Review: Batman Arkham Asylum
We could fill this intro paragraph with some gumpf about the innumerable awful Batman games that litter the annals of videogame history - can Arkham Asylum buck the trend etc.? We could, but we won't. It will only waste valuable time, so we'll cut right to the chase and tell you that Batman: Arkham Asylum isn't one of these games. Even if we expand the search to all superhero games, we're struggling to think of a title in recent times that comes close to the level of quality exhibited here by Rocksteady Studios and Eidos.
At its heart, Arkham Asylum is a hack 'n slash game, which is a genre that has two fundamental gameplay tenets at its core: puzzles and combat. Put another way, poor hack 'n slashers usually fall down on at least one of these two areas, if not both. Great hack 'n slash titles, on the other hand, excel at both (i.e. God of War). The curious thing about Arkham Asylum is that combat and puzzles are not where it excels. It's not that there's anything wrong with either one - both gameplay devices are thoroughly competent throughout - It's just that they're not the elements that shine through.
Instead, aspects of the game such as its story, characters, hidden items, inventory, and set-pieces are what set it apart from the rest. Other hack 'n slash titles will often gloss over features like these, treating them as little more than padding, but Arkham Asylum embraces them. As a result, well observed touches are poured all over the periphery of this game, raising it from an above average title to one that lies somewhere on the border between very good and superb.
Other set-pieces that particularly stand out are the stealth sections in Arkham Asylum. Our fears at the preview stage were that these sections might suffer from two-dimensional AI and overly rigid principles, such as Batman's ability to disappear from the enemy's sight simply by mounting a gargoyle statue. Having played through the game, we can now say that although the principles are rigid, this is by no means a bad thing. It's actually what makes the experience fun, which may not be for stealth purists but we'll bet good money that most gamers will enjoy it.
In addition to the sonic Batarang, there are a range of other upgradeable gadgets to get to grips with throughout the game, whether it's one that spurts out explosive gel or another that uses a nifty thumbstick mini-game to power-down electrified doors. Each one makes you feel more like The Dark Knight himself, which is perhaps the ultimate aim of a Batman game after all. These gadgets are also pretty useful for uncovering hidden items across Arkham, of which there are literally hundreds, from trophies dished out by The Riddler to mysterious memorial stones for the asylum's founder, Amadeus Arkham.
These items don't merely unlock cursory concept art and stale character bios though, as paying close attention to them uncovers oodles of depth underneath the game's surface. Usually we don't have much time for the way these story branches are dished out in games, via a lump of badly written text that pops up on screen when you uncover a letter or some such. In Arkham Asylum's case though, they're dished out through voice clips, such as records of psychiatric sessions with the game's supervillain inmates or the tragic side story of Amadeus Arkham told from beyond the grave by the founder himself.
All of this serves to immerse gamers in the world further beyond the stunning visual depiction of Arkham itself, which is without doubt the best use of Unreal Engine 3 technology outside of an Epic game. Snappy dialogue for the game's characters is then expertly provided by perfect-for-the-job script writer Paul Dini, while Mark Hamill's role reprisal as The Joker couldn't be more spot-on. It all adds up to a story, characters, and setting that are darker than The Bat himself, which is far more than we could have hoped for (most Batman games veer more towards the corny superhero image, as if they were pictures on the front of a cereal box).
But while all of these supplemental features are far beyond what most games manage to muster, the rudimentary gameplay also flows strongly alongside this and is paced well enough that the game rarely becomes repetitive. Combat is simplistic but manages to avoid the rigmarole of button mashing that the genre is plagued by with the application of a rhythmic system for attacks. A multiplier is ratcheted up with well-timed, chained attacks on the X button or counter attacks on the Y button, while a range of Takedown moves can then be used to finish off an enemy. Upgradeable finishing moves, which can be dished out once a certain amount of chained hits are achieved, then become available as the game progresses.
The combat really is that simple, although widely varied animations that flow well between each attack do make the system feel much more dynamic than it would otherwise have been. In all fairness though, the system is a lot more fitting of Batman's character than one that would have him doing triple-whipspin Batarang attacks by pressing X, X, X, Y, B, as is often the case in lesser hack 'n slash games. Nonetheless, we'd like to have seen more variation in the enemies we faced throughout the game. Rocksteady Studios attempts to up the ante too many times by simply throwing more enemies at you rather than different types that require varying approaches. Beyond the game's basic henchmen, enemies don't get much more varied than a knife or cattle prod wielding bad guy, so a little more spice could've been added by Rocksteady here. Occasional mini-bosses pumped with a drug called Titan do remedy this problem to a degree in the game's later stages though.
Puzzle solving is then dealt with through the game's Detective Mode, which is initiated with the left bumper and casts an X-ray style filter over the environment. Through this filter, gamers can pickup everything from DNA and fingerprint trails left by supervillains and those they have kidnapped, to electronic panels that can be fiddled with to open doors or kick-start ventilator shaft fans. With that in mind, we've got to say that we haven't seen the plot device of a ventilator shaft being hammered to quite such an extent since the Alien movies. Batman is invariably locked out of pretty much everywhere in Arkham Asylum and asks with almost comical repetition when this happens, "There must be another way in, there always is." Could that be a ventilator shaft by chance? Almost invariably in this game's case, yes.
The single-player campaign's length clocks in far beyond the 10 hour mark and will likely take around 15 hours for most gamers to play through. In addition to this, the sheer volume of items dotted around the game world and the various ways to get at them (it's almost reminiscent of LEGO: Batman in this way), make multiple play-throughs more appealing than most other games. Once all of that's done and dusted, a Challenge mode with online leaderboards then extends Arkham Asylum's impressive lifecycle, making it a more than worthy purchase.