Monday, September 6, 2010

X360 Look - Batman: Arkham Asylum

*Note: This look includes spoilers. If you're at all worried about this sort of thing it's probably best to not read this at all. Sorry!

While I've never read any of the comics I consider myself a pretty huge fan of Batman. I grew up watching the live-action series with all of its BAM! and ZONK!, own all three DVD sets of the original animated series, and obviously I've played quite a few of the games. I guess what has always made me a fan is that ignoring the cool gadgets, the ninja-abilities, and the bat-mobile, there's always been this balance of sorts. There always seems to be that point where Batman's will and pursuit of justice could be broken and he could end up just like the villains he continually locks away in Arkham. It's a dangerous but necessary relationship because to me it's his dealings with the likes of The Joker, Two-Face, and so on that keep him sane.

Arkham Asylum is where all Batman villains go to rest and recuperate before they come up with their next plan to get revenge on someone, take over the city, or just steal a bunch of money. This is pretty much the last place Bats would ever want to find himself trapped in and sure enough the plot of this game involves this very same concept. The Joker is once again up to no good as he's gotten his hands on tons of an experimental drug that gives super human strength at the cost of everything else. He's got an island filled with in-mates and even some transients which is far more than necessary to take control of Gotham. As a bonus The Scarecrow, The Croc, and Poison Ivy feel that they should get involved as well. Somehow Batman must straighten this mess out.

But you already knew all that didn't you? Arkham Asylum did get quite a few well-deserved accolades when it released last year and many critics have called it the best Batman game ever. It's pretty much a required play for Batman fans and worthwhile to practically anyone else. As far as myself is concerned I found it...lacking. The game I think is still really good but for let's put that aside for now and focus on the qualities that make this game.

The main campaign is split into four different styles of play. Exploration is necessary to get one from one place to the next and since Arkham is such a massive Asylum there's no shortage of secrets, alternate paths, and surprises to look for. One of the key tools to exploration is the Detective mode. The response to this ability has been mixed and for good reason. The team at Rocksteady put a lot of work into creating the perfect look for the Asylum and a lot of gets wasted when the player is running a filter constantly to look for clues. My take is that it in the end it is optional for the most part and it might be worthwhile to give the game another playthrough without relying on detective mode so much. Still it couldn't hurt for this ability to not be so invasive. The best aspect of exploration is the tools. This aspect is similar to games like Metroid and so on in that Batman will get new means of traversing the island at specific points. This also leads to more secret areas which lead to unlockables, achievements, and all of my other favorite carrots.

The atmosphere in general is easily the strongest aspect of this game. A large part of this is attributed to the Joker. Since he's in charge of Arkham that gives him every opportunity to berate both Batman and the in-mates he controls. He's always one step ahead of The Bat, or one step behind, or doing the two-step and in any case he's the perfect fit for this game. Still the game could have done without having so many unnamed guard corpses lying around. It reminds me of Fallout 3 in a way with its dead body on every bed. A lot of the shock value is lost here.

The aforementioned in-mates aren't actively hunting Batman down and for good reason. Batman is a master of hand-to-hand combat and stealth. The only way most of these low-lifes will ever have a chance at taking down the Dark Knight is through numerical superiority. It's not uncommon to reach a new area or revisit an old one and find a fresh batch of meat waiting to get their faces punched, their arms broken, and I guess anything just short of death. The melee combat is exceptionally good in this game because it showcases Batman's ability as one man who has no problem taking out potentially a dozen ruthless and armed thugs without a sweat. By properly timing blows and countering at the right moments the free-flowing combat feels effortless and rewarding as the combos rack up. I once read somewhere that somebody would have preferred a fighting system similar to Bayonetta's. Well Bayonetta wasn't out yet and eww? I'd rather have a combat system that feels unique to the game. Sure Bayonetta is great at what it does but it wouldn't fit a Batman game at all.

