Finding a licensed superhero game which stays true to the source material while still managing to be fun is ridiculously hard. Just ask a fan of Superman how they feel about the assorted attempts to bring the Man of Steel to consoles and you're likely to hear groans of contempt coupled with regretful sighs. Batman has fared better, with most of his games at least playable if not necessarily good experiences.
Batman: Arkham Asylum (Xbox 360, PS3 [reviewed], PC)
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Eidos Interactive/Warner Bros.
Released: August 25th, 2009 (PS3/360) / September 15th, 2009 (PC)
MSRP: $59.99 (PS3/360) / $49.99 (PC)
Allow me to make one thing explicitly clear before we go any further: I am a Batman fanboy. I make no excuses for this but felt it fair to warn you ahead of time because I'm likely to be more critical of a game using this licensed property over nearly any other. That said, Arkham Asylum is a great game. It is not perfect, but it is quite probably one of the very best comic book superhero titles ever made.
Unfortunately, the biggest issue comes from the story. I started to have my doubts when the goal of Joker's grand scheme began to come into focus. Without delving into the salient plot points, it just didn't feel like the sort of plan I would have come to expect from the villain and spent more than half of the game waiting for the other clown shoe to drop. It never does, however, and Arkham Asylum suffers a bit for it.
What would otherwise be merely a missed opportunity winds up tarnishing the experience in the game's climactic final battle. This is done by continuing the main ploy out to a conclusion befitting a far less formidable foe. While it is in the very nature of the Joker as a character to be chaotic and act in unexpected ways, the actions he takes in the games' final minutes seem uncharacteristic and are a massive letdown in the name of creating a stereotypical "boss encounter" to finish things off.
It's a tragic conclusion to an otherwise strong plotline that succeeds in offering just enough of the Batman world without being overwhelming. While there are a few supervillains Batman must face throughout, Arkham Asylum manages to avoid an all-too-common trap by not cramming the game full with as many of the Rogues Gallery as can fit. Instead, they are sprinkled throughout at a nice, even pace and make sense in the context of the plot. Each character is there for a reason -- though they may not necessarily be part of Joker's plan -- and not once is there the sense that these characters exist solely to be thrown at the player.
There are, in essence, three major components which make up the gameplay. You'll spend a considerable amount of time trekking through the grounds, exploring all that Arkham Asylum has to offer. Hordes of prisoners wait for you to march in and pummel the consciousness out of them in combat-centric rooms while other locales require you to employ stealth to avoid a quick death at the hands of armed inmates.
I'll be talking primarily about the combat mechanics. Exploration and stealth aspects of the game will be covered in more depth by Jim and Anthony respectively. To sum up my thoughts on them, I found the stealth gameplay to be excellent fun instead of simply making me tense, which is nice. Exploring the island is enjoyable to a point and a side-quest where you must find answers to Riddler's queries is neat, but it's nothing to get too excited about.
As for combat? Fighting the escaped inmates of Arkham and Blackwater Penitentiary is exceedingly fun and will make you feel like a badass. The combat controls are simplistic and satisfying, placing a greater emphasis on timing attacks than button combinations. Batman basically has one button to attack, one for countering attacks and a third to stun enemies. Certain enemy types have restrictions on how they must be attacked -- knife-wielding foes must be stunned before being struck, for example -- but it's reasonably easy to start a chain of attacks and keep them going.
As you build a combo, Batman ceases to soften enemies up and delivers a powerful strike with each press of the attack button. The longer you can maintain a chain, the easier the going is as combatants drop to the floor after every attack and the more experience points (more on that in a moment) earned. Strategies exist to keep things moving on a combo for groups of inmates large and small but you can probably brute force your way through just about any encounter with the game's thugs with little difficulty.
After about thirty seconds of getting used to the rhythm of combat, performing long strings of moves becomes second nature. On all but the hardest difficulty setting, enemies indicate when they are about to attack and should be countered so it's easy to fall into the groove of offense and defense. It feels like you're choreographing a ballet of pain as Batman drops one bad guy after another. Once the enemy types which need to be stunned or dodged before you can hurt them start showing up, battles get more challenging but that basic rhythm to fighting remains unchanged, allowing for a fluid and comfortable progression of difficulty.
As you fight bad guys and solve puzzles, you'll earn experience points which fill a meter near your health. Once you've earned enough points, you'll be able to upgrade some of Batman's abilities. There is not a huge list of items to choose from, a benefit in my personal opinion but may be considered lackluster by some. These upgrades provide more health, some more complex attacks and improvements to Batman's gadgetry, such as a Sonic Batarang which can attract enemies to its location.
Speaking of gadgets, Batman has some excellent equipment. What's great about the gear he carries is how versatile it all is. Batarangs, the Bat-Hook and the extremely cool gel-based explosive all have multiple applications for their use. So, unlike some games where the player collects various kit and has to constantly switch between them, Arkham Asylum keeps the amount of item collecting down. You'll still switch inventory items somewhat frequently, but there are at least less of them to deal with and they're all fun to use.
Once you've reached the conclusion of the campaign, you are free to load your saved game and return for some post-game exploration of the island. I'll let Jim explain why you might care and simply comment that while I appreciate the opportunity to find things that I missed the first time around without having to start a new game, Arkham is boring without anyone to fight in it. In my post-story gameplay of about three hours, I've encountered two lunatics to fight and the lack of action makes me loathe to continue.
