Batman: Arkham Asylum
Batman's Not Supposed to kill people, but things I've done in Batman: Arkham Asylum come close. Batman hits people. He hits people really, really hard.
There are thugs who might now wish they were dead, as they sit, traumatised in some grotty hospital ward while an unsympathetic nurse thrusts spoonfuls of lumpy semolina down their gob.
Once, in the Records Room, Batman leapt high into the air towards a stunned goon who was standing with his back to a banister. On his way down he let fly a devastatingly powerful punch, cracking once as it connected with the man's skull, and once again as his head made contact with the ornamental railing. His head was pinned between an immovable object and the locomotive fist of a highly-skilled martial artist.
If it'd been any other game, his cranium would pop open like a squeezed grape, his eyes pinging about the room like ping pong balls. In Arkham Asylum though, enemies fall unconscious, asleep, dreaming about being beaten up by a man dressed as a bat. That makes Arkham Asylum safe. It is violent, but in the same way that spearing a man in the chest in Mini Ninjas turns him into a bouncing fox, Batman's non-lethal takedowns are wholesome.
That, or Bruce Wayne is deluded. He's programmed his detective-o-vision to detect fictional pulses in the corpses of the men he's beaten to death, in order to shield himself from the awful truth: that he's a murderer just as psychotic as the villains he seeks to imprison. Watch one of Arkham Asylum's unconscious bodies for half an hour - they're not going anywhere. At the least they're in comas. Batman is putting people in comas. Christ, Batman. Stop it!
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Creating An Immersive atmosphere is key to the success of any classic game, but never more so than when you have to capture the essence of a beloved character like Batman. So Batman: Arkham Asylum could easily become the gaming equivalent of Bob Hoskins in Super Mario Bros or Mark Wahlberg in Max Payne. It had to be a concern when this new Batman game was first announced and, until you've actually had a chance to get your hands on it, it'll probably remain one.
No Borkman Here
Thankfully, any question of Rocksteady borking Batman in a Joel Schumacher style can be dismissed - there's no question that Arkham Asylum will be nothing but pleasingly great.
While I'm no expert on all things Batman, it definitely seems to sit perfectly in the universe the Caped Crusader inhabits. In fact if there's one thing that strikes you about Arkham Asylum it's the atmosphere, which feels perfectly dark and disturbing. Part of this is down to the rendering of the characters in cutscenes, but mostly it is because of the superb voice acting.
The supporting cast does an excellent job of making the world come alive, much like in the Chronicles of Riddick games, which Batman definitely pays tribute to in the extensive opening sequence where Bats escorts the Joker deep into the Asylum's complex. Mark Hamill is particularly great as Joker, providing an excellent foil to Batman's straight man routine. You'll never tire of being interrupted or pestered by the madcap psychopath - Hamid's performance really is brilliant.
Hamill is joined by Kevin Conroy, who has voiced Batman's appearances in cartoons since 1992, starting with the classic Batman: The Animated Series. Reuniting Hamill and Conroy certainly adds to the atmosphere of authenticity Rocksteady are trying to create, although Conroy's performance means you may be a little bit bored with Batman's role, dulled as it is by his stoic attitude in every situation. Still, we're confident it won't make too much difference, the interplay between kooky villains and a stoic iron-jawed hero being something tried and tested through the ages in various different types of media.
Tfiere's also absolutely loads of stuff to do. The main storyline is good enough to keep you forging forward, but the sheer amount of optional items to search for is mind-boggling. Riddler tokens, strange Spirit of Arkham symbols, and interview tapes are just a few of the things you'll be scouring the undergrowth to find. Intricate level design has been a major part of the development process, with many of the more expansive areas (such as the the Asylum's grounds) containing a large array of nooks and crannies to explore. Keep finding these objects and you'll unlock a whole host of extra goodies that you can ogle from the main menu.
If you've played The Witcher, you'll have a good idea of how Arkliam Asylum's combat system works. Clown-masked thugs approach you from various angles - often in large groups -and you left-click to thump them. If one decides he wants to try doing the same to you, shiny blue indicators appear above his head that tell you he's about to come a-clobbering. A swift right-click will put paid to his nefarious ideas, delivering a quick counter-attack to send the assailant flying.
