Saturday, 12 September 2009

Review- Batman: Arkham Asylum

I've been awaiting this game for a while, ever since I heard that they were scrapping the idea for a "Batman: The Dark Knight" game. To date I can only think of ONE successful film-to-game adaptation that worked- "Spiderman 2". That game was brilliant, it had everything; free-roaming, sandbox web-slinging that was amazing fun, fighting (although that needed some work) and a story that worked for not only those that had watched the film but also for those that had never seen it, by not solidly following the story of the film. Instead the game decided to not only feature the film's story line, but to include other plots lines by including characters from the cartoons and comics that have never featured in the films (in fact, I played the game before seeing the film and felt the film lacked what the game had... And the Bruce Cambell narration didn't hurt!)

Most people felt that as the focus was entirely on a new game, then final product could fall incredibly short of the standard that "The Dark Knight" had set. These people had clearly never played a computer game in their lives.

Although "The Dark Knight" was a great film, (one of my personal favourites) this game is in a different league. That's not to say it's better or worse, just different... But brilliant never the less.

The game starts as the Dark Knight himself leads the Joker to prison- namely Arkham Asylum, where Gotham's greatest and most psychologically interesting Villains call home. The opening plays much like the recent boom of "Playable Movie" games (to which I have a soft spot for) such as "Metal Gear Solid" or "Call of Duty 4" in which you simply walk alongside joker as he is dragged into the depths of the insane asylum. Along the way you pass a few of the inmates, such as Killer Croc, all of whom swear to "someday soon" wreak vengeance upon Batman.

Once the Joker reaches what he decides to be his final destination, beyond Batman's grasp, he inevitably breaks free and unleashes his insane and ingeniously complex plan onto Arkham- letting loose all of its inhabitants along the way.

The whole game is set on the island of Arkham and it's safe to say that the game designers managed to get a lot of mileage out of this one island. After completing tasks in certain areas you often wind up back tracking later in the game after acquiring new technology and gadgets to access new areas. In most games this would become very tedious very quickly, but in Batman they managed to keep it interesting by adding new enemies in each area or obstacles to over come, forcing you to take new and interesting routes.

A good example of this is at one point in the game Poison Ivy escapes and the island becomes overgrown with deadly pant life. A building that you had previously cleared of Jokers goons was now filled with leafy obstacles, with the floor covered in poisonous red gas, forcing you to find new ways across each room.

One thing that that I really liked about the game was how well it has been placed within the "Batman Universe". There is a real sense that this game takes place in a mere snippet from Batman's (and for that matter, Gotham's) life, constantly suggesting that things have happened before the game and will continue after the game has ended. The game also tilts its hat to many of Gotham's most notorious Super Villains- from famous film foes such as Mr. Freeze and Two Face, to the more obscure, perhaps unheard of bad guys like Humpty-Dumpty and Prometheus. This was done in a variety of ways, from dotting memorabilia from the villains around in display cases (such as the Penguins umbrellas and the Cats claws and goggles) to newspaper clippings on notice boards and in some cases stumbling across their prison cells (in one instance you battle several foes at once, right next to a holding cell surrounded in ice...) Another nice touch was including unlockable biographies for Gotham's most notorious criminals, as a non-Batman fan-boy it was great to learn a bit more about these imaginative criminals.

Throughout the game Batman is treated to a sort of running commentary from the Joker via the security speaker system. When I first heard about this I thought that it could get slightly tedious after a while, but it's safe to say- it doesn't. Mark Hamill does an exceptional job voicing the Clown Prince of Darkness, I even found myself hanging around areas just to hear what he had to say!

But Joker isn't the only Super Villain to talk to Batman, the Riddler makes an interesting cameo, adding an on-going puzzle solving element to the game. Not far into the game the Riddler starts communicating to you in similar ways to the Joker, giving you lists of riddles to solve and hidden items to find in each location. These puzzles and collectibles aren't necessary to completing the story, but I found them incredibly fun. I often spent hours in certain locations hunting down each puzzle, determined to solve them all before progressing to the next area, long before realising that most puzzles can only be solved later in the game after acquiring the right equipment. This really played well into Batman's character building, which at first you wouldn't think about because, lets face it- he's Batman, every knows him! But what the films often gloss over is that he isn't a super human fighter, deep down he's simply a detective- and a damn good one at that.

