Batman: Arkham Asylum (Video Game)
Reviewed by Stephen M. Accetta
Available for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Published by Warner Bros. Interactive
In law enforcement, there are three sides to every story. The police who apprehend the criminals, the lawyers who defend and prosecute, and the goddamned Batman.
In the NES days, there were lots of shitty games ... MANY of which were licensed (movies, superheroes, TV shows, etc). In fact, those of us alive for the Atari 2600 days already KNEW to avoid licensed games (thank you, E.T.). As the years went on, comic books provided many a protagonist for these horrible games, made mainly by committee and thought to be marketable merely because the character you played as was one you already loved.
Fast forward a few years, and, despite a few REALLY good exceptions (Batman for the NES, Hulk: Ultimate Destruction for the PS2/Xbox, even Spider Man 2: The Movie), licensed properties are still the bane of gamer's existence. Don't believe me? Download the demo for Wanted: Weapons of Fate. All that said, it's usually a very pleasant surprise when a licensed game doesn't suck...
Enter: Batman: Arkham Asylum This game definitely does not suck.
The game starts you off as Batman (quite obviously), as you are bringing The Joker back to Arkham Asylum after ... something he did. I got the preorder from Amazon.com which came with a free comic explaining the whole situation, but I haven't gotten around to reading it yet … not that it matters. What does matter is that he put up very little fight, which naturally makes Batman suspicious of his motives. Not to mention that the OTHER asylum for insane super nut-jobs burned down, so now Arkham is overcrowded with a rogue's gallery of assholes.
One thing I loved off the bat (pun intended) is that after entering Arkham, you play through the intro. It's essentially a cut scene, but you make Batman walk and look around, and goddamn if it doesn't feel cool to interact like that. There's also a great little foreshadowing part where Killer Croc is getting transferred and notices you. Then you talk to Jim Gordon a bit, and shit hits the fan, Joker style.
The first two areas are glorified tutorials. This is where you get to see the two types of combat you will have to perform in the game.
1. Brawling: Everyone who tried the demo and talked to me about it initially complained about there only being 1 "hit" button. This is understandable, following the shittiness that was The Watchmen: The End is Nigh, only The Watchmen game was 100% a linear brawler and honestly the controls weren't overly responsive Batman's controls aren't as single dimensional as one would initially think. For one, there's the strike button, but that's just for hitting someone. If someone is about to hit you, you need to use Y for blocking and countering. The B button makes you kind of smack them with your cape and stun them, leaving them open for a standing takedown (we'll get to that in a bit), and A which makes you run and do combat rolls with a double tap is the evade button in combat (there's no on/off, the game senses the context of the button press) which makes you leapfrog over someone and get behind them. Countering is a HUGE part of the brawling, which is why three separate types of avoiding attacks are used. Keep in mind that most fights involve over 4 opponents who don't exactly take turns trying to hit you. In essence you have to be VERY aware of your surroundings at all times in a straight fight. The reason why countering and evading is so important is that you're Batman, who isn’t REALLY a superhero (in the strictest sense). He’s just a man, as insane as the people he chases, and only two things separate him from them; the fact that he won't exploit the innocent, and he refuses to kill anyone. That said, Arkham inmates have no such reservations towards Batman. I found myself dying in many a common thug fight when I wasn't really paying enough attention to everyone involved or giving myself enough space. I quickly learned that this was a core piece of brawling in the game.
On HARD this means really paying attention to who's near you to see if they're getting ready to hit you. On Normal, there's some weird indicator that shows up over the head of people who are about to attack you. I didn't like the indicator, but I can see it making a game of this caliber more playable to less hardcore gamers. With weapons you get later and upgrades, you can actually use a batarang and batclaw in hand to hand as part of sick combos you can pull.