Biff Bash Kapow!
Stand-up melee combat is tempered by the use of stealth, which looks to be infinitely more satisfying. Perch on a conveniently placed, and shadowed, gargoyle and wait for an enemy to wander from the pack. Then you pick them off one by one. That is the best way to approach combat in this game.
Most places where bad guys gather seem to have multiple places to strike from. Once during this playtest I hid Bats under a grating in the floor, letting him pop up behind a thug to deliver a silent takedown, before zipping up to a gargoyle. From this vantage point I watched as fearful confusion spread among Joker's goons, before swooping down onto them.
In terms of plot, environment, atmosphere and all that sort of gubbins, we're certain Arkluim Asylum will satisfy all but the most nitpicking of fanboys. But hold back from soiling your official Batman duvet in fevered anticipation just yet, and wait until next month's review when you'll see our final verdict on Rocksteady's effort.
As A Rule of thumb, superhero games are, almost without exception, complete rubbish. We're talking the officially licensed ones here, not stuff like Freedom Force or City of Heroes. You know, ones that have often have "The Game" tacked on as a subtitle. Would Batman: Arkham Asylum have been as good if it was riding the back of a big movie license? We're not sure, but we're glad it isn't, because, freed from any restrictive release schedule, Rocksteady have been able to craft what is perhaps the greatest superhero game ever made.
You can stop mopping that brow, as the long months of worrying have come to an end. The game does have problems, but this is a game that has been made by people who genuinely care about the source material and have taken great delight in cramming as much as they possibly can into a great game. There's hundreds of items to find and riddles to solve that perfectly complement the main game. There's the argument that the main game could be a little thin if you took out all the extraneous trappings, but we don't subscribe to that viewpoint.
The game starts with old Bats delivering the recaptured Joker to Arkham Asylum - the Gothic mansion-turned-sanatorium where Gotham City's most ghastly and diabolical villains reside, all of whom harbour some sort of grudge against Batman. (Actually, it's mainly the same grudge - he beat them up and dropped them off in the madhouse.) Once at the Asylum, Joker is strapped to a gurney and wheeled along by some guards, Batman following close behind. As an initial setup to stoke up atmosphere, it works very well.
Of course, everything starts to go hideously wrong, Joker escapes and Batman is forced to make up for the inept Asylum security staff and save the day. We won't spoil the plot from here on in, but it does take some twists and turns as it develops. Most importantly, it always feels like a proper Batman story, which, given that it was penned by Paul Dini of Batman: The Animated Series fame, isn't surprising at all. Above all, it's engrossing and makes you want to see what the next twist is.
Building an atmosphere around this storyline was perhaps the most important task the developers had to face, maybe even more so than the actual gameplay. In this they have undoubtedly succeeded, creating a rich, varied world for the player to explore.
The game is based on the Unreal Engine 3, so things can look a bit plasticy at times, but the Asylum's architecture is impressive, the levels are full of off-the-beaten-track areas to explore, and frame rates are consistently impressive, even when in the big outdoor areas or when playing on mediocre systems.
As for sound, this is perhaps the most impressive element. The voice talent for the game is excellent, with particular praise heading in Mark Hamill's direction for his superlative performance as the Joker. Batman is as dry and monotone as ever, of course, and the villains certainly steal the show, as they've always done. "But what about the game?" I hear you cry. This is where things get a little more complicated.
The temptation is to look past the combat and focus purely on the storytelling and the main bulk of the game, but that would be doing you, the reader, a disservice.
Certainly, if a reviewer were only to play the early stages of the game, combat wouldn't really be a major issue for him or her to deal with. But once you start getting into the meat of the game, it does become a problem.
On paper, it must have looked great, though. It works in a similar way to The Witcher's melee system, as in it's all about timing your attacks to chain combos that do great damage Get up to eight consecutive hits and you open up (once unlocked in the Upgrades section) throws and other extra moves.
