Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
Batman: Arkham City has been revealed and detailed. CC2K celebrates by looking back at our review of the game that did the Dark Knight proud.
There is one advantage that video games have over movies that I doubt will ever be lost, simply because of inherent differences between the two mediums. While both can offer escapist fantasy, watching a movie is a passive experience. The viewer is relegated to spectator status, watching events unfold onscreen and always being apart from the story. On the other hand, in certain video games the player assumes the role of the story’s protagonist; he/she takes on an active role in driving the plot forward, and in some cases, can determine exactly how that story unfolds. In cases where a video game centers on a well-known character already established in another medium, e.g. a comic book superhero, the success of said game is determined in large part by how the game treats that character and, more specifically, how players feel while assuming the identity of that character.
I think this is a big reason why it’s been so difficult to create a really good, satisfying Superman game. It’s typical for action games to have a tiered power system built in, i.e. at the beginning of the game you’re fairly weak, and by game’s end your quite powerful. But no gamer wants to spend half of a Superman game unable to use many of Superman’s powers. Part of the appeal of a Superman game would be getting to be the Man of Steel. But Superman’s power set is so ridiculously, almost absurdly unbalanced that creating a challenging (and ultimately satisfying) game is, well, extremely challenging. On sort of the opposite end of the spectrum, the release of the X-Men Origins: Wolverine game earlier this year was met with pleasant surprise by many gamers as they discovered a game that is true to the character of this violent, feral X-Man. This game is imbued with Wolverine’s personality, and it shows. Playing X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I really felt like I was Wolverine in all of his bloody, dismembering, and decapitating glory.
In this respect (and many others I’ll delve into during this review) Batman: Arkham Asylum is a resounding success. It is by far the best Batman game ever made, but that’s not really saying much when so many previous attempts have been mostly crap. So let’s take it to the next level. Batman: Arkham Asylum is one of the very best games of 2009, and I say that with full knowledge that a half-dozen or so Top 5-quality games are still scheduled for release later this fall.
It’s undeniable that Batman: Arkham Asylum has drawn a great deal of influence and inspiration from one of the most unlikely of sources: Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. I consider this “unlikely” because while it is an absolutely perfect setup – trap Batman in Arkham Asylum after it’s been taken over by almost his entire rogues gallery – it’s a dark, twisted descent into madness featuring one of the most conflicted, psychologically fragile and fractured presentations of the Batman character. Wisely, the game’s developers lifted the premise and a good bit of the backstory from AA:ASHOSH and married it with more typical characterizations and a more conventional plot. The game begins with Batman returning The Joker to Arkham after a recent escape. Batman’s suspicion over the ease of The Joker’s capture is well founded, as during Joker’s re-admittance to the facility he breaks free and triggers the release of nearly all of the Asylum’s patients, including several hundred of Joker’s own goons recently transferred from Blackgate Prison, not to mention some of Batman’s worst enemies. As the Dark Knight, you must follow the Clown Prince of Crime into the madhouse and fight to stop whatever latest plan he is executing to unleash homicidal mayhem on the good people of Gotham.
Let’s get back into how this game makes you feel like you’re the Caped Crusader himself. As I see it there are four elements to being Batman that have never been fully incorporated into a previous Batman game. Batman: Arkham Asylum nails all of them damn near flawlessly. Let’s look at them, one-by-one.
1) There are seven working defenses from this position. Four disarm with minimal contact, two kill, and the last one… HURTS
Any fan knows that Batman has spent years training and conditioning himself to be master of virtually all forms of martial arts. With that knowledge in mind it’s more than a little disappointing to play as a Batman with a mundane combat set of simple punches and kicks. Batman: Arkham Asylum not only avoids this trap but creates a smooth and free-flowing combat system that allows you to take on groups of a dozen or more goons all at once. That’s right, there’s none of that “here’s a group of bad guys and they’re just going to stand around while you take them out one at a time” nonsense in this game. If there’s a group of six thugs standing around shooting the shit, you can wade in and engage all six of them. And as complicated as this could be, the system in place handles it simply and beautifully. There’s three buttons that you’ll use during combat, and really only two that you’ll be tapping most of the time. On the Xbox 360 controller the X button maps to the “attack” function, and the Y button executes a “counter move”.
While it’s very easy to use this two-button system, it’s actually incredibly challenging to master. There’s a method, a technique built in that elevates the combat system beyond simple button mashing. True, repeatedly pressing the X button until you induce Carpal Tunnel Syndrome will get the job done, but there’s a better way. Combining the left thumbstick with the X and Y buttons directs your attacks and counters at the various enemies surrounding you. When one of those enemies is about to strike, glowing lightning bolts flash above his head (sort of like a Spidey-sense). This is the time to launch a counter attack. If you’re quick enough you can beat them with a quickly pressed X button, but in my experience more than half the time they’ll score a successful hit that induces damage, throws off your rhythm, and breaks your combo streak. Combos become important, not only for acquiring achievements for stringing exceptionally long combos together, but also because as you build a combo streak up you begin to launch critical strikes that do more damage, and you unlock the ability to launch special combo attacks.