In addition to the campaign, Arkham Asylum has a collection of "Challenge Maps" where you can test your skills and post scores to the leaderboards. These challenges are bite-sized chunks of specific gameplay, either brawling or stealthily clearing a room of enemies. They're excellent to just pick up and play after you've finished the single-player mode and will really refine your skills in the event you choose to play on a harder difficulty setting.
At the end of the day, I will admit to being angry and disappointed at the finale of Arkham Asylum and the Batman fanboy in me wants to tell you that Eidos ruined everything. Fact is, they have made a great, great game here. Even the boss battle at the end, the only thing I can honestly say I hate about this title, would probably be enjoyable provided one was willing and able to see past its relationship to the rest of the game. It is absolutely worth your time and money.
Conrad has pretty much covered everything so I'll be brief as I can. Batman: Arkham Asylum is a good game. It's a great game, in fact. Very few videogames come close to truly capturing what it feels like to be a particular superhero, but as players silently stalk their prey, hang from gargoyles and screw with the minds of villains, they will truly feel as if they're donning the cowl of the Dark Knight himself.
The game is full of incredibly memorable moments. Standout selections for me have to be the tense game of cat-and-mouse in Killer Croc's lair, the various interview tapes dotted around Arkham that shed light on each villain and, of course, the improbably amazing battles against The Scarecrow. In fact, Scarecrow threatens to upstage Joker throughout the game, which is no mean feat, and as a Scarecrow fan, it's something I appreciate immensely.
Arkham Asylum is brilliant in places, but there are problems. For me, the biggest issue is the fact that the game is a collect-a-thon, to the point where it overwhelms. The aforementioned interview tapes are one thing. They're great to listen to. The various "Riddles" throughout the game are pretty great as well. The Riddler will send you cryptic clues describing various objects and scenes that you can "photograph" to earn experience points. Some of these are very clever and it can be cool to hunt them down. However, there's just so much of it. Interview tapes, Riddles, Riddler trophies, Arkham symbols, secret maps and Joker Teeth are strewn about the levels and it becomes almost disheartening trying to track them down. The game didn't need to hide behind so many secrets. This kind of busywork does not equal gameplay value to me.
The game also suffers from a very tight camera that feels far too claustrophobic, seemingly humping Batman's back at every turn. The dark lighting of the game and the fact that enemies are difficult to make out means that most of your time will also be spent in Batman's "detective mode" which turns everything blue and highlights villains easily. As useful as the mode is, it's a shame that so much of the game is spent using it, since nobody wants to play a game that's almost entirely blue.
These are just minor aggravations in what is, essentially, a great comic-book title. Batman: Arkham Asylum takes what you know about licensed videogames and then completely disregards them. It's fun, it's consistent and it's clearly been made with love and attention. And once again, let me just add that Scarecrow is amazing.
Arkham Asylum is the single most fun stealth game ever made.
Yes, your enemies can sometimes feel as if they're about as aware of their surroundings as Helen Keller. Yes, the stealth sections don't become legitimately challenging until about three fourths of the way through the game. Even with these considerable faults, Arkham's stealth sequences are more briskly paced, creatively designed, and frustration-free than those found in literally any other game I can think of.
Apart from the odd sniper plaguing the grounds outside Arkham's buildings, the stealth bits usually take place in relatively large rooms full of gargoyles batman can grapple to, vents he can crawl through, and walls he can blast through. Where even some of the stealth genre's best games (Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid) typically revolve around memorizing enemy patterns and staying hidden, Arkham Asylum's stealth sequences focus more on the art of picking off enemies one by one. So long as you stay on a gargoyle, in a vent, or directly behind a grunt, you will never be spotted. Gone is the frustration of waiting thirty seconds for a guard to turn around before making your move, only to immediately get spotted by another guard you never saw, replaced instead by the sheer visceral thrill of glide-kicking a thug into submission from the air, spraying explosive gel near his body, and detonating it when his six buddies run over to check on him.
Though some of Batman's later gadgets are a bit too useful for their own good -- the multi-batarangs, in particular, are too powerful to be fun -- I had a tremendous amount of fun, both within the campaign and in the challenge rooms, experimenting with different ways to take out my enemies without being seen (one of my personal favorites: knocking out a dude near an electric door, then glide-kicking the first guy to check on him straight into the current, instantly incapacitating him). More than I would have thought possible, Arkham's stealth made me truly feel like Batman -- striking from the shadows with quick precision before grappling away, taking out enemies with a satisfying mixture of strategy and reflex. Again, the enemies do act a bit too stupid at times, which makes the stealth a bit too easy until the Joker starts forbidding you from using the deus ex machina-esque gargoyles more than once in a round, but even the easiest stealth sequences remain damned satisfying through the sheer Batman-esque power and creative freedom afforded to the player.
Given Arkham's satisfying-but-shallow combat, incredibly boring and repetitive bosses, and downright horrendous conclusion, I feel comfortable in saying that the stealth gameplay is the single coolest thing about the game. Or, alternately, Batman: Arkham Aslyum is the single coolest thing about stealth gameplay.
On an unrelated note: if you're deciding between 360 and PS3, get the PS3 version. The Joker's combat rooms may just be a re-skin of Batman's, but his stealth gameplay is entirely different -- with a gun, a chattering-teeth bomb and no grappling hook, he could not feel more different than the Dark Knight (in a good way) when it comes to stealth.
Overall Score: 8 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)
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