In certain locations a number of thugs get the bright idea to carry some guns with them and hang out together. This is bad news because even one guy with a gun can be too much for Batman. This game doesn't mess around when it comes to guns so Batman must employ stealth to take out all of the goons and survive. For the versatile and inventive however this aspect of the game can be all the more reason to really show off. There's a pretty simple take-down that can be performed by sneaking up on somebody and thugs can also be strung up on gargoyles, knocked out with explosives/debris, or simply be pushed to the edge as Batman methodically takes them down one by one. Each room is slightly different from the last thanks to a number of factors like level design, number of guards, and a few other nasty tricks. The behavior of each thug can change as well depending on the situation. Some guys will team up and cover each other's backs, and some will even frantically fire away at nothing at all. Detective Mode can also be used for seeing bad guys through walls and locating weak structures. This might take away from the challenge for some but the way I see it players who master these stealth battles will have already memorized the locations and movement patterns of every thug in the room anyway. I think these parts of the game are excellent.

After the exploration and combat we have...everything else in the campaign. As with any other story mode in a game there are elements that don't work in the context of a challenge and one must experience the entirety of the campaign to get the most out of everything. It's here the game is lacking because everything leads to disappointment. Rather than spoil the best bits of the game I'm going to spoil some of the worst. Earlier I mentioned that Joker got his hands on some experimental drug that gives superhuman strength. Basically this stuff can make even the most nameless of thugs become somebody on the level of Bane. It's interesting really because the player will actually face off with Bane early on in the story. Problem is pretty soon guys on Bane's level become an almost regular occurrence. Bane works on his own because he has to be taken on in a way that Batman can't defeat most villains by. It's part of what makes the Rogue Gallery work. Unfortunately however we end up with a bunch of guys that fight just like Bane and gets repetitive very quickly. What really gets me is that there's this excellent build-up between Batman and The Scarecrow but it all gets thrown away. This segue-ways into an encounter with The Croc that's more of an annoyance than anything. When the worst thing I can say about some guy who is more than 10 feet tall and weighs about a ton is that he's annoying and non-threatening it really highlights a failure on the part of the developers.

Still all of this pales in comparison to the complete throw-away of a finale. I'll accept part of the blame for this because I had all kinds of ideas for what the final battle with the Joker would be like. The earlier Batman games that I'm such a fan of aren't really Batman games either. Sure they star Batman and tend to be based on his movies or television series but the entire concept and style of game are rooted in the genre.

For example the original Batman on the NES is a favorite of mine. While it was based off of the first movie the game itself looked like Sunsoft was in the middle of making a completely different game and just switched a few things around. Batman looks like he picked a fight with an army of mutant cyborgs led by The Joker. The finale adds to the surreal as the Joker is able to summon lightning. Batman on the Genesis was also good and this time it didn't involve a robot army or whatever(though in one stage he shoots down apparently a battalion of helicopters). I wouldn't even know where to begin with a title like Batman & Robin for the Genesis as it's a run&gun styled shooter which means tons of huge bosses.

The point is all of these games were imaginative in how they handled certain encounters. The final battle with the Joker in Arkham Asylum fails due to a number of factors. For one it has The Joker use the Venom to become uh..Super Joker? Worse still most of the time he doesn't even fight except to attempt to scratch Bats a couple times. Most of the battle is just beating up thugs and waiting for an opportunity to punch Super Joker a couple times. I understand the game is limited by its need for context and sensibility. I'm not expecting the Joker to hop in a giant robot or suddenly grow multiple heads like a Hydra. I do however expect something that lives up to the all of the hype that was thrown around throughout the game. I'd be here all day if I just sat around coming up with alternate final battles so never mind all that. I'd be happy if they just gave The Joker a rocket launcher.

At least with the story-mode completed that leaves more time for me to focus on the great aspects of the game in the battle and stealth modes. Still I find it difficult to accept that the ball could be dropped so hard. I can't help but be a bit worried about the upcoming sequel Arkham City due to this. The stakes are even higher in this game and if the final boss turns out to be Super Two-Face I'm going to be throwing a game system out a window.

Game Rating 4 out of 5

As I've said before. Most of the elements that make up this game are really good. Some more varied fights would have done wonders though and detective mode tends to do a little too much hand-holding at times. Still I can see way this game is so beloved.

My Rating 4 out of 5

Although the story mode disappointed me to the point that I never want to play it again it was still quite good and Rocksteady did an amazing job with the presentation. I still have a long way to go towards completing the Challenge Mode so there's always that to come back to as well.

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