And though you’re only pressing two buttons during most of the combat in Batman: Arkham Asylum, there is a plethora of moves that are initiated by these two buttons. In a way combat becomes something of a pseudo-QTE (quick time event). While I’ve complained often of the increasing prevalence of QTEs in 3rd-person action games, the combat system in Batman: Arkham Asylum makes it work exceptionally well. Rather than a traditional QTE where you sit around waiting for the next prompted bit of button mashing, the player is firmly in control of the action. But as you execute a final, incapacitating move on an opponent a short, close-up, and slow-motion cinematic of Batman serving a serious beat-down is triggered. All of this combines to make combat fluid, simple to control, yet varied and highly entertaining to watch.
2) Where does he get those wonderful toys?
It’s also well-established that Batman lacks super-powers. Another way he gets around this besides his training are the gadgets he uses to aid his crime fighting. It’s true that these have ranged from the highly practical (batarangs, grapnel gun) to the absurd (bat-shark repellent bat-spray, anyone?). Wisely, developers have culled only the choicest of gadgets to include. At the beginning you’ll have an endless supply of batarangs and your trusty grapnel gun to get to high, hard-to-reach places. As the game advances you’ll acquire more gadgets to add to your utility belt and aid in gameplay. Explosive gel to blast through structural weakpoints in walls, a grappling hook to grab and pull certain distant objects, specialized batarangs and more.
Even though it does seem somewhat contrived to not outfit Batman with all of his gadgets at the beginning of the game, there are reasons given for delaying your procurement of a couple of the more pivotal ones that actually do make sense in the game’s narrative. Many of the other optional gadgets are acquired through upgrades obtained through a loose leveling system built into the game. Experience points are gained through combat, game advancement, etc. that go towards “leveling up”. Once a new “level” is reached you can choose one upgrade from a selection in several categories that include combat skills, health/armor, and gadgets. The gadgets you amass are assigned different directions on the D-pad, making switching fairly easy. All are readied by holding the left trigger and used by pressing the right trigger. Your grapnel gun is permanently assigned to the right bumper, and points available for grappling to automatically become highlighted as your get in range. It reminds me of the targeting system in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, but works noticeably better in Batman: Arkham Aslyum, likely because there are simply less points of interaction available.
3) We’ll cross swords another time Detective…
Probably the hardest of Batman’s signature traits to incorporate successfully into a game are his skills as a detective. It’s relatively easy to make players feel like Batman is a badass at hand-to-hand combat, but how to make them feel like Batman is actually using his brains as well as his brawn, without falling back on over-used Tomb Raider-style puzzle-solving and platforming? Batman: Akrham Asylum achieves this through two aspects of the gameplay. The first is the game’s “detective mode”. Initiating it activates special optics on Batman’s cowl that change the way you view the world around you. Points of interaction are highlighted, people can be viewed through solid objects, hostile subjects can be differentiated into those that are armed and those that are unarmed, and more. At several points throughout the game Batman must enter detective mode to survey a crime scene and find forensic evidence in order to track particular persons of interest through the environs and facilities of Arkham Island. True this isn’t much of a complex element, and it doesn’t really involve much in the way of active participation on the part of the player, but it does give the perception that Batman is using more than just his muscle to get the job done.
The second aspect of exploring Batman’s more intellectual side includes much more player participation. As I mentioned earlier The Joker has given the inmates of Arkham the run of the place, and while you tangle with some of Batman’s nemeses up close and personally, interactions with others are more indirect. As one example, very early in the game The Riddler intercepts the radio signal Batman is using to communicate with allies elsewhere in Gotham. He issues a challenge to Batman (and you the player) in the form of a battle of wits. Riddler boasts that he’s setup a number of different challenges around the island that he is certain Batman will be unable to complete successfully. Some of these, such as finding interview tapes and hidden “Riddler Icons” require simple exploration of your surroundings and, at times, a fair bit of platforming, i.e. finding things in hidden/hard-to-reach places. But in nearly all of the various locations or “sections” of the island The Riddler poses a number of riddles for Batman to solve. Riddles are “solved” by finding the particular object in the surrounding environment that the riddle is referring to. Some of these are quite obvious and easy to figure out. But others are more difficult, and there are plenty that I have yet to solve. Of course, The Riddler’s Challenges are tangental to the main plot, and you can ignore them altogether if you wish. Though if you choose to accept, this side quest of sorts adds to the total gameplay time, unlocks new upgrades and challenge maps, breaks up the phsyical action with more cerebral fare, and is just plain fun.
