If you did a Venn Diagram of “Gamers Who Don’t Own a Wii” and “Comic Book Nerds”, the two circles would almost completely overlap. A third circle, “Videogame Developers”, would intersect the first 2 sets, which explains the historical preponderance of videogames using superheroes, but doesn’t explain the fact that most superhero games are steamy cubes of wombat poo.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is the latest in this long line. Unlike most of its forebears, it’s actually bloody good fun. It appeals to the 14 year old boy inside most gamers (especially the 14 year old male ones). I mean, you get to be Batman, solve puzzles and beat up on goons* and famous Bat-villains as you go. ZOMG!!!!!!!! But, as my 11th grade history teacher would ask, what is being Batman like?
Well. The developers have obviously realised that Batman is quite a multi-faceted and complex character. Therefore they have made a multi-faceted Batman experience by blending various gameplay elements together. Through my own mix of sycophancy, bribery and violence, I have managed to obtain EXCLUSIVELY the Rocksteady recipe for Batty goodness–
- Take 1 part combat system from Assassin’s Creed.
- 1 part stealth-based combat (either Metal Gear Solid 4 or Splinter Cell will do).
- Mix it in with 1 part gadget-based platforming puzzles from a Ratchet and Clank clone.
- Boil it all down slightly, add a dash of cool Bat gadgets and a sprinkling of RPG elements with a rudimentary upgrade system, then shake it all about for about 10 hours. Sweeten to taste.
Taken individually, none of these elements are groundbreaking, but together they form a satisfying mix that gets the balance right between being kickass awesome and being challenging. Batman has a nifty swag of tricks but isn’t invincible.
The melee combat makes you feel that you are as capable as Batman would be, without needing to learn complicated combos. The stealthing is designed to allow you to pick off a room full of enemies one by one, rather than just sneak past them all. It enables you to go in and out of hiding quickly (mostly via indoor gargoyles, showing that the architects of Arkham must also have been mad) avoiding the need to wait endlessly for guards to complete a patrol pattern. The puzzles are just obscure enough to make you feel clever, but not so mind-bending that you will waste hours searching and give up or turn to the Internets.
As much fun as it is simply to be Batman, the Dark Knight needs an appropriate setting to roam around in. If the game were called Batman: Open Plan Office, all the gameplay elements in the world wouldn’t stop the FAIL boat from docking. Luckily, Rocksteady has nailed that part as well. The ubergothic architecture, lighting and general layout of the environments present Arkham as a truly sinister place.
What makes Arkham Asylum a great videogame setting is the attention to detail. An extra layer of atmosphere is provided by the extras and collectibles lying around, such as audio tapes or visual clues about previous Arkham inmates. Aside from providing XP for upgrade fodder and appealing to the collectors, these details give a doff of the cap to those players who are well steeped in Bat-lore, as they will actually know who half these freaks are. Arkham simply feels as if it has been inhabited for years, and some really creepy shit went down there.
In gameplay terms, Arkham serves as a small open world with different buildings containing the rooms that Batman will explore. In modern games parlance, the trendy buzzword “open world” often translates as “empty” and ”takes ages to get anywhere”. Not so in this case – Arkham is about the right size for what the game has to offer, such that there is not too much tedious backtracking.
There is some recycling of levels in the latter half of the game, but in the context of the story it kinda works.
Speaking of atmosphere, the other element that lifts this game from good to great is the roll call of villains presented during the game. Topping that list is Batman’s arch rival and general master of ceremonies at Arkham — the Joker. Mark Hamill deserves some serious kudos for his work here. Joker is always behind the scenes, ordering his cronies about, taunting the Batman, and generally deusing exing the machina out of it. If Ledger’s Joker was schizophrenic, this Joker is manic – he laughs more and is more mocking and flippant, but no less dangerous. I could not believe that this was the same guy who all those years ago was whining about going to the Taachi station to pick up power converters.
Overall you get a decent slice of some other baddies who I won’t reveal here, as half the fun is wondering who’s going to turn up next from the extensive rogues gallery available. Suffice it to say that Scarecrow’s bits add some mindfreak to proceedings.
I had to struggle to find bad points of this game. As with most 3rd person games, the camera can get unwieldy and Batman can get a little confused at times as to which part of the environment he is interacting effortlessly with. I was expecting a few more, and harder, boss battles but the pacing of the game is such that it leaves you wanting more. One could complain that the game was too short, but a longer game would have required a greater variety of enemy types. It certainly doesn’t suffer from the mid-game ennui that other games like Prototype did.
Overall, this game made me want to get up early in the morning so I could get me some Batmannery before work. It made me want to throw off stupid inconvenient pre-arranged social engagements like weddings and high school reunions so I could skulk around in the shadows and throw batarangs at goons*. Isn’t that what we look for in a game?