The problem is that the animation gets in the way, especially when you're trying to block an attack. Sometimes Batman will leap to strike an enemy, but this animation will be so long that even if you time a block effectively, you'll be struck. Later on, when you're facing massive groups of thugs all at once, this can get intensely frustrating. There's definitely something to be said, just like in The Witcher, for attempting to time your clicks, but when things get frantic, it's sorely tempting to just hammer the left mouse button and hope for the best Boss battles aren't much better either, with the usual arbitrary way of killing big monster trope in effect.
Really though, other than this there's not much wrong with the gameplay, and it's also important to note that this only affects the big -and rare - mob-style combat. When fighting smaller groups you can time your blocks and attacks more effectively and everything flows better.
There are also the numerous sections where you're advised to use stealth and cunning to pick off enemies. These are the best bits, combat-wise, with later situations requiring you to plan what the best way to eliminate the threat is.
The theory is that there are often multiple methods available to achieve this goal, but it's an illusion of freedom. Yes, you can crawl under the floor gratings and take someone down from below, but often they just spot you before you have the chance. If you have the patience, spectacular room clearances can be achieved. Most of us will just settle for glide kicks and hanging from gargoyles and stringing thugs up by the feet.
The gameplay also feels perfectly at home on the PC. Pleasingly, you don't have to shove the mouse sensitivity up to extreme levels because the game was designed solely with pads in mind. There's also no "Press Right Trigger to perform this action" nonsense when using the mouse and keys either. Everything feels smooth and natural, enabling you to zip about from ledge to ledge with impressive fluidity. This is crucially important, because one of the most enjoyable parts of the game is completing the Riddler's challenges.
There are number of extra-curricular activities to partake of in Arkham Asylum, most of which involve the tried- and-tested-to-boredom idea of collecting tokens that lie about in hidden and not-so-well-hidden places. For some reason that I can't fully explain, I thoroughly enjoyed hunting down all the Riddler trophies (small green question marks) that litter each area of the game.
As well as these, there are audio logs referring to various villains and the creator of the asylum - Amadeus Arkham - which help those who aren't knowledge about Bat lore better understand what's going on.
Scuttling Joker teeth can be destroyed as another of these ongoing tasks, granting experience which can be used to unlock new abilities, like more special moves. Lastly, and most importantly, we have the Riddles.
Each area is packed with little puzzles to solve that add immeasurably to the game. A clue in green will appear on the screen when you enter a new area and, using the Detective mode (Batman can uses this to decipher clues, follow trails and detect heat signatures, Predator-style) take a snapshot of the solution. They usually take two forms - snapping an object of scenery, like a portrait on a wall, or getting in the right position to line up the dot with the rest of a question mark.
Essentially, I can't be much more enthusiastic about them. Suffice it to say, the game would be a much lesser experience without these Riddles.
There's no real comparison between this and any other licensed superhero game. It's actually an insult to compare them at all, so vastly different are they in scope and imagination. Arkham Asylum is a work of love, dedication and great skill. You'll be able to tell this from just a short of amount of time. There are problems, sure, issues that keep it from being a true classic (only just).
There's the issues with combat, plus the fact too many areas have to be travelled through on more than one occasion, leading to repetition and resentment There's also the annoying little quirk that some puzzles and riddles cannot be solved until you have an item delivered later in the game, meaning you can easily spend ages wondering how to get that troublesome Riddler trophy, only to realise later that you were never meant to be able to at that time.
Despite these niggles, it is safe to say this is almost certainly the best superhero game ever released. Certainly it's the best one this reviewer has played.
While Batman: Arkham Asylum missed out on our coveted Classic status, it was a difficult decision to make. If the combat had been a bit more sophisticated in the latter stages of the game, it'd have been a nailed-on Classic. As it is, it'll just have to settle for being recommended as a damn fine game that you really should play.
Changing the viewpoint to change the tempo
Every so often, Batman will be hit by hallucinogenic gas, unleashed by the Scarecrow - a psychiatrist who became obsessed with fear. Apart from causing visions of Bats' dead parents, the game twists into a 2.5D Scarecrow realm.
A change of pace to the main game, these sections work surprisingly well. They're not jaw-dropping and can be a little fiddly, but as a unique way of changing the tempo and offering the player a break from the regular action, they do the job.
