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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Late to the party reviews: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Once again we return to the well of video games. It’s a deep well, full of lots of thing. Now and then, I dip my bucket in it and come up with a winner.

I don’t really need to go deep into my history with the Dark Knight. Like most people my age, I saw the 1989 movie something like a hundred times, four of which in theaters. I read some of the comic book collections, followed the original animated series religiously, and owned a fair amount of batman related merchandise.

Batman has always had a pretty solid video game history. Back in the days when Nintendo’s seal of approval wasn’t placed mostly on games named after animals with “Z” appended to the end (Coming this fall! Marmosetz!), there were three NES Batman titles (Batman, Batman Returns and Batman: Return of the Joker) and they were all at least good, and if you omit Batman Returns they were very good. The appeal of playing a character who is such a raging bad-ass that he can get away with wearing his father’s Halloween costume to fight crime (as read in the Untold Origin of the Batman three issue mini-series) is not lost on me. Though as an electrical engineer by trade I do prefer Iron Man as a character, as he is basically Batman except he A) designs his own stuff and B) isn’t motivated primarily by Daddy issues.

But Iron Man is more or a tank than a ghost, and I don’t think anyone every crapped themselves because they didn’t know if Iron Man was in the room or not.

The rise of the Stealth Action Game in the past ten years or so, which effectively began with Metal Gear Solid on the PS1, seemed tailor made for a new Batman game, but none was forthcoming. I can’t honestly think of a Batman game that even came out of the PS2, let alone a stealth action game with Bob Kane’s iconic IP.

This is puzzling, until you play Batman: Arkham Asylum, which is clearly the Batman game everyone wanted to make but was unable to until Eidos got involved.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is just about the perfect Batman game. Indeed, I’d argue that it ranks among being a perfect game, full stop. There’s nothing wrong with it that I could point to and say “I wish they’d done that differently.” If ever a game deserved a perfect score, it’s this one.

This is bizarre for me to say. I have made a point in the past of stating that I tend to not like perfect tens. I’d rather a solid seven than a perfect ten. But every now and then exceptions crop up, and this is one of them.

Everything about the game is good. The story, the writing, the voice acting, the graphics, the combat, the stealth elements, the gadgets, and even the length: this game is just fun from top to bottom.

But let’s get into some details, because things I like in games may not be things you like in games.

First, let’s get the unimportant stuff out of the way first. The story, the writing and the voice acting are all top notch. Most of the cast of the original animated series are on staff (Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamil as the Joker), and the story feels like one of those animated movies they make when a cartoon series has been cancelled but the fans are still vocal enough to warrant a followup.

Basically, the Joker has taken over Arkham Asylum and has turned the inmates loose with one goal in mind: Kill Batman and plunder Gotham City.

In the course of the game, you’ll fight such rogues as Bane, Killer Croc, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy and, of course, the Joker. The Riddler is involved as well, but only insofar as he hacked your communications system and planted riddles for you to uncover all over the asylum with serve as the game’s TACOS (AKA Totally Arbitrary Collectible Objects, a term coined in the game Anachronox which I have adopted for more widespread use).

The graphics are also excellent. Batman moves fluidly, as you’d expect, and the character design for the villains is excellent. The designers managed to capture the essence of the characters while still making them fresh and new. The only false note sounded is Harley Quinn’s new costume. She no longer looks like a harlequin, but has traded in her tights for a naughty nurse outfit. It works in the context of the game, however, and thinking about it I’m pretty sure the red and black checked leotard would have looked pretty silly. If Billy Zane as the Phantom taught us anything, it’s that Spandex doesn’t look good on anyone and what works in two dimensions doesn’t work anywhere else.

Now, on to the important stuff. The gameplay.

Everything in this game is fun to do. Whether it’s beating up a gang of thirty thugs single handed, or just exploring Arkham Island with your grappling hook and zipline, it’s clear the developers took their time to make sure everything the player does makes the player feel like Batman.

The combat here is especially good at making the player feel like Batman. At any given time, you might be facing a dozen or more thugs armed with melee weapons. Unlike most other brawlers, though, you don’t lock onto one guy and hit him until either he falls down or someone sneaks up behind you and punches you in the kidneys (Paging Final Fight. There’s a call for you in reception!). The combat in Batman: Arkham Asylum is all about fighting groups of dudes all at once, not one at a time.

Let me explain. Let’s say you’re surrounded. In a game like Final Fight, this would mean it’s time to ready another quarter. In Arkham Asylum, however, you punch the guy in front of you, move the analog stick back in the direction of a different thug and hit the punch button again. This causes Batman to spin around and either backhand or roundhouse kick the guy behind him. Move the joystick again while pressing attack and Batman will spin again and send a flying punch in the nose of yet another thug.

And that’s before he gets technical. Let’s say while Batman was punching that last guy, another thug was getting ready to hit Batman in the cowl with a baseball bat. Wavy lines appear over the armed thug’s head, and as the player that’s your cue to push the counter button. Batman will catch the bat, double the thug over with a punch in the gut and then proceed to knock the thug in the face with the bat.

By this point, your combo meter has probably charged to the point where you can do a special move, if you’ve purchase that particular upgrade, which can be used against that higher level thug who blocks all of your attacks. Hit two of the buttons and Batman will execute an unblockable and very painful looking attack that puts the higher level thug down permanently.

But if you don’t have that upgrade enabled, you can press the stun button, which causes Batman to fling his cape at the blocking thug, causing him to flinch and step back, which opens him up to a normal punch from Batman.

You know you’re done beating down a particular mob when you throw a punch and the camera zooms in and goes into slow motion. The thug will double over in pain, holding whatever part of him you just hit (usually the face) and fall unconscious to the floor. Then a flock of bats will appear out of nowhere and replenish your health bar.

