Monday, December 14, 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum

I normally steer clear of licensed video games because of their general crappiness, but there are three reasons why I gave Arkham Asylum a shot.

1) The demo was pretty promising.
2) It had near universal acclaim from critics and friends alike.
3) It's not a rushed product meant to cash in on some movie or something, but a game made as part of the excellent animated series' universe, even written by Paul Dini and starring the voices of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and the Joker, respectively.

So I played the game, and it did not disappoint. I think an open world game in the vein of Assassin's Creed would be an awesome setting for Batman, but this approach works too. There's sort of a Bioshock vibe to the design, which I'm sure was intentional. The gameplay is obviously different, but being placed in a tightly constructed yet still explorable world, being guided to your next objective but allowed to veer off the rails, frequent attempts to frighten you with scripted sequences and environment details, audio tapes scattered around that fill in the story, a madman pulling all the strings... yeah, this is a lot like Bioshock. And that's good, because Bioshock was a great game. Arkham Asylum still has its own identity of course, making good use of the license with a bunch of classic villains to defeat and one of the more interesting premises in a Batman story - the Joker takes over the entire island, and you have to figure out what he's really up to and thwart his plans, all within the span of a single crazy night.

The gameplay is a mix of stealth, brawling, and mild puzzles. Sometimes you'll enter a room and there will be a number of armed thugs scattered around looking for you. You make your way around the room quietly, hiding in nooks and crannies and swinging between gargoyles perched near the ceiling to give the bad guys the slip as you pick them off one by one. It's a bit easy at first, but by the end it gets genuinely tense as you have to use a lot of cunning to escape unharmed. The combat is very heavily combo based, with maintaining your current bonus as much of the goal as defeating all the enemies. Batman's repertoire of moves is nice, and it feels pretty great to take down a whole room of toughs without getting a scratch on you. Later on the goal is less domination and more just surviving, but that generally works too. The boss fights are generally pretty bad, which is a little disappointing. They rarely deviate from the formula of a big dude charging at you, and almost all of them resign themselves to also throwing a bunch of regular enemies at you to worry about too. Hey guys... that's not a boss. It's just another fight.

A big part of the game is being not just Batman: the super hero but also Batman: the detective. It's not quite as deep as I would have liked, but checking out crime scenes for evidence and following trails with your equipment's myriad applications is pretty cool. This is where the game's collection aspect comes in, as the Riddler has left a ton of things around the island for you to track down. It's all a bit more simplistic than it could have been, but still fun to track down, and the game lets you keep looking after you beat it. A lot of the riddles require more advanced equipment than you have when you first see them to get them, introducing a sort of Metroidvania element to the proceedings. The only real complaint I have about the exploring aspect is that the recordings of interviews with inmates you find attempt to be creepy, but rarely succeed, often coming off as silly. The Scarecrow sequences are more effective in this regard, although they tend towards interesting more often than actually scary.

It's a good looking game, and I like little details like Batman's cape and costume getting more and more tattered over the course of the game. There are a few issues, especially the higher resolution versions of some textures not popping in fast enough, causing some awkwardly ugly moments. I'm not a big fan of the faces, and after playing a lot of this year's games, I'm not sure why the Unreal engine is so popular when these other ones don't have a catchy name but have fewer problems. The sound is solid too, especially the classic voices by returning cast from the series. Hamill's Joker isn't as disturbing as Heath Ledger's, but it's quite entertaining in its own way, and he does a really good job here. I still have things to find in the game, and I haven't even touched the optional challenge modes, although they don't really interest me terribly. Still, it was a very good single player experience in a year full of them.

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