The object is basically to avoid being spotted by the hulking Scarecrow, moving to the right and hiding behind cover. They're also not too long, so they don't get silly and boring.
So, I Find myself in this difficult situation. I've written about Batman: Arkham Asylum before, and I was in a cynical mood. I was suspicious and brittle from the ridiculous brawling mess that was Watchmen: The End is Nigh. However much Eidos pressed home that Arkham Asylum was true to DC's dark world of Batman, and however eloquently anyone from Rocksteady expressed their love of Batman's universe, I wasn't listening. I was sat there, with my arms crossed, thinking "I can't believe DC let Watchmen get turned into Streets of Rage. It should've been an RPG, or something".
Now, you find me in a better mood. This time, I've actually played enough of Arkhcim Asylum to get a real feel for it. And I'm embarrassed to say that I'm fired up. I'm so directionlessly enthusiastic, I want to launch into a review, right now. Who cares if it's based on incomplete knowledge? It'll be passionate, and if you shout loud enough and use the strongest swear words, no-one will argue with you.
Nuts In The House
As you may know, you spend the new game as Joker's hostage in the overthrown and iconic madhouse of Arkham Asylum. But even before the power shifts to the chuckling nihilist, you're completely in his thrall. In the opening movie, you drive through the seats of Gotham, forced to listen to his theatrical babble. As you take control of Bats, and escort the restrained Joker through the corridors of Arkham in stoic Bat-silence, you're an audience to his monologue. And when the villain's fanatical lover drops the lever and you switch roles from captor to captive, it's ironic that that's when you finally get control. It's confirming what you already knew. Batman's nothing without a crisis to deal with. He doesn't call the shots - he dodges them.
The Unreal Engine gives Joker a sickening sheen. If it was any other character, I'd be annoyed by the slick, nauseating complexion. On Joker, it's pallid, oily and perfect. As for the melodramatic words tumbling out of his mouth?
"Arkham Asylum is based on the core Batman licence from the DC comics. We went straight back to the source material, the inspiration for all the different versions that followed. We really wanted to get across the psychological elements, and the detective elements, which are something that haven't been fully explored in a Batman game. Those are the two fundamental driving forces -authenticity and fun."
The tension between those two elements interests me, so I ask if there was anything fun that was taken out because it wasn't moody enough, or anything moody that failed the fun test. "Not really, no.
Batman is really well-suited to be a videogame character. He may not have had the best history in games, but there's that dichotomy between his vulnerability and his power. He has all these great gadgets, and he's trained his body to perfection. He's pushed every element of what being human is to the absolute limit, but at the same time, he's still just a man. Those are the things that make him such a great game character. So there wasn't that much tension."
This thoughtful attitude has influence in every decision in the game. Everything strikes a balance between the elegance, power, and - ultimately -the mortality of Batman. In this game Batman doesn't regenerate, and there are no health packs. However, your energy refills as you earn experience. Platforming is kept low-key, thankfully, with jumping and climbing done automatically, and most acrobatics left to his gadgets.
Speaking of gadgets, the fact that you've got infinite batarangs (a fact Sefton justifies with the phrase "well, he is Batman") is offset by the fact that they're completely noil-lethal. They simply stun the target, giving you an opportunity to leap in for the knockout blow. Upgrades are (mostly) limited to your gadgets - multiple or remote-control bataranges, explosive gel that can be triggered by proximity, and a batclaw - based on the idea that batman is already at the peak of his physical powers, and isn't likely to suddenly realise he can wall climb.
When it gets down to combat, there are two types of goon. Unarmed assailants aren't too dangerous: you can chain long combos against them, earning more XPand opening up enhanced moves. Combat is split between attack, stun, and counter -you'll know when to counter when you see the alert coming from a goon's head. It sounds simple, I say. Sefton replies, "We wanted it to be simple, because in an action-adventure game like this, you're not fighting all the time, so you can't be expected to learn and remember 50-move combos. So the moves are easy, but chaining them together is the real skill.''
