Batman: Arkham Asylum Review
Ahh, Superhero games, not many developers have managed to get them right over the years. We had a number of decent beat 'em ups over during the 8 and 16-bit era, but the 3D generation has brought us a world of virtual pain like no other...Superman 64, anyone? Yeah. And while the early Spider-Man games for the PlayStation were good, we never really got anything that blew us away. Until now, that is. With Batman: Arkham Asylum we are given the first proper Bruce Wayne game that actually captures the look, feel and grit of Gotham and its inhabitants, including Batman and his villains. A merger of stealth and action, Arkham Asylum is a game we had to wait quite a while for, but the end result is well worth it. Here's Ben's thoughts on the gameplay, and I'll take over graphics, sound, and the conclusion...
Although superhero games really aren't my thing and I was never into comic books as a kid, I have enjoyed the last few "Batman" movies and I had very high hopes heading into my time with Batman: Arkham Asylum. I've heard nothing but good things about the gameplay and after playing for a solid three hours, I began to realize what all the gamers were raving about. I was starting to really grasp the highly fluid, dynamic, and intuitive nature of the battle system; I was enjoying each of the characters more and more, and although the backtracking was getting to me, I was rapidly becoming a big fan of the inherent pacing. And then, I played even more, and discovered great stuff: you won't spend too much time beating on baddies; you won't become bored searching around for clues in detective mode; you won't always be looking for new and inventive ways to take on large groups of armed enemies (stealth, anyone?), and you won't be wasting too much time climbing, gliding and performing general platforming movements. No, it all just gels. That's the mark of a great action game that implements a variety of different elements, in my honest opinion:
See, everything just comes together to feel seamless. Nothing feels disjointed. The very moment you feel as if you've gotten your fill of one particular section of the game, you conveniently move on to another section, where you will be doing different things. The game isn't outrageously deep, but due to this excellent blending of different gameplay elements and pacing, it doesn't have to be. It simply feels like a complete, polished production and at the same time, it rarely lets up on the intensity and general fun factor. Let's deal with the movement and camera mechanics first- some may complain that the camera sits too close to Batman when simply wandering around and exploring, and while I'd normally agree, it didn't seem to hinder my view or progress in any way. Shifting to zoom mode is as simple as pressing the R3 button, and searching around while in detective mode (activated by pressing the L2 button) is easy and smooth. When you enter battle, the camera zooms out a bit to give you a more all-encompassing viewpoint, which works wonderfully well.
You do have control over the camera's angle, but not how close or how far it sits, which is only a minor inconvenience as far as I'm concerned. And now that I've mentioned the combat, it's time to attack it (pun intended): really, this is a highly accomplished system that allows for invention and encourages experimentation; the new abilities you learn are all effective and very cool; and the controls themselves let you dive right in and kick serious ass from the start but they still require practice for ultimate mastery. Being able to string together combinations on multiple enemies and looking ahead to possible issues when getting swarmed is invigorating. There's both strategy and dexterity involved, and it seems as if every last encounter is both challenging and richly satisfying. There's quick strikes, countering, the Batarang that can keep enemies off-balance, special throws, chain moves, and the crowd-pleasing move where Batman finishes off a foe on the ground. Oh, and let's not forget the stealth options, which are relatively simple and easy to execute but again, oh-so-satisfying.
The only complaints I have are small. I don't like the fact that the platforming seems just a touch incomplete; Batman can't jump to a ledge while shimmying along another, for example, and there seems to be just a slight hesitation and/or delay during some of the platforming movements. And as I hinted at before, there is a good deal of backtracking within Arkham Asylum just because the story will require it, and you'll also come across new items that will make you want to return to certain areas. In that way, it reminds me of an old Resident Evil title, only without the requisite fetch-and-use routine. I also kinda hoped for more out of the Batarang, but outside of that, it's tough to find fault with Batman's gameplay. All of it just feels so polished; the combat is beautifully done and a joy to behold, and the superb voice acting coupled with insane characters always seems to keep your interest, even during downtimes. Perhaps the best part? Batman looks, sounds, and acts like a total bad-ass. In all reality, what more can we ask for? Rocksteady Studios has done their job and they deserve props for this particular production. Well done.
Yes, well done, indeed, Ben. I wholeheartedly agree with everything Ben mentioned, including some of the platforming quirks. The lack of a jump does seem a little unusual, and yes, even though Batman will automatically jump when you run off a ledge, it's still something I prefer to have control over. Furthermore, if I may add one little quirk of mine, performing some of the stealth attack maneuvers doesn't require much input from the player beside just a single tap of a button. Again, I'd have liked for a bit more control over some of these moves, as opposed to just hitting a button for a kill. But, all things considered, these are minor nuisances.
Where Batman continues to excel is with the graphics. Terrific textures parade all over the screen making up the walls, floors, and ceilings of Arkham Asylum. Lighting is superbly performed, helping to really convey the gothic attributes of the environment with moody tones, and also allowing Batman to sneak around in the shadows just as he should. Character detail is every bit as sharp as you've seen them to be in the screenshots, as each and every primary character is meticulously detailed from head to toe, sporting great texture work and animations.
Now, there are a few little visual issues to be touched up, particularly with the collision detection. During the slow-motion impact cut-scenes you'll often notice enemies reacting to a brutal impact from Batman, even though Batman's legs or fists clearly didn't make contact. Furthermore, you'll often see Batman's cape clip through objects and other people, but to code the physics for light material like a cape has been pretty difficult for developers to successfully pull off - it simply requires way too much time. So, we're not actually docking points for a cape that slices through things, since it's been a norm for many other games. That said, the framerate is solid at almost all times, and the resolution seems like a proper 720p - so there is no resolution trickery going on here like some other games (GTA4, COD4).
I'll tell you one thing about the audio, Kevin Conroy's voice acting as the caped crusader is certainly better than that of Christian Bale's embarrassing Huff McGruff efforts. For anyone not familiar with Kevin Conroy, he is the same man that's been voicing Bruce Wayne/Batman since Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and nearly everything else after that, including the awesome FOX cartoon series that ran from 1992-1995. Conroy is, essentially, the voice of Batman, and I applaud Eidos on getting him to also lend his talents to this amazing game. Furthermore, to make things even better, Mark Hamill, who has been the exclusive voice behind The Joker in the various cartoons, is also here reprising his role as Batman's arch-enemy. And can I just say that Hamill continues to be absolutely amazing as The Joker - and to see both Conroy and him bouncing words off each other is extremely immersive to the overall experience, the chemistry is flawless. Other long time voice actors from the cartoons also reprise their roles, including the voice of Harley Quinn, Alfred, and Harvey Dent.
If you can't tell by now, then let me make it painfully obvious: Batman: Arkham Asylum is the pinnacle of superhero games. It is without question the best superhero game ever made, and we can clearly see that the numerous delays the game saw have paid off extremely well. This is not just a polished game, but also a very well thought out title with a great story, fantastic visuals, superb gameplay, and voice acting that makes almost everything else out there pale in comparison. Yes, it's that good...and yes, you need to go out and buy it immediately. And to top it all off, you aren't given a measly three-hour adventure, as the game can last anywhere between 15-20 hours, and that's damn solid for an action title.
9/2/2009 Arnold K. and Ben D.