Batman: Arkham Asylum Xbox 360, PS3
In the world of comic book video games there is always one factor that will make or break the title in question; letting the player feel like their favourite hero. Spider Man 2: The Movie (the game), Hulk: Ultimate Destruction and the more recent X-Men Origins: Wolverine are perfect examples of this. Each one featured some sort of game mechanic that provided players with a means to endless satisfaction through web-swinging, smashing and lunging. This is also the reason why games like Superman Returns, Ironman and the majority of Batman games to date have died on their collective arse. Putting the player in control of a much-loved hero is all fine and dandy, but the second the in-game persona does something that brings them out of character and into the realms of ‘video game protagonist X’, the magic is lost and we’re left with a generic slog that fails to provide any sort of insight into the character at hand. It’s why (and I’m throwing down the gauntlet here) a Superman game will never work – because there’s almost no discernible way to provide players with the true power of Superman in a game world. Batman, however, is just a man.
Far more suited to a video game scenario, it’s difficult to understand just why it’s taken so long for a developer to bring us a truly well-made Batman game. It probably has something to do with all of the others being lazy knocked together cash-ins of films and cartoons, which is amusing when you consider the untapped potential of the years and years of Batman comic books and graphic novels. Rocksteady are a studio that understand the failings of Bat-games gone-by. Instead of piggy-backing on the success of the Christopher Nolan films or the popular animated series ‘The Batman’, the developer has turned away from the safety net of Hollywood tie-ins and kept their roots buried firmly within the realms of Detective Comics. Whereas Spiderman, Hulk and Wolverine were all great fun, they played more like tech demos in a brightly coloured costume more than anything. Granted, two of those games were based on films anyway, but even so – none managed to really convey any meaningful insight into the characters, their history and their psyche.
Arkham Asylum changes all of this. For once a developer has taken a much loved franchise and made every effort to explore what makes it so special. Taking inspiration from a number of Batman writers and artists, Arkham Asylum is a culmination of years of Batman stories, fused together with an original plot penned by Paul Dini, creator of Batman: The Animated Series. It begins with Batman capturing the Joker and returning him to Arkham, at which point the Joker springs free, releasing the inmates (not to mention an alarming amount of Batman’s worst enemies), so beginning a night of torment for the Dark Knight. To summarise it in such a short sentence doesn’t do justice to the attention to detail on display. The first ten minutes of the game is spent walking the Joker, straight jacket and all, through the Asylum’s prisoner transfer areas, providing a glimpse of things to come. The care that has gone into recreating the Asylum is second to none, and walking through the gothic architecture, listening to the conversations of guards and cell-bound inmates creates a scarily believable atmosphere.
It’s this atmosphere that carries the game from start to finish. There’s never a moment in which the setting feels like anything other than the Asylum often described in Batman comics. The murky halls of the penitentiary, and the disturbingly primitive Victorian medical centre are bursting with character. Each area is unique and serves a purpose, and every room seems to have a certain individuality, the developers not falling back on the typical cookie cutter design that’s so often apparent in video games. Not since Bioshock’s Rapture has there been such a lavishly detailed environment, that enforces the grim and disturbing narrative simply through it’s dark aesthetic. It’s a fitting location for a Batman story, and even more so for a Batman game. Having been locked into the Asylum with every loon under the sun, the game becomes an insight into the relationship between the Joker and the Batman, with Joker narrating Batman’s movements about the island, toying with him as he goes.
For the most part Batman has to deal with Joker’s thugs rather than anyone of any real threat. In fact to begin with it can almost seem too easy, until you realise that it’s supposed to be that way. To make the player really feel like Batman, Rocksteady have created a simple but deceitfully deep combat mechanic that utilises a minimal number of buttons to cause a great deal of damage. When fighting crowds of unarmed henchmen, it only takes a single button tap and a direction from the analogue stick to start dealing out blows. When an enemy attacks, a tap of the counter button reverses the move, and on it goes. At first it seems to be little more than tapping the face buttons until everyone is unconscious. But as the game progresses, new types of enemies armed with knives and shock-rods demand a change in tactic, requiring the use of evade manoeuvres, cape swishes and some of Batman’s more interesting toys. Sustaining a combo (the higher of which the more XP Batman will gain to unlock more cool stuff) while fighting twenty men soon becomes an art form. No longer is it simply a case of hitting the buttons in a rhythmical fashion, it’s about looking for the next victim, creating distance, pre-empting strikes and managing the crowd.