Get In Line
as an armour-clad martial artiste, they shouldn't pose too much of a problem. It's when you meet the goons with guns, that's when you're forced to take a strategic role. These are what Rocksteady are calling playgrounds -rooms where you're forced to despatch the villains one at a time, using stealth and fear to destroy your victims. Enemies can be calm, nervous or terrified based on your presence in the room - and they behave differently in each state. Does their mental state really affect the game, I ask? "It affects their behaviour. When they're terrified, they'll blind-fire around corners. When they're nervous, they're more likely to turn around and spot you. They have different patterns in different moods, and that affects how you should tackle the room."
So did DC have much input into the process? "We did work with DC a lot, certaihfy at the start of the game. We were interested in their opinions -not so much in what worked in previous Batman games, much more about what they loved about the character. We knew they'd be our farshest critics. We've got loads of Batman fans here, but they live and breathe it. We mainly talked story, but also what we wanted to do with the gameplay." The developer's involvement with Batman's owners went deeper than that. Every single character in the game is a re-designed creation.
"Well, when you're in development, you're always so aware of the costs of what you're doing. And someone from outside that might make a suggestion that would take years to build, and they don't realise it. But sometimes, people suggest things that you can do - but in a different way, so it's nice to have input from outside of the usual game thinking.
"The same with Paul Dini - who hadn't worked on a game before. His TV and comic book approach was very different - he'd have ideas that were very expensive, or even impossible to achieve in a game. But he also had ideas about how to fill out the world, and make it worth exploring in ways that you can't do in other media. Other things, we don't make you see - the history of the buildings, they were all built at different times.
If you're looking for that , sort of thing, you'll see and feel the history. And if you're not, you won't."
Hill is philosophical that people might run around his game yelling "THWOMP!" and "KA-BLOOEY!". But some of the collectable Riddler Trophies are worth finding, just for the insulting comments you're rewarded with. The Batman may be concrete in his stoicism, but that doesn't mean there's no jokes.
"That's one of the great things, working with the characters. Some of the lines from Riddler and Joker are genuinely funny. I've played it a lot, and they still make me laugh."
It's not just Riddler Trophies you'll be collecting - there's a huge amount of background stuff that adds to the depth of the characters and the world. Audio logs may be a traditional way to give extra information to those who want it, without forcing the player to slow down - but Rocksteady stops the playback when you re-enter the world. There's a time and a place for listening to Killer Croc threaten his nurses, and it's not when you're throwing batarangs at chattering Joker teeth.
"We really wanted that brutal feel to the combat. With ranged weapons, you can have everything spinning around, and that knock-back effect, but we really wanted the hand-to-hand combat to be more visceral." He's kind of meandered away from the point I was trying to get him to say, so I'll say it for him now: Batman may not have the most gymnastic melee combat in the world, but there's an impressive solidity to the combat. Everything connects. And there's a dramatic angle to the combo finishers, that's a throwback to the skew-iff camera angles in the campy '60s series. Was it hard building solid melee in the Unreal Engine? "Well, it's a toolset, so you can do what you want with it."
Arkham Asylum is a beautiful world. In the first round of publicity, Eidos did the game a disservice by being coy about the locations of the game. The natural fear was that Arkham Asylum would be endless medical corridors, smeared tiles and rusty lobotomy machines. There's plenty of all that, but there's plenty of outdoors work, and four separate buildings, each with its own design and feel.
As you might be aware, it's not just Paul Dini who's come from Batman: The Animated Series. Harley Quinn, Joker's infatuated lover first appeared in that show, and is now a major player in Joker's capture of the (un)secure hospital. But it's the voices that'll hit you hardest. Kevin Conroy reprises his role as Batman from the '90s cartoon, and Mark Hatnill returns as Joker.
With this reunion on its hands, Rocksteady have guaranteed entertainment on one level, and it's great that they've delivered a gaming experience to match the subject. "We really want to deliver a good Batman game," says Hill. "If for no other reason than the world deserves one." At that point, I propose marriage, and we're currently living together in a castle made out of Milky Way Buttons.
Snapshots and Media
Playstation 3 Screenshots
XBox 360 Screenshots
XBox One Screenshots
Playstation 4 Screenshots
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