2. Predator Gameplay: That's Rocksteady's term for it. See, Batman's enemies occasionally (read: about 55-75% of the time so far) include men with guns. Remember the bit I said before about Batman being human? Batman has body armor, sort of. Light flak at best. A single volley of bullets won't kill him outright, but a man with a machine gun could incapacitate him AT THE VERY LEAST in about 5 seconds. Get 2 or more baddies shooting you and that time decreases. In general, it's a VERY BAD IDEA for Batman to physically assault a man with a gun. As such, this is where the game REALLY shines on its own, making full use of both Rocksteady's creativity and the post-Miller/Nolan feel of The Dark Knight.
Remember that game called Tenchu? An accurate way to describe Batman: Arkham Asylum is that "it plays more like Tenchu than Tenchu does". Essentially, you have a option called "Detective Mode". This makes you see everything in weird blueish shades like x-ray vision. See people as skeletons, see who is armed, see through walls, etc. This lets you plan your attack, which is less of an attack and more of a ninja mind-fuck. Batman can use the bathook to fly up and sit on rafters, gargoyles, rooftops, etc, and observe the enemy. Usually they start off scattered, basically waiting for you to walk through a door like a normal sane person, but not quite ready for you to be perched on top of a gargoyle like a grown man with a gadget fetish who thinks he's a bat. Patience is required for these encounters because usually you want to isolate one armed man to take out. There are actually a few ways to do so, but they all pretty much boil down to isolate and sneak attack. There's the glide kick, which looks awesome and automatically tracks the person you are kicking (which can also lead to some hilariously bad screw ups if you don't predict where they are going and, say, you end up kicking a railing instead). There's an attack you can upgrade later called the "inverted takedown" where you hang off a gargoyle and when a man passes under you, you grab him and string him up by the leg. There's also the batarang and bathook which can only be successfully used when they haven't been made aware of your presence yet. There’s also some explosive gel you get later that can stun anyone in the proximity of it's explosion. Then there’s the old fashioned “sneak up behind someone and knock them out” move.
Glide kicking, bataranging, and gelling require you do the floor takedown like in brawling (where you actively punch them in the head). This makes noise, so it's usually best to leave the immediate vicinity after taking someone out. If you're really industrious, like I am, and are also trying to find flaws/features to write about, you can use things to set traps ... like setting down gel before taking someone out, and then detonating it when his buddies investigate his newly asleep status. Impressively, it works. It all pretty much works. Anything I thought of worked. Even waiting until someone was underneath someone I had strung up, bataranging the rope and essentially knocking out two birds with one stone. By the way, the stealth also works initially in brawl sections, the only downside being that unarmed guys made aware of your presence never seem to stop being aware of exactly where you are, unlike the armed guys. Still, this lead to some pretty inventive ways around having to brawl 10 guys at once, like laying down 3-4 separate applications of explosive gel, making some noise, and luring the people essentially into a minefield, and knocking out as many as I could before they got up and I had to fight again.
As far as the rest of the gameplay, there's a few other elements to it:
Boss fights: I'm still fuzzy on how to define a boss fight. The first proper boss fight is against Bane. It's pretty challenging because there's no way Batman could injure Bane directly, so it takes some creativity to figure out what to do (though once you figure out what the pattern is, it's very rinse repeat). I won't give away the story, but it does involve Bane, or more accurately his Venom, and so you get several mini-bosses that play out the same as the Bane fight, only with some really cool added extras (again, won't give anything away, but I'll just say I was wishing they'd change the music to Fear's "Fuck You, Let's Rodeo").
Harley Quinn never fights you directly, but you have two "Boss Encounters", each using a different aspect of the game (brawl or stealth) but with an extra challenge (in the stealth one, you don't just have to be stealthy, you can't be seen or heard at ALL or you lose, and in the brawl one she randomly electrifies sections of floor. While it seems like this would get stale, I think there's enough variation that it kept the game new and interesting.
