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Review: Batman - Arkham Asylum is one of the year's best games
Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Thursday, September 10, 2009
If you have thought that the day would never come that someone could pull off a superb original video game that was based on a beloved comic book character let me introduce you to Batman: Arkham Asylum (Xbox 360, PS3). Ladies and gentlemen, here is the game that we’ve all been waiting to play since we could grasp that game controller between our meatware.
Brilliantly developed by London-based Rocksteady Games and published by Warner Bros. Interactive, Batman: Arkham Asylum is easily one of the year’s best games. Instead of phoning it in and coasting on the average sales that a Batman title would grab without trying, what Rocksteady has done is create a game that joins similar titles like 2K’s BioShock, Konami’s Silent Hill 2 or EA's Dead Space and becomes an example of how gameplay can serve story and story serves gameplay. From the graphics to the voice talent to the music to the intuitive AI, Arkham Asylum entertains on all levels.
Your story begins where other Batman tales end, with the Dark Knight returning The Joker to his permanent hole at Arkham Asylum, Gotham’s lock-up for all the costumed (and non-costumed) lunatics. After a worthy credit sequence sets up the story, Joker escapes from custody and sets loose all of the asylum’s inmates. It’s here that you come to realize that Arkham Asylum isn’t going to wuss out and hold back on the reality of the situation: guards and medical staff die horribly and their bodies litter the ransacked rooms and corridors of the institution. This Joker (voiced again to perfection by Mark Hamill from Batman: The Animated Series) is cut from the same cloth as Heath Ledger’s clown: first and foremost he’s a psychopath, not a comedian. Likewise the Batman (Kevin Conroy, again brilliant and from B:TAS) is the quintessential Batman from the comics and last two movies: he’s a detective, a trained ninja, a man with just as many mental scars as his foes but above all he’s never a killer.
Once the set-up is delivered you’re off to chase the Joker who’s somewhere in the many buildings that make up the asylum. Side missions are presented where you have to save hostages, free guards, take down prisoners and rescue kidnapped friends of the Batman. The combat system is straightforward and has the best elements of a button masher but elevated by the Unreal Engine’s smooth as scotch mechanics. When you beat up on a bad guy there’s many different moves that can be executed including blocks and reversals. For every third hit on your opponent the game zooms into the action and slows it down, so when Batman twists and does a roundhouse kick to the side of a orange jumpsuited prisoner it looks brutal and hard. Hell yeah!
If the game was all about taking down bad guys it would be good but not great. Thankfully the Rocksteady team shows that they get who Batman is by making the detective side of the character as equally important as the action. Throughout the game Batman will have to analyze crime scenes, follow trails and scan rooms for clues. The first time that you switch over to detective mode get ready to be amazed; remember that x-ray machine that Arnold Schwarzenegger walked past in Total Recall? That’s how Batman sees people in detective mode down to their blue skeletons glowing in his eyesight. It’s total eye candy and I found myself not dropping back to regular vision mode throughout the game even though the graphics in plain jane sight weren’t anything but.
Additional side quests are presented in the form of tapes that Batman can find. When you pick one up a therapy session between a doctor and one of Batman’s rogues gallery plays, such as the ones featuring the Riddler. As is the case with Mr. J, Arkham Asylum’s Riddler is a far cry from the lame version that Tommy Lee Jones played in Batman & Robin. Just to prove my point, this Riddler is a guy that cracks jokes about dismembering babies and chides the doctor for finding his gag off-color. The other major enemies that appear in the game, like Harley Quinn, Scarecrow, Bane and Killer Croc to name some, are also played as murderers and truly dangerous crazies. Their looks are different from their traditional ones from the comics or animated series but there’s worthy explanations for that, plus their new looks are pretty good too.
Experience points are awarded after defeating enemies or solving clues. As you progress and level up you can upgrade Batman’s weapons and add to his skill set cool things straight out of the movies or comics. In one of my earlier level ups I added the skill of being able to hang upside down from an overheard perch like a bat. Having an unaware prisoner walk right below me and then drop down silently behind him like a nosferatu made my inner comic book nerd have an orgasm of delight.
The Riddler’s also left a series of 200 trophies that you can find throughout the asylum. Even after you finish the game’s story mode (about 8 to 9 hours) you won’t have found them all and so you’ll go back to search the rooms and secret spaces to uncover every last one.
One you finish the game and unlock all of the buildings you can take part in 16 challenge rooms and play online against other opponents to see who’s the best on the leaderboards. Medals are handed out to the best brawlers who can chain together massive combos. Another challenge are the Invisible Predator rounds where you have to successfully perform challenges against the clock or superior enemy forces.
Perhaps the highest compliment that I can give Batman: Arkham Asylum is that it does justice to three levels of Batman fan: those that appreciate the sophisticated maturity of Chris Nolan’s rebooted movie series; those that thought the darker stories from the many Batman comics were the most faithful to the character; and those that appreciated the golden magic that was Batman: The Animated Series. Batman: Arkham Asylum has been called by many game critics as the finest video game based on a comic book character. I can't think of a better example of how to pull such an adaptation off so let me climb onboard that bus and ride it with the rest of the kids to the asylum. Get this game.
Review Score: 90 / 100