4) Turn fear against those who prey on the fearful
One of my favorite scenes in Batman Begins happens when Bruce Wayne first ventures out in the full batsuit and breaks up the drug shipment down at the docks. In fact, let’s enjoy it again, skip to the 2:30 mark in the following video:
That sequence is a great example of the kind of fear Batman is supposed to instill in criminals. Moving silently and unseen, dispatching criminals one-at-a-time, turning a group of confident, heavily-armed thugs into quivering blobs of terror. Sure, he goes into full ass-kicking mode there at the end of the clip, but Batman: Arkham Asylum already has ass kicking. Thankfully, developers have paid as much loving attention to what is called “predator mode”. Throughout your exploration of Arkham Asylum you’ll encounter large, high-ceilinged rooms ringed by ornate gargoyles in the upper reaches. In these rooms you’ll have to face off against groups of thugs with assault rifles. Attempting to engage in normal combat with them is suicide. Instead, you basically get to play out that scene in Batman Begins. Once you grapple up to one of the gargoyles, your free to move unnoticed around the room by grappling and swinging between gargoyles. The key is to dispatch the henchmen one-by-one undetected, and the options available to do this are many, varied, and all insanely awesome. I could explain it to you, but why not let the video do the talking? Check it out:
It’s roughly 10X cooler to play than to watch, trust me.
There’s plenty of more praise I could heep upon this game, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the flaws of Batman: Arkham Asylum. The most glaring is the camera control. This is a third-person action game, and the camera’s default position is above, behind, and slightly to the right of Batman (similar to the Gears of War games). There are automatic camera adustments during gameplay, and you can also control the camera with the right thumbstick. Problem is (and admittedly, it’s a minor one) sometimes the camera doesn’t track well, and at times you’re ability to control it is a little wonky such that you end up with some weird camera angles that don’t really aid gameplay. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s certainly not a deal-breaker, but for a game that is as polished in other aspects (not to mention delayed a couple of times), I’m surprised this wasn’t addressed more by the developers. Actually, that’s the only real “flaw” I can think of that I’ve personally encountered while playing. Though there is one other thing that I’m still trying to figure out whether is brilliant or disappointing. Let me explain.
Like any good 3rd-person action game, Batman: Arkham Asylum has “bosses,” enemies that are more powerful and more dangerous than the nameless henchmen dispatched in droves. Here they are (who else?) individuals from Batman’s rogues gallery. If you’ve watched any of the trailers or inside looks for the game you know these include (but are not limited to) The Joker, Harley Quinn, Bane, and Poison Ivy. What I’m still having an internal debate on is the nature of Batman’s interactions with these rogues, i.e. what the “boss battles” are like. Instead of the tired, same old battle where you fight to reduce a boss’s health meter to zero, they get a second wind and a full health meter and somehow are stronger and tougher to beat than before (repeat this process several more times) the encounters in Batman: Arkham Asylum are varied, unique, and seem tailored to suit the nature of each rogue. In that way, I find this brilliant. Obviously Batman isn’t going to fight Bane the same way he’d fight Harley Quinn. But where I feel some of these “boss battles” border on disappointing lies in the choices made in just how they play out. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory here, so I’ll resign myself to say that some of these do not feel as “epic” as they could and maybe should. Again, not a flaw in the game per se, just something that might be a disappointment. Maybe. Pretty much all other aspects: graphics, soundtrack, controls, etc. are stellar.
I want to single out one other aspect for further praise: character design. I’m including in this both visual design and voice acting. With regard to the former of the two, both Batman and his various rogues that are featured in the game are great mixes of traditional designs with some new twists. Batman’s suit is a great combination of the sleek, spandex look from the comics and cartoons and a more structured, real-world suit design as you would see in Nolan’s films. Joker has that classic, wire-framed, pointy-chined, hawkish-nosed, widow’s-peaked look with elements of the scarred visage introduced in The Dark Knight. Scarecrow probably has the most original, and in IMHO the most hauntingly freakin’ awesome design of any of the rogues in the game. And as for Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, well let’s just say I’ve never wanted to get with a bad girl so badly.
Addressing the latter, I think that one of the smartest moves developers made was to bring in Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill to reprise their respective roles as Batman and The Joker from Batman: The Animated Series (and subsequent cartoons). Christian Bale took a lot of rightly deserved flak for the voice he gave Batman (particularly in TDK), and if he wants lessons on how to do proper Bruce Wayne/Batman voices he needs to look no further than Kevin Conroy.
Hell, once upon a time Conroy should have been Batman in a live-action film.
And Mark Hamill, Crom do I need to really explain that one? If you only know Hamill as Luke Skywalker then you’re (perhaps understandably) oblivious to the second career he’s built for himself as a voice actor in video games and cartoons. Probably, no definitely his greatest achievement in that arena has been The Joker. Sure Heath Ledger deserves props for his portrayal in TDK, but in my mind there is but one voice for The Joker, and it’s Mark Hamill.
I could go on and on. Hell, I haven’t even really talked about the Challenge Rooms! Suffice it to say, there is no multiplayer component to Batman: Arkham Asylum, but the Challenge Rooms (just that, stand-alone rooms with various challenges focused on different aspects of gameplay like combat and predator mode with point scoring systems for how well you complete them) do feature leaderboards to stimulate competition between you and everyone else who’s playing the game (though you can see leaderboards of just your friends if you want to keep things more personal).
Anyway, yeah, I could just keep heaping praise on this game, finding more and more to talk about. I think I’ll end the review here, and reiterate that Batman: Arkham Asylum is an absolutely fantastic game. Whether you’re a fan of the World’s Greatest Detective or not, this is one of the games of 2009 that you should be playing.