively, and their reprisals hearken back to the glory days of Batman: The Animated Series. True, Arkham Asylum is definitely not The Animated Series, but it feels like this game was built by people who were fans of the series. As a result of this, you’ll find that every little detail, even down to the story for the game which was written by Paul Dini, one of the regular scriptwriters for TAS, reflects the TAS Gotham as it should have been sans all the kiddie-friendly censorship. More brutality, more grit, more realism, and thus actual impetus for Batman to stop these criminals. Mark Hamill’s portrayal of the Joker is so good here sometimes you wish you didn’t have to stop him. Joker’s lines vary from menacing to drop-dead hilarious (pun perhaps intended?), and it’ll be those drop-dead hilarious lines that all of the game’s humor comes from, drawing a deep contrast between the serious good guys and the ridiculously happy-go-lucky villain persona of the Joker even given the massive chaos happening around them, even as Batman surely foils his plot. Heath Ledger might have had a spot-on portrayal of psychotic scary Joker, but Hamill owns the crazy-kinda-funny Joker portrayal. As a fan of the old TAS it’s the one I and probably a lot of people who grew up during the 90s are familiar with.

As an aside, no I did not forget about Kevin Conroy. He’s here delivering the classy baritone of Batman/Bruce Wayne the way most Batman fans love it. In fact, aside from him, the voice talents of all the major characters are spot on. Harley’s voice actor from TAS returns as well, bringing that sharp high-pitched sycophantic style, Killer Croc looks and sounds particularly menacing, the Riddler just gives off the aura of conceit and disdain,

Even the minions sound great, especially when you’re stalking them from the high rafters and they’re utterly terrified of what’ll happen to them next. Some of those gargoyle moments easily elicited a mua ha ha from me.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the amazingly flexible Unreal engine. Sharp textures, moody speculars and ragdoll/physics effects are all here, and it comes together wrapped in a dark gothic industrial art style that just oozes Batman. Couple that with the animations used in the game whether for fighting or just seeing Batman open his cape and glide from a high perch to kick someone in the face, and the game really looks just about as good as Modern Warfare does. Completely different games of course, but the way the animations play and the models and specular look, you could see one running in the other’s engine comfortably. Unreal’s a big show-off in this game, but all the better.

You literally cannot find a better Batman game than this. That’s not saying much, however, since Batman titles have historically been somewhat… suck-ish. But this is one of the greatest comic book superhero titles available, and even if you weren’t angling for the comic book superhero bit, you can rest assured this is a fantastic package of engaging presentation and addicting gameplay mechanics all around.

Now 2 months into its release, you should really give this a look.


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