The animation on display makes this even more noteworthy. When put into motion, the freeflow system is a thing of absolute beauty. Every punch and kick moves from one to the next flawlessly. If an enemy comes up behind Batman with a kick, Batman will grab the leg under his arm and sweep the guy to the ground. As Batman moves through crowds of people he does away with them with ease and more importantly with style, creating an effortless ballet of sickening blows. It’s the sort of spectacle that makes watching someone play it almost as fun as playing it yourself. The ease with which Batman can take thugs down reinforces the idea that he is a highly trained martial artist. It makes sense that he’d have no trouble dealing with two-bit thugs and so although it remains easy to some extent, it develops Batman as a character, adding to the game experience rather than detracting from it.
Similar to this is the Silent Predator mode. In rooms stuffed full of bad-guys with guns, stealth is the only way Batman can survive. As mentioned previously, he’s just a man – and it only takes a few bursts of gunfire before seeing the game over screen. Firing his grapnel gun up to the rafter-based gargoyles however and Batman can survey his enemies movements. From here there are all sorts of possibilities. Gliding down and kicking a guy in the face, finishing him off and then grappling back up out of harm’s way is the type of swift decisive action expected from Batman. As the other thugs discover the bodies, they start to panic, making it easier to catch them out, whether it be with a sneaky batarang from behind a corner, or swooping from above and stringing them upside down from a gargoyle. Although it’s easy to take them out with a prompted silent take down, should Batman get close enough while unseen, making a noisy impact then slipping out of view is more likely to strike fear into the remaining enemies – making them scream in terror, and jump at the slightest noise. It becomes more than simply clearing a room of bad guys, it’s about messing with their heads, and is scarily enjoyable.
Of course, it wouldn’t be as obvious just how terrified they are were it not for Batman’s detective vision. A type of visual effect that shows up points of interest in the world, along with NPCs’ current condition (alive, unconscious, scared etc). Alongside this are actual sections of detective work, Rocksteady not wanting to overlook the fact that Bruce Wayne/Batman is the world’s greatest detective. These consist of little more than scanning a room for a clue (for example, a hip flask) waiting for the computer to identify the alcohol particles in the air, and following them in detective vision. It’s simplistic, and in video game terms little more than a ‘go to’ line, but due to the nature of the story and the events at hand it comes across as much more than that. You are Batman, and you are on the trail of something big. The fact that it makes what would in most other games be little other than an objective marker into an interactive part of the game is simply icing on the cake.
The thing with Batman: Arkham Asylum, is that there’s so much icing on the cake that it’s hard to know what to eat first. Every nook and cranny oozes class, it’s been a long time since there’s been a game polished to such an extraordinarily high degree. Every little detail has been carefully designed to fit within this living breathing world, and around every corner is another opportunity to discover something new about the Batman world. The island is littered with challenges left by The Riddler, that can be attempted at any time. Each one encourages further investigation into the next, often resulting in extended periods of time hunting down clues rather than trying to foil the Joker’s plans. There are numerous interview tapes scattered about, each one scripted and voice acted with such high production values, that finding one is enough to cause great excitement. On the subject of voice acting, the two lead roles of Batman and Joker – performed by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill – are absolutely superb. Hamill especially steals the show with his performance as the psychotic, yet hilarious Joker in what could actually be his greatest performance of all time.
Amongst all of these superbly executed elements there are constant references to Batman villains past and present, brilliant little nods to certain novels and characters that will constantly surprise diehard fans, as well as acting as a sort of ‘education in Batman’ for newcomers. Then there are the numerous references to Batman’s past, the clever way the developer delves into what makes Bruce Wayne who he is, and why he does what he does. The theme of fear runs throughout the game and acts as a sort of fundamental element to which everything grows from, further emphasised by certain characters that bring about the notion of terror in a breathtaking manner. It seems impolite to dwell on the few instances of what aren’t bad, but simply average game mechanics that slip in to the game later on, and while the final fight may well be a bit of an anti-climax, it’s only for the rest of the game being so undeniably excellent.
Rocksteady have proven that they’re a company that really care. They actually ‘get’ Batman, they’ve looked at the character from every conceivable angle and strived to make this everything anybody could possibly want from a Batman game. It’s an adult presentation of an adult character, and not once does it fail to make the player feel anything other than the Dark Knight himself. At one point last year Ian Livingstone, head of Eidos, made the bold statement that Arkham Asylum was the closest thing to a perfect game they’ve ever made. After multiple play-throughs and constant replaying of challenge rooms (that encompass freeflow and silent predator challenges outside of the main game) I can honestly say that while it isn’t the perfect game, it’s the closest you’ll ever get to being Batman.