Batman: Arkham Asylum – the game that is being called Game of the Year before Modern Warfare 2 has even shot it’s load all over our eager gaming faces – is about to hit UK stores and as our Queen loving little paws poke and prod at the good things inside we will all be wondering the same thing, namely is it just going to turn out to be bollocks?
When it comes to my personal tastes Batman is the one DC comic I have ever followed with much interest, and the graphic novels ‘The Killing Joke’ and ‘Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth’ stand up there with the greats, as does the ‘Knightfall’ saga – all of which are clear influences on this latest Batman related gaming title.
The history of Batman games has actually been surprisingly strong, with the Ritman/Drummond developed isometric title being critically acclaimed, as was the later movie inspired Amiga title – infuriating Smilex mini-game included. After that titles based around the Burton movies and Animated series continued the general high quality output – oddly even including the bloody Gotham City Racer title NOT developed my Bizarre. In fact even the movie adaptation of Batman Begins was actually quite good, so doubts over the quality of this new game shouldn’t be founded in fact, instead they should have stemmed from the relatively untested abilities of developers Rocksteady.
With the recent demo being crafted BioShock demo style to cut out some aspects of plot, and re-arrange the level to give a more general view of the title’s experiences it left a bitter taste in my mouth as it felt too linear. That being said the game requires a certain linearity as you are ‘allowed’ into areas by the Joker, but there is an awful lot of exploring to do in and around the stunning Gothic architecture of the island.
Tasked with bringing in the Joker, Batman is cautious as the capture seemed too easy, he was right and soon The Joker – helped by the fan favourite Harley Quinn – is loose to put his insane plans into action insanely, in a manner only someone as insane as he could. Insane.
The plot is strong, and along with the glimpsed-in-the-demo interview tapes and other information sources a grander situation and a dark truth about the asylum soon come to light, well come to dark given that this is a Batman title we are talking about.
Much has already been written about the game so I shall keep this to my own personal experiences. I loathed the demo, I felt steered along a path, and I felt that the path was lightly decorated with just enough ‘action’ to stop me reaching for the off-switch, but only barely. Luckily this was the taste test, and the full game offers a full on combo meal deal. Hidden trophies, Riddler challenges, Arkham history from the ‘Spirit of Arkham’, character bios etc… etc… there is a LOT of depth there to be found, and a lot for the hardcore fans to enjoy. Sure there may be some super-villains missing from the game, but to fill the asylum with EVERY main villain would be farcical if for no other than reason of the S-word, why shoot your Batload when you can bring people back for more next time, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel. That said, there are artefacts to be found that fill in gaps, and the ‘Trophies’ give a glimpse at the new versions of classic foes.
Villain wise we already knew of Bane, The Joker, Harley Quinn, Killer Croc and Poison Ivy, but we also were teased with the appearance of The Scarecrow. And what an appearance it is. Coming second only to Condemned for insanity and disorientation the section of the game focused around the morgue is one of the better sequences in the game, putting a fear fuelled Bat up against a semingly haunted morgue, visions and a very creepy, very big Scarecrow. Playing out in semi-2D it makes a great change from one of the games biggest flaws by being a genuinely involving section, revolving around skill, timing and the ability to now poo yourself.
I mentioned a flaw above, and that is the Freeflow combat system that is so simple it becomes tedious very quickly, which ties into the boss fights as well with most being as simple as dodge boss, throw/use/explode something and fight off waves of generic foes. This is the games one major fault as you never really feel that much danger from this kind of fight, whereas the aforementioned Scarecrow boss puts you on edge as the game changes dramatically. After reading the Knightfall saga and seeing the fight between Bane and the Bat I can’t say I was as impressed with a few button pressed and a well timed hit and run attack. In other games this would be too much to bear, but the game is so well crafted that you let it go, instead concentrating on looking out for more collectibles and working out new tricks with your exploding gel.
Puzzle based areas are often restricted to Assassin’s Creed style get to that point while climbing styles or hit that switch/take out that enemy before someone is offed. Similarly the stealth game play is interesting but the game never really pushes you too hard – even when rescuing Commissioner Gordon from a employee incentive scheme. This suits me, however, as I want to run around and kick people in the nards.
The Detective mode is spot on perfect though, able to follow alcohol traces in the air, or scan for hidden messages/items it adds a real investigative element into the game, working as well as it did in the already mentioned Condemned. Being able to spot an enemy early, seeing their weapon wielding status and their current status – mostly nervous when I’ve been playing – makes for a good experience. Flinging a batarang up and grappling onto a gargoyle – who exactly put so many inside a building anyway? – and then spying the panic amongst a gang after they find their unconscious partner in crime slumped in the lap of another. That NEVER fails to be funny.
Special mention has to go to the voice work in the game, bringing the cast from the Animated series and ensuring that repetition is kept to a minimum really make a difference, nothing would have ruined the experience more than hearing the Joker repeat the same catchphrases over and over, instead we are treated to specific dialogue tied to context and environment. Hearing the Joker stop talking to a goon that you have just thrown down a lift shaft and suddenly realise that you are there is great, no matter how scripted it is. Similarly some materials in the game are supported in the real world through viral websites. This level of detail makes a huge difference, and really helps bolster that ‘next BioShock’ accolade.
Overall I have to say that my experiences with Arkham Asylum have been solidly great, and it is difficult to really hold up the lacklustre combat as anything gamebreaking. Hell, even BioShock suffered dull moments. Batman: Arkham Asylum is a prime example of how to make a great game off of a great license. Treat it with enough respect to keep the fans happy, but also concentrate on crafting a world that gamers will want to inhabit. Rocksteady have pulled it off with aplomb.