Of course, sometimes the thugs are armed with more than baseball bats or tazers, and that’s when Batman has to be sneaky. The stealth in Batman: Arkham Asylum has been called “stealth light” by people who think planting a video game character in a dark corner and waiting ten minutes for the guards to change shifts is fun. There’s no visibility meter here, no hiding in shadows (except when fighting The Scarecrow, but more on that later) and no hiding unconscious bodies in lockers.

Stealth in Batman: Arkham Asylum is pure line-of-sight stealth. If a thug has a clear view of Batman, shadow or no, he sees him and starts shooting. Luckily, Arkham Asylum is replete with nooks, crannies, bottlenecks, air ducts and, of course, gargoyles.

Batman’s primary means of remaining hidden makes use of the fact that the artificial intelligence of gun-toting thugs is patterned after real world behavior of first person shooters. Namely, they don’t look up. If Batman has the need to get away from things, he can grapple up to a gargoyle and hide there pretty much indefinitely. The only exception takes place late in the game where the Joker has planted proximity mines on the gargoyles, such that if you climb on one the bomb goes off and alerts everyone to your whereabouts.

From the gargoyle you have a few attack options. My personal favorite is the inverted takedown (another option you have to purchase with experience points). If a thug walks directly under the gargoyle you’re sitting on, the press of a button makes Batman drop down, grab the thug, then immediately grapple back up and suspend the thug from the gargoyle by his feet.

I enjoyed doing that so much that at one point I went out of my way to hang one thug from each gargoyle in a room, until there was just one thug left and he was so scared he was firing bursts of automatic weapon fire into the dark at random intervals.

The thug mood is something you’ll want to keep track of while in the stealth sections. Batman has a heads-up-display in his cowl that’s called “detective mode.” Its primary function is to track evidence so you can follow the tracks left by whatever villain you’re trying to catch. As an added bonus, it allows you to detect bad guys through walls, and see how well armed they are, and what kind of emotional state they’re in. Before they know you’re there, the thugs will be calm. But once you take one of their numbers down, they become nervous. Their nervousness escalates the more of them you take down, until they become terrified.

Scaring the thugs, like everything else in the game, is very satisfying. They say an amusing variety of things for you to listen in on, from the cocky “No way Batman will come in here!” boasting to the petrified “Where is he? WHERE IS HE?!” when you’ve rendered a few of them unconscious.

Boss fights do a decent job of mixing things up. Most of the boss fights revolve around a sort of “one super thug and a few dozen smaller ones” motif. When you’re fighting Bane, for example, you’ll have to balance your time between watching for opportunities to do some damage to him and taking out or avoiding the mob of lesser thugs sent to distract you from the boss. I can appreciate this kind of boss battle, because it doesn’t stray too far from what you were already doing in the game, and in my estimation it’s what boss fights should be: More challenging versions of what you were already doing.

But like other action games, a number of the boss fights change either the controls or the camera angles on you. Poison Ivy, for example, has you battling (SPOILER ALERT!) an enormous plant, while the Scarecrow fights (yes, that’s fights, plural) are really more about evasion than anything else.

So let’s talk about the Scarecrow levels for a moment, because they are really high-points of the game for me. The first one in particular caught me so far off guard that they had my pulse pounding like I was actually infected with the Scarecrow’s gas.

Incidentally, for those of you playing on the Xbox 360, one of the Scarecrow segments involves the screen glitching out and the game seeming to crash as if it just broke your game system. Do not worry, and do not restart the game during this section. You haven’t red-ringed out. This is a case of the developers being sick bastards who know how to hit gamers where they live.

The Scarecrow levels involve Batman fighting his own demons inside his own head. The environment shifts and goes wonky, and a gigantic Scarecrow searches the area for Batman. If he sees you, it’s an instant kill so don’t let him see you. This is the only case in the game where staying in the shadows hides you, and the reason for that is the shadows are cast by obstacles to the Scarecrow’s line of sight.

The animation for these sequences is so good that even though you know the Scarecrow is on a repeating loop, you think he might look down at any moment and spot you. There’s a pattern, but the animation is so well done you think it’s unpredictable. My hat is off to the animators for this sequence.

Another thing I doff my hat for is the pacing and length. For me, finishing a game is, more often than not, an endurance test than something I really enjoy. Even Half Life 2 had me sick of being Gordon Freeman by the end, and I haven’t even played the episodes yet.

In Batman: Arkham Asylum, the ending snuck up on me. Not in the “Holy crap, you mean the final boss is The Joker?” sense. More in the “Wait, I’m already to the Joker?” sense. I hadn’t been playing to beat the game, or to see what happened in the story. I had been playing because I had been enjoying playing the game.

There are a few games that pull me in like that. Bioshock had a distinct lack of “WTF? Another level!?” Fallout 3’s ending, or should I say “ending,” would have snuck up on me if I hadn’t already heard about how short the main story campaign was. Portal’s ending kind of snuck up on me as well. I don’t recall ever once wishing I was done with a Cloverleaf game; seeing as how I’ve played both God Hand and Viewtiful Joe more than once in a row without even turning off the console between the ending credits and the opening level.

Whether these games were actually short (Portal is, what, a five hour game?) or just felt short (My first character in Fallout 3 has over 100 hours logged. There should be an achievement for that) they all share the common theme of having gameplay that is so fun or at least interesting that I enjoyed the game from top to bottom.

That is a rare enough feeling for me, and I’m glad I got the chance to experience it, and I know I’ll be experiencing it again in the future.

Have you noticed I only write reviews of things I like? That’s because it’s my blog, and I’m not going to voluntarily slog through something I hate just to write about it. If I happen to play something that I hate enough to write something interesting, I may write about it, but I’d much rather be positive right now. There’s enough to complain about without me adding my $0.01 after taxes.