The main object of the game is to use Batman's detective skills to hunt down Joker and any other escaped convict. Tapping L2 opens up "Detective Mode" in which everything turns slightly blue and key elements are highlighted in orange such as breakable walls, ventilation ducts and security panels. With this on you can also see bad guys through walls, as well as seeing whether or not they are armed which is crucial as running head on with a group of armed guards will more often than not end in death. The Detective Mode changes throughout the game as Batman uses it to track down finger-prints, tobacco trails and even the trail left from the whiskey on someones breath! As great as this mode was there was one crucial flaw with it- it was so good, I never wanted to turn it off. I went everywhere with it on, so that I could see bad guys a mile off, find trophies, find secret areas, everything was made so much easier.

This was a shame really as the graphics without Detective Mode on were superb. The attention to detail was astonishing, making the game incredibly atmospheric. Most "atmospheric" or "gritty" games these days often just end up being dimly lit games that are primarily gray and brown, but Batman goes beyond this. The colours in the game are fantastic, from the bright red mist that surrounds Poison Ivy's plants, to the bright green Joker graffiti and even the crude face-paint upon some of the inmates, all the while keeping up a very dark and brooding atmosphere.

The story itself is very immersive as Batman works his way through Arkham trying to put a halt to Jokers plans, often causing him to walk directly into Jokers traps, set up by his side-kick Harley Quinn. Throughout the story you are also stalked by The Scarecrow, as he slowly pumps his mind altering gasses into the buildings of Arkham causing Batman to periodical hallucinate, bringing his deepest fears to life. This can happen at any moment meaning that one minute you could be walking through a corridor before it slowly starts to morph into an alley way, leading you to your dead parents. It is a brilliant aspect of the game, one which often leads you to question Batman's sanity yourself.

The variety of "Boss" characters, such as Killer Croc, Bane and Poison Ivy was great, constantly keeping Batman on his toes. One criticism that I could make though was that each Boss battle seemed quite anti-climactic. It was nice to not have to simply have a stand-off fight with each boss, taking down Super Villains in different varieties was quite interesting, but it never felt challenging enough. I remember feeling incredibly nervous entering Killer Crocs liar, but ultimately there has no imminent danger from the 11ft monster.

My favorite element of the game was easily figuring out new ways to take down the groups of enemies on the island. Running into armed guards head on would leave you dead in seconds, so having to climb to the rafters and pick them off one by one was always fun. Setting traps for inmates, luring guards over to some explosives, distracting one guard so that you can quietly pick off the other never became tiring. However, on those occasions when there was a group of unarmed bad guys, running in to face them all in hand to hand combat was always great fun! Trying to string up high combos with the "Free Flow Combat" system was heaps of fun, which lead me to playing a lot of the Challenges.

The Challenges were basically one of two mini-games; either "Fight all of these guys" or "Try and take down these armed guards without being seen". Although they were both very fun at first, as the difficulty curve went up my interests waned. We PlayStation owners were also treated to exclusive playable Joker content, which let you face most of the challenges as the Joker. This was far more fun than I expected as the Jokers movement and style of combat was more interesting and different from Batman's, more so than I was expecting.

All in all I would definitely recommend buying this title, especially for the PS3 as the exclusive Joker content is great (for a while at least). Extra content aside, the main game is superb. The story telling is excellent and the characterisation of each, well, character is spot on. Deciding exactly how to take down a group of inmates never got boring and solving each riddle was much more enjoyable than I had expected. The only down side that I can think of really is that the boss battles were some what anti climactic. Another thing I noticed was that a lot of the gadgets were slightly redundant. You are given an array of different weapons to take down foes, but in the end you will simply throw a batarang and jump straight in while they're knocked out leaving gadgets like the sound activated explosives sat unused in the inventory. It would have been nice if there were moments when you were forced to use some of the more complicated gadgets, or even a bit more variety (I didn't see a single can of "Shark Repellent"...).

But all in all, these are minor flaws. I would still thoroughly recommend this game, one of the best, if not the best, titles released this year. Definitely the best comic-to-game adaptations to date. It is polished to a shine with brilliant level design, great graphics and the best Villains you will see in any game this year. I could go on for hours about this game, but that would just delay you even further from buying it!

So go! Go now! Arkham Asylum needs you! (It's always good to end a review with the cheesiest thing you can think of... Adam West would want it that way...)


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