RETROspective REviews: Batman Arkham Asylum – A must have

On a Dark Night…

OK, for the lazier among you I’m going to make this short and simple: buy this game. “Oh, but I don’t really like Batman/Games based on a comicbook” some of you say… Well, it goes beyond the usual cash in: buy this game. “But I don’t really like action or fighting games”… Same again, it’s not another mindless collect-stuff button-masher: buy this game. “Oh, but I”… What? I don’t care. Just trust me, and buy this game. Now, preferably.

Still reading? OK, guess I better give you a few reasons to justify that little tirade. Bear with me. Batman: Arkham Asylum first hit stores in summer 2009, and has since been released for both PS3 and Xbox 360 as part of their Platinum and Classics line-ups respectively, making it one of the greatest bargains for either system. The sequel, entitled Batman: Arkham City is due for release mid-October this year, and we can’t wait.

The first thing to note about Arkham Asylum is that it is not a movie tie-in. Thank God. After all, when was the last time that you played a movie tie-in that was actually any good? The nature of game developing has become so intricate, labour-intensive and reliant on technology that the final product now rivals, and sometimes even exceeds, the depth and polish of even a major Hollywood blockbuster, and Arkham Asylum is indeed one such exception. It is part of a new crop of video games, along with the surprisingly impressive Transformers: War for Cybertron and the disappointing-but-well-intentioned Spider-man: Shattered Dimensions, that is eschewing the trend towards lacklustre video-games-based-on-a-movie-based-on-a-comic. Developers are now turning to the original source material and building games the way they should be built, without the time and story constraints of a film to worry about.

As soon as you begin playing B:AA you’ll be drawn into the story. The Joker has been captured and is being transported to the Gotham’s favourite maximum security asylum for the criminally insane. But something’s not right. Joker gave up almost without a fight. And despite being strapped to a gurney The Joker is taunting our hero. Before long, all hell breaks loose. There are some interesting cameos even in the opening sequence and the scene is brilliantly set for the action that follows. The impressive cut scenes and immersive story-telling don’t let up from start to finish. The game draws some of it’s inspiration, and it’s voice acting cast from the cartoon series, meaning that fans will be thrilled to hear Kevin Conroy and even Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker noobs) reprise their roles as Batman and Joker. Much of the inspiration is also drawn from the comics, but if that actually sounds like turn-off, worry not: the whole gothic island and the events that unfold have been created with a mature audience in mind.

Batarang meet face. Face, this is batarang

The game has obvious appeal to fans of anything in the Batman universe, however, this is hardly a requirement for enjoying the game. It’s a completely stand-alone story, and there is no need to go digging around in your local comic store to be able to follow what’s going on. There is very little to puzzle either the casual gamer or someone who’s never cracked the spin of a comic in their life. Numerous villains make an appearance throughout the game, and the developers aren’t shy about teasing you as to who could be popping up next. Some are more impressive than others. In fact, my only real disappointment with the game is that some of the boss battles become quite repetitive and lack the same level of imagination present in the rest of the game. However, you’ll gladly forgive all of that when you find yourself taking on the Scarecrow. Warning: pack a Hawaiian shirt, it’s about to get trippy.

In terms of gameplay, B:AA brings a refreshingly original style of play to a genre that’s rapidly becoming filled with clones. In a definite nod to the movies Batman can, and often will, engage in brutal hand-to-hand combat with enemies. However, these epic battles (and some really do become epic) are tempered with a great deal of exploring, puzzle solving, and even detective work. When Batman isn’t kicking in teeth, he will often be trying to solve one of the problems that Joker has thrown up in his way, but he’s come prepared. As the game progresses you will unlock new abilities that allow you to open up new areas, find new ways to take down your adversaries, and use the intriguing new Detective Mode.

Stalking the prey

Detective Mode (henceforth nicknamed Predator Mode) is a kind of x-ray vision that not only tracks enemies through walls, and can give you information about what weapon they are carrying and how agitated they are, but can also be focused on a particular clue, such as a print or scent. Batman is very much a predator in this game. Many of the puzzles that come up are not your usual point-the-right-thing-at-the-right-thingy but involve having to take out a room full of villains in complete stealth. There are always more than way than this can be accomplished and most are just taxing enough to make that final take-down especially satisfying.

The combat and development system really demonstrate why keeping it simple pays off. Batman is forced to beat a lot of people up throughout the game. The combat system seems easy at first: within the first hour you’ll be knocking down basic enemies like dominoes. Each successful blow gives you XP. XP is used to unlock new tools or abilities and replenish your health. But as the enemies start to get tougher, you’ll have to master the timing and variety of techniques to chain together brutal and varied combos to get that extra experience, recover quicker and unlock that new tool. A few hours into the game and you’ll be using your bat-line to snatch guns, then jump in to beat up one guy, flip over the next, counter someone trying to stab you in the back, and then pick up the first guy who’s staggered to his feet again and fling him into the others.

Wahyaaaa! Looks like the Dark Knight’s picked up a few tricks from his foray into Mortal Kombat territory…

In a stroke of pure genius, the developers even included a mission mode that allows you to fight for the top score or the best time in a variety of combat and stealth scenarios. You can even download missions that allow you to play as the Joker himself, pitting you against Arkham’s finest.

The graphics are absolutely top-notch. Everyone at HNSG agree that Arkham Asylum is one of the most beautiful games you could own for either next-gen console. Although, if you are like Richybigpants and play most of it in detective mode, you aren’t likely to notice on your first play through. Despite it’s age, it’s still the finest use the Unreal Engine to date. All the characters are well created and faithful to their comicbook counterparts. The animation is fluid at all times, and there is tremendous attention to detail. Each area of the island has it’s own feel to it and give the game an impressive size and scope. The sound design is excellent, and the voice acting really helps to bring this game to life.

What truly makes B:AA a must-have is the attention to detail in all aspects of the game. Sometimes this is something simple, such as watching Batman’s outfit become progressively more ripped and bloodied as the game progresses, or listening to the Joker give a running commentary of your attempts to take down his men. But there is much more to it than that. Rather than just leaving stuff lying around for you spot, the developers have included tape recordings of the staff’s sessions with the game’s various villains, some of which are actually quite chilling. The Riddler has also been on the loose and left numerous clues to his riddles; upon entering a new area he will often taunt you into trying to solve them. There are also the mysterious engravings of the Asylum’s creator to be deciphered, figures to be unlocked and collected, and much more besides.

Bottom line: Batman: Arkham Asylum combines an excellent combat system, tremendous pacing and story-telling, gorgeous graphics and a very rewarding amount of depth and detail to deliver one of the finest single player experience to date. Do I have to say it again?! Buy this game!

– Tasty Fish

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