Friday, October 09, 2009

Review - Batman: Arkham Asylum

Amid the joys of family, church, school and work adventures, I've spent some of my "down time" for the past few weeks playing Batman: Arkham Asylum. I'm currently "49%" of the way through the game but I figured it was time for a review. I'm playing the Xbox 360 version, so some of the details may vary for the other versions.

When I first heard about this game, I was stoked. I've always enjoyed Batman and I'm a big fan of action/adventure games. As more and more features were announced, my interest was more and more peaked. (NOTE: Images used in this post are borrowed from various sites around the web. I have left on watermarks of the sites as indication of 'ownership.' If you are the owner of any of these files and want them removed, please let me know. I intend no copyright infringement and imply no creation or ownership).

To start off with, let me just say that the game is gorgeous. The detail on the characters and the environment is amazing and completely immersive. As with any came, some of the thugs feel a bit repetitive over time, but generally speaking, each character I've encountered (even the 'stock' characters) feel remarkably real to me.

The work on Batman himself is awesome. His suit and body look great (and over time, aspects of the suit get scratched or torn, which is a cool effect). His animations and movement are fluid and believable.

The Joker and other key henchmen look fabulous as well. Their appearance and mannerisms is wonderfully portrayed and implemented.

In addition to the 'in-game' representations of the characters, you also get to unlock "models" of some of the characters. These are high-res statuettes of the various characters which you can zoom in/out and rotate around. They look absolutely amazing. As one who collects these sorts of figures in real life, I definitely appreciate the effort here.

The soundtrack is great. Like a good movie soundtrack, it's not in-your-face (or in-your-ears, as it were) such that it detracts from the experience. Rather, it amplifies the theme and the emotion of the various scenes. When I sit back and just listen, I enjoy the ambient background soundtrack…but when I'm playing, I'm not really aware of it. It just feels natural.

The voice acting on the characters is fabulous. The script is well written. I enjoy the verbal interactions between the characters. The banter between Joker and his henchmen and/or the other super villains is fun. I also like that Joker (and some of the others) will "take over" the island's PA system and make general announcements to Batman or to others on the island. These are fun and quirky, but can get a little receptive over time as there are a limited number of these ambient comments and then they start looping. Similarly, the comments from the thugs and henchmen quickly get very repetitive both as they wander the island and during fight sequences.

And now for the real meat of the game. After all, a game can look and sound great, but if it doesn't play well or isn't immersive/engaging, then what's really the point?

From moment one, I felt engaged with this game. It opens very cinematically with a lengthy cut scene of Batman delivering Joker to Arkham Asylum. As the cut scene ends, the player is given control of Batman to help escort the Joker farther into the Asylum. During this slow progression through the halls of the Asylum, the game's opening credits play, again presenting that cinematic feel.

Once the Joker escapes and begins his rampage across the island, you are immediately thrown into the action. I'm playing on the Hard difficulty level, so I'm not sure how it plays on the lower difficulties, but I can say that I like the way the game presents the controls of each element unobtrusive way. Some games have formal tutorials and the first few minutes of gameplay here serve that purpose but definitely do not feel like a tutorial. Rather, you are thrown right into the heat of gameplay and given helpful advice to make sure you succeed.

The combat system (one of the first things you learn), is effective, intuitive, and simple. At first, this was discouraging to me as I thought it would quickly become a repetitive button-mashing fest similar to the Prince of Persia games Sands of Time & Warrior Within (the latest PoP game was a little better thanks to the addition of Elika, but even then, it got a little button-mashy after a while).

You can certainly make your way through combat just mashing buttons…but only for a while. You quickly find that you'll be overwhelmed if you don't adequately chain together combos or use the proper move at the proper time against the proper enemy. It actually has a lot of depth to it. As an added bonus and keeping true to the Batman world, you don't actually kill the enemies you fight (at least they haven't so far…I'm hoping this won't change as the game progresses). Rather, you incapacitate them or knock them unconscious. This is very true to the Batman character and I love this element.

