By Marty Mulrooney
With Christopher Nolan successfully rebooting Batman on the silver screen in recent years, the dark knight is pretty hot property right now. I didn’t realise before writing this review, but there have actually been a lot of Batman games over the years, usually to tie in with the various film releases, with varying degrees of success.
This new Batman game from Rocksteady Studios is nothing do with the recent film releases though, being released on the PS3 and Xbox360 last month, with the PC release coming out later this week. The version I am reviewing is the PS3 version, but it should apply to the XBox360 version as well: at long last, it seems that multi-platform game design is reaching a stage where differences between the HD console versions is negligible.
The PC version will have the added benefit of PhysX, yet I am dubious how much the game will benefit from this addition. So far, it seems to be only superficial, adding atmospheric smoke and fog in some areas, and of course billowing flags and the like. Nice touches no doubt, but not game breaking to not have them here. The console versions still look and perform amazingly well.
So, what is Batman: Arkham Asylum all about? The premise is based on the huge wealth of Batman comic book lore that is available, presenting an interpretation of what could be the worst night of Batman’s life. The game moves away from the usual location of Gotham City, to the island upon which Arkham Asylum is situated.
The game isn’t open world, but does a great job of allowing the player to feel a sense of freedom, whilst secretly nudging them down a predetermined, linear path. You begin the game having just brought the Joker in as a prisoner, after he had somewhat suspiciously allowed himself to be caught with little resistance. Of course, it isn’t long before Joker springs himself loose, taking over the prison/asylum, using the inmates and his loyal thugs as pawns in his master plan to defeat Batman.
The thing you immediately notice about the game is the attention to detail, and the excellent overall graphical presentation. The game runs on the well known Unreal Engine 3, with all of the characters and environments having a solid, meaty feel to them. The closest game that comes to mind visually is Bioshock, although whereas that was a 1st person shooter, Batman is a 3rd person over the shoulder beat-em-up/ stealth action adventure.
The Asylum is made up of several different areas and buildings, including a Medical Facility and the Botanical Gardens (a favourite haunt of Poison Ivy…) The design is excellent, with some areas looking as if they have been around for hundreds of years, and others looking like new additions. The good thing is that all of these areas gel nicely, and it really does feel like a coherent world. Exploration is part of the fun, especially from great heights where Batman can use his cape to glide around. Still, as previously mentioned this isn’t an open world game. Fighting against the designers planned route usually results in death or a brick wall. Still, the illusion is pleasant while it lasts.
The gameplay mechanics are nicely varied and really do make you feel like a superhero. The best parts of the game are undoubtably the rooms where you get to play as a predator, swinging between conveniently placed gargoyles and skulking in the shadows, picking off the increasingly erratic enemies one by one. It is slightly silly that the thugs never see you swinging around, as there is no real dynamic light system in place. They pretty much won’t see you unless you run in front of them, yet after that it is like their eyes are super-glued to you. You really do need to get away quick when spotted as well! Batman is a real human at the end of the day, lasting only a few bullets before he dies. (Dying can be fun though, as depending how it happens, you are usually taunted by someone on screen before you get to press continue!)
After these sections, the majority of the gameplay is based around all-out fighting. Luckily, whereas my initial impressions of the ‘freeflow’ combat system in the demo seemed shallow, the full game’s fighting displays a huge level of satisfaction in that it is simple to learn, yet tough to master. The options are few: punch, counter, stun and jump. It may seem to be easy at first, but when 20 enemies pile on screen, button-mashers will be completely thrashed by the overwhelming wave of aggressive foes. Mastering the combat is essential, and it is very satisfying to stand amidst the unconcious bodies of your fallen foes at the end of a huge battle. The batsuit even becomes more torn and damaged after every fight! Experienced fighters can even spice things up a bit by throwing batarangs and using the grapple hook to pull enemies over.
The grapple hook itself is a lot of fun, making the gameplay feel as vertical as it is horizontal. There is nothing better than using the hook to fly high up on to a ledge (perhaps via a ruined elevator shaft), before scanning the area, jumping back down and glidekicking an enemy into submission.
The game offers a really nice upgrade system. It is nothing new or deep, simply allowing users to spend XP on extra moves/ upgrades on gadgets, yet the upgrades themselves are great. For example you can buy an upgrade allowing special combo moves to be performed after five hits instead of ten, or increase the durability of the batsuit. Sadly, you can buy pretty much all the cool stuff on your first run-through on normal difficulty, taking away some of the replay value. You also cannot carry over any upgrades or collectables over to a new game which is a shame. You can still continue to explore the asylum after the credits have rolled to collect whatever is left, but it can feel a bit empty with the main quest completed.
The gadgets rock, ranging from a remote control batarang (awesome!) to an electronic lock picking device (practical!). They always work well, spicing up the gameplay and making the player feel as if they are making good progress. I hope if there is a sequel that we get some more high-tech toys. Driving the batmobile would be great, although I can see what they didn’t happen here: there wouldn’t have been much practical use for it when the island itself isn’t that big in the first place.
