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Review of Batman: Arkham Asylum

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I'm sorry but this never gets old!

 

When I reviewed the demo of Batman:  Arkham Asylum below, I felt that it was an appropriate if not somewhat of a bare bones example of how the gameplay would feel.  The introduction sequence and bits of combat and stealth at least let me know what kind of potential the game had.  After playing the full version of the game I would say developer Rocksteady expanded on what was in the demo fairly well, and if not for a few hang ups this game could have been a candidate for game of the year.

Feel free to scroll down to the previous article for more on the plot, but all in all you’ve got the Joker taking over Arkham Asylum and all its inmates while Batman feverishly attempts to stop him.  Along the way you’ll have a lot of goons to beat up on and the occasional boss fight which may or may not involve a villain from Batman’s vast rogues gallery.  You’ll also oftentimes be implementing stealth into the equation as well.  You’re able to swoop down from the darkness to incapacitate an enemy loudly or quietly and quickly disappear again, slowly picking off each of the Joker’s henchmen one by one.  I enjoyed the fact that you’re usually forced to engage all enemies before you can move on to another room.  Typically this is a cheap way developers force the player to “play the game” and avoid poor game design but in this case I welcomed it.  You really do get a sense that you’re playing as Batman and begin getting the confidence that you can clear any number of bad guys with surgical precision and without being seen.

The combat at its core has a multiplier system involved that lets you gain experience and pull off very effective takedowns once you’ve strung together a long enough combo.  Admittedly you gain a lot of life back after a brawl so it can be tempting to simply mash the attack button (X), however later on you’ll face a variety of enemies that demand a little more thought and a couple more buttons.  You’re better off anyway because as you add a bit of countering and evading to your repertoire you’ll start taking less damage and performing larger combos.  

The experience that you gain allows you to upgrade your combat moves, batarang, batsuit armor, and various gadgets you’ll eventually gain access to.  This is a trend I’m pleasantly surprised a lot of games are implementing.  Hopefully it’s here to stay because a leveling system adds something more to a one player game than simply moving through a story and in some cases can even enhance replay value dramatically.  There are also unlockables such as character trophies, character psychiatric tapes you can listen to, and character bios.  There’s also unlockable combat and stealth challenges that are directly linked to the Xbox Live leaderboards.

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You'll be tangling with a lot of goons, and familiar faces

Speaking of replay value, another fun addition that spices up the gameplay is a challenge system engineered by none other than The Riddler himself.  There are a total of 240 (!) question mark trophies scattered around Arkham Island for you to find, all containing a riddle associated with a particular area on the map.  They all task you with finding a certain marker or item in the designated area and analyzing it with your Bat-vision (i.e., snapping a photo of it).  A lot of them are a tad childish and easy and some are downright maddening for various reasons but many will let you take advantage of your knowledge of the Batman universe to figure out.  It bears mentioning that it’s still just as possible to find the solutions if you know nothing about Batman, but you’ll have to do some searching regardless.  After the game is finished you have the option to free roam the entire map without any enemies for the sole purpose of finding and solving riddles, which I appreciated.

The graphics here are well above average as mentioned in the demo review.  The atmosphere is dark and dingy but bright enough for the experience and loud colors pop like they should and provide a great contrast.  It doesn’t seem like many people are talking too much about the visuals but I think they’re among the best or simply the best that I’ve seen on a console and I say that without reservation.  The sound is near perfect and the voiceovers are pretty much nailed on all fronts.  They were able to lock up some voice talent from the Batman Animated Series such as Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker (yes, THAT Mark Hamill).  In my opinion Hamill does a spectacular Joker and I’m a huge Star Wars fan so I was on cloud nine when I found out he would be participating.  The Joker has a massive amount of dialogue as well and the effort put forth really shows.  Another great thing about the voices are that all the characters sound and say things that make sense.  It seems like a small thing but Paul Dini writing the script helped immensely.  His hiring is more proof that this game was taken extremely seriously, which is a rarity sometimes when dealing with a license.  