In addition, as time goes on you discover/unlock gadgets that you can use in battle such as the batarang and batclaw. And even these can be upgraded over time to become a double/triple batarang/batclaw. Overall, the combat system had the potential to become repetitive but so far has been engaging.

Speaking of the gadgets, there are a ton of special gadgets that are used to help you navigate the island and access certain locations or better take advantage of certain situations. The way these items are unlocked fits in logically with the storyline (most of the time…there have been a few 'stretches') and with the Batman world as a whole.

Not really a gadget per se, but a special mode of play is Detective Mode. With the press of a button, the view is changed to Detective Mode where everything takes on a slightly bluish hue and certain objects are highlighted brighter or in orange or red as indication that they can be interacted with. This view mode is VERY helpful. It allows you to identify where thugs are located so you can plan an attack before entering a room. It helps you discover walls that can be broken or ledges that can accommodate your batclaw. It highlights some of the 'secret' items to be found throughout gameplay (to unlock the character statuettes I mention above as well as other game modes and elements).

My biggest complaint with the Detective Mode is that it is too effective and as such, I want it on all the time. As a result, I am almost constantly in Detective Mode and miss out on the "real" texture and color of the island itself. Instead, I'm playing the game through a slight tinge of blue and white. I generally try to switch out of Detective Mode before I leave a room or area to take a look around and appreciate the detailed artwork. I'm not sure where the happy medium for this is and it's possible that I'm the exception rather than the rule. I'm a completionist gamer so I want to make sure I find all the secret items and passages. Being constantly in Detective Mode allows me to do that.

And last, but certainly not least, I want to just say that I LOVE the stealth element of the game. Most of the thugs thus far are unarmed or just have pipes or knifes. However, many of them also carry guns…which can certainly be detrimental to Batman's health. As a result of the guns as well as the increasing number of thugs, it becomes increasingly important to be stealthy…to remain in the shadows or the rafters and plan your attack wisely. There are numerous stealth moves that allow you to take out an enemy from behind, below or above without having to engage in a lengthy and dangerous fight. In addition, a stealth attack doesn't inform the other thugs of your presence and as a result, you can take out one thug at a time rather than being mobbed by a few or a dozen.

I am very impressed with the cohesive and integrated nature of the story. This game isn't just a 'dungeon crawl' or 'street brawl' game. You certainly could just rush through and take on enemies and environments like you would in those genres but you would miss out on a lot and (based on my experience), you would likely fail before too long.

The story is immersive and unravels itself a bit at a time the way a good comic, book, or movie would do. Batman truly acts as the detective that he is in seeking out clues and following them along the path of the story. The communication/interaction with Oracle and Batman's detective mode/computer are a bit too powerful for me at times, but otherwise, the story balance feels just right.

Overall I am thoroughly enjoying this game. I'm very impressed with the graphics, sound and other technical aspects of the game. I absolutely love the character presentation both in terms of appearance and voices and in terms of the depth presented by the story/script.

The controls are intuitive and natural and combat hasn't yet gotten repetitive. I love the various gadgets you receive and I totally enjoy the Stealth and Detective aspects of the game. I'm a little annoyed at the power/importance of Detective Mode because it means I'm almost constantly in that mode and miss out on some of the mood/art of the game as a result.

The story is entertaining and immersive. I'm looking forward to seeing how the whole thing plays out.

As an Xbox 360 player, I'm a little jealous that the Playstation users have the option to play as the Joker. I'm not sure how that gameplay works, but I'm hoping it comes to Xbox live as a downloadable feature.

The violence aspect is definitely up there even though Batman just "knocks out" his opponents and there is a moderate amount of swearing or 'unkind' language throughout. There have also been some creepy and even grotesque elements (Bane and Joker's 'Titans' are over-the-top and the Scarecrow scenes due an excellent job of creating fear). This certainly isn't a game I play with my kids around.

I certainly can't recommend this game to everyone. Even though it's got a lot of action and is immersive, the stealth and detective aspect may make it feel too slow for many players. The violence/language/fright levels are also going to be a turn off for many.

But for those who like Batman and are willing to play a game based on the way Batman really behaves…and for those who didn't cringe too much at the last two Batman movies…this game should be right up your alley.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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