The other area of the game that is pretty cool and unique is detective mode. In everyday gameplay this works really well, simply because it can see through walls. You can literally see where all the enemies in the room are with a tap of a button. It even displays stats such as the mood of the enemy, and whether they are armed. Fans of the film Total Recall will probably note as I did that the effects looks a bit like the scanner in the train station that Arnie jumps through. However, detective mode is more than just a tool to spot enemies. It also allows players to see weak areas on walls (just asking to be destroyed with some explosive gel) and grapple points that can be latched on to.
It is also used for real detective work, but this aspect disappointed me slightly. The detective mode will configure itself on an item (scripted of course) such as someone’s finger prints. You then follow the trail, easy as pie. It all seems pretty high tech and neat, but I still wish it had allowed something more interactive and intelligent to compliment all the fighting going on.
Luckily, this complaint is somewhat counteracted by the addition of riddles. Riddles are collectables that come in several forms, some as simple as a question-mark trophy Batman can pick up. The best ones though are actual riddles that need to be solved, delivered by the Riddler himself through Batman’s communications system. The player must then look for an object nearby that could indicate the answer (such as an umbrella) and scan it. This was a great addition and really added a lot of extra gameplay and head-scratching. The game took me about 10 hours on normal, and I had a good go at the riddles (I completed over 50% of them) so hopefully completionists will have plenty of extra gameplay to keep them busy. Hidden riddle maps can be found in certain locations to help players with the task of collecting them all.
The cutscenes are great, showing some real cinematic flair. The voicework is phenomenal, using many of the voice actors from the DC animated universe, including Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. Conroy is great as always, his dulcet tones showing both warmth and menace in equal measures. His vocals sound a lot better than the slightly cheesy ‘I-need-the-toilet-so-badly-right-now’ batman voice that Christian Bale has utilised in the recent films (one of my very few complaints with them!) To be fair it isn’t easy to have a normal speaking voice and then suddenly change into deep-scary-bat-voice-mode. Conroy’s natural speaking voice is just perfect all round for the character.
Hamill is the standout here though, his Joker hypnotic every time you see him on screen, or even when you don’t and he taunts you over the asylum’s speaker system. He is obviously very comfortable in the role and it shows in his delivery. The chemistry between Conroy and Hamill is great. With Heath Ledger’s death sadly putting an end to one of the greatest portrayals of the Joker ever made, it is an incredible achievement for Hamill to give an equally amazing performance in a video game. This is the next best thing after the recent films and I really enjoyed watching the story unfold. This is not to say he overshadows Conroy, rather that his character was always going to be more meaty; Batman as a character is effective in what he doesn’t say a lot of the time.
As the game is based in the comic book universe, there are many references that may be lost on the casual fan. Fortunately, the game has unlockable biographies for everyone shown in the game, and even for the characters who are only hinted at. This includes a written report, and in most cases as many as five audio interviews. Again, this adds plenty of fun and discovery for fans, allowing almost anyone with an interest in Batman to jump straight in and feel right at home.
The ‘challenge rooms’ round off the game. These are environments from the game, some allowing the player to fight thugs in increasingly more difficult rounds, others encouraging stealth and endurance against overwhelming odds. This is a clever addition as it adds a community flavour to the game, with leaderboards allowing you to try and beat your friend’s scores. It should be noted that the PS3 is the only version of the game that will let you play the challenge modes as the Joker (a downloadable exclusive from the PlayStationNetwork), whose fighting style is a lot more loose and wacky than Batman’s!
Sadly, this amazing game does have some noticable faults. First of all, it is over far too soon. It seemed like out of nowhere, the end credits were rolling. Second of all, the story loses steam well before it is all over anyway. I felt that the developers didn’t give enough of the stuff that worked the best, namely Batman fighting and chasing the Joker. We also get hints that we are going to delve into the mind of Batman and his past… but this soon patters out and is forgotten.
As well, the detective mode was underdeveloped, and the random encounters with seemingly cloned thugs started to get predictable. Finally, the boss battles were overall totally naff. This is 2009, we shouldn’t really be having conveniently enclosed arenas with enemies who have a pattern you simply exploit, then rinse and repeat. The Scarecrow areas were a mixed bag as well, switching the gameplay to a side scrolling game of hide-and-seek where if you are spotted, you are dead. The Scarecrow is used really well towards the end, but then he kind of just disappears (I don’t want to give away any spoilers!). This annoyed me because after the Joker, he was the next guy in line who I really wanted to pummel!
When I finally did get to fight the Joker at the end, the payoff wasn’t what I expected it to be, and certainly didn’t match the expectations the rest of the game had instilled. I won’t ruin what happens, but I think most players will agree that the ending is far too generic and by-the-numbers.
Still, this does little to hide the fact that this is one of the best games of not only 2009, but one of the best superhero video games ever made. Regardless of whether you love the film, the comics, or both, you really should check this game out! What faults it does have do little to dampen the joy of such a complete interactive entertainment package: easy to pick up controls, a complex fighting system, cool toys and some truly eye-popping graphics. If only it had been longer and slightly more varied! Still, when you play this game, you become Batman. In the end, what more can you ask from a Batman game anyway?!
8 OUT OF 10
Be sure to check out our unboxing of the Collector’s Edition of Batman: Arkham Asylum as well here!