Scarecrow has made several appearances, and instead of fighting him, you fight his drug. In a lot of ways his sections remind of me a mix of F.E.A.R.'s horror sections and an old game called Sanitarium. You have to basically find your way away from scarecrow's gaze, but occasionally you are confronted with Bruce Wayne's problems in the form of his murdered parents. There's even one part where I think I'm supposed to do SOMETHING in order to avoid getting shot while I'm tied to a hand truck for crazy people, but when I chose "retry" after I was killed it decided instead to continue the nightmare by having me arise from a grave and deal with multiple insane versions of myself.
AS such, all of the boss fights that were not tied to the venom story line have been very different, including Killer Croc whose area was REALLY interesting. SO much so that I won't say anything about it except that it reminded me of Thief.
Exploration: Arkham is an island. As such, once you get out of the first area, you are outside and can go wherever your gadgets allow. This means that, while you are usually told what building you need to go to next, you can screw around looking for secret entrances and taking out enemies all you want in the interim. This aspect also leads to gameplay element #3.
3.The Riddler: When I first checked the IMDB site for this game, I noticed two things. One; that there were a LOT of the same voice actors as the 90's cartoon Batman: The Animated Series, and that rocks because Mark Hamill is still my favorite Joker. Two; that The Riddler is in the game. I like The Riddler. We’re focusing on a hero who has to fight a giant crocodile man, a huge steroid freak who broke his back once, and a woman who is poisonous and controls plants, yet they somehow pale in comparison to a man whose powers are laughing a lot, being completely out of his gourd, and possibly having even more thematic cohesion than Batman himself. Batman's best villains are, IMO, the ones with no powers or combat ability, and behind The Joker comes The Scarecrow, then The Riddler. Rocksteady didn’t waste this opportunity, choosing to not make you FIGHT the Riddler head on. That would suck, as the man could be physically beaten by an angry girl scout with a slingshot. What they do have him do is issue a (pretty much totally optional) challenge. It's mainly fetch questing, but what's interesting is there's four types:
Riddler Trophies: the standard "here's something, if you can get to it you can collect it". Seeing them is easy in detective mode. Getting to them is a challenge.
Arkham's Notes: scattered around the island are slabs of stone with a scarab in the middle and weird writings on them. If you scan them (hold down the detective mode button) they get translated into audio logs outlining the history of Arkham Asylum itself.
Inmate Interviews: Reel-To-Reel tapes left laying around are recorded interviews with inmates, which give you a backstory to the characters.
Riddle Clues: Literally riddles, where the answer is something in the scenery that you have to look at and scan to show you figured out the riddle. Pretty cool, actually, since it's the one that most fits in with The Riddler's motif.
Chattering Teeth challenges: occasionally there'll be wind-up chattering teeth lying around, or rather chattering around. Destroy them with the batterang. Destroy enough of them, and you beat a challenge by the Riddler.
Riddler challenges, combined with getting sick brawl combos, unlock character bios, character trophy models (basically the full 3d model to look at in a non game mode), unlock challenges (single brawl or stealth encounters that score you by round, where you can compare scores to other games online), and buy you upgrades. Upgrades lend to the more Batman aspect of the game.. gadgets. You start off with just the basic bathook and batarang, but WayneTech can upgrade your equipment. Among the upgrades include the ability to throw multiple batarangs, the ability to use the batarang as part of a hand to hand combo, a special batarang that can be remote controlled, armor upgrades, explosive gel upgrades, and upgrades to the electronic lockpick you get later.
In all, Arkham Asylum delivers. It's fun to play, it's challenging (at least on hard, I can't really speak for normal or easy, but normal seemed only a bit easier in combat, and I noticed the armed men are not as hyper aware of your presence once you make noise), and it FEELS like a Batman game should feel, in my opinion.
I'm not good at mathematical scale ratings, but if I had to give it an overall I'd say 4/5 overall. This is not a game that will change the face of gaming forever, but one can hope that it will change the face of IP licensed games forever. Dear gaming industry: This game rocks, you no longer have any excuse for making shitty games based on licenses!
4 out of 5
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