Dini also helped deliver not only convincing dialogue but a new Batman storyline with a classic feel to it and that is where this game shines the most in my opinion.  I can’t say enough how refreshing it is to play a game where the story really does develop methodically and keeps you interested.  Granted the Joker has hatched fun house-type capers before and he’s also run amok in Arkham before but never in a video game.  In other words it’s great to see that the video game incarnation of a franchise such as Batman is getting the level of storytelling you see in the movies and the comic books.  As mentioned before there’s a ton of dialogue and the plot sticks around just enough that it doesn’t get in the way but you still have a sense that you’re making progress towards something tangible.  On a related note the dialogue doesn’t bog down the gameplay with a lot of cut scenes so all in all the whole plot was delivered beautifully if you ask me.  

The man with the plan, and he's DEFINITELY not joking

The man with the plan, and he's DEFINITELY not joking

The game does have it’s share of flaws, albeit no more than it’s share though.  I still say the camera is too close to Batman’s back most of the time and it was very disorienting to me at times when I was trying to look around.  I also think the “subtle, yet deep” opinion everyone has about the combat is a little overblown.  Like I said you can still punch repeatedly and counter every once in awhile and you’ll have success without worrying about combos.  

One other gameplay oddity I found is that when you’re not in combat a lot of the time it feels like there’s a bit of a disconnect between the player holding the controller and Batman on the screen.  Compared to a game like Splinter Cell where the controls are very in tune with what the character is doing on the screen it can feel a little cheap at times.  For instance if you want to grappel from the ground to say, a stone gargoyle located high up on the wall, you simply swing the camera in the general direction of the gargoyle and you’re then promped to press RB.  Batman then gets out his grapple gun, points it, shoots it, swings up and perches himself on top.  If you want to swoop down from said gargoyle and knock over an enemy you again swing the camera towards him until you’re promped to press X.  I’m guessing the developers took this approach in lieu of a more complicated control scheme (a la Splinter Cell) but it just seems like something’s missing at times.  Once you learn all the things you can do with your gadgets and such it feels more intuitive as the game moves along, and it’s not a fatal flaw but the biggest one this game has if I had to pick one.

To be fair though there aren’t many flaws in this game.  Unless you hate Batman there’s certainly more reasons to play this game than not.  The production values are very, very high and despite a handful of imperfections this game turned out very well and maybe for the first time the Batman license was handled with care and respect by a video game developer.  You’ll have to decide for yourself if any of those flaws would hinder your experience but overall it’s a fun ride and there’s lots to do if you want to get the most for your money.  

8.7  If presentation is/isn’t important to you I would move this score up or down as much as 1 point.

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  1. August 28, 2009 at 4:47 am

    Great review. I am pretty sure I will pick up this game when it hits the $35-$40 mark used (although that $100 collector’s edition looks pretty enticing!!)

    I also hope the leveling system is here to stay. It is not fair to say that the idea of leveling was taken from World of Warcraft as there are a slew of games prior to WoW that had a very good and very advanced leveling system. That being said, I think the success of WoW has made game developers look at WoW and take the successful attributes of it and incorporate the attributes that make the most sense for their games into their games. I agree, the leveling just adds an element to games that increases replay value and in some ways it is a pseudo achievement (which you receive by just playing the game, which is probably my favorite form of achievement).

    • August 28, 2009 at 5:21 am

      Yep I agree. The WoW thing is an interesting take, I think there might be some truth to that. I think it’s likely it’s at least indirectly influenced these developers whether they’re consciously trying to take something from it or not. Obviously it just doesn’t make sense for some games but I’ve grown to like it when it does. Even games like Street Fighter could keep some kind of experience number that goes up the more you play. It would at least be a nice representation of how much you like the game and how much you’ve played. It doesn’t have to directly affect your character or “level you up” necessarily.

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