Sometimes games sneak up and emerge from the shadows into greatness. Sometimes they announce themselves with a bang and then spend months throwing marketing material in your face. Batman: Arkham Asylum did a little bit of both. It hasn’t been a massive hype campaign but there have been many videos and a fair amount of screenshots to whet our appetites. It seems that anybody who knows and enjoys the Batman universe, even just from the films, has been looking forward to the game’s release with an increasing excitement.
In the preamble to our First Level feature about Batman: AA, we previewed this game by saying it might not just be game of the year; it might be the game of this generation. That was a bold claim which would need a strong product to back it up. Eidos famously said that this was the closest to a perfect video game that they had ever made. Another bold claim, let’s see how it fares.
You take on the role of the world’s greatest detective, Batman. The start of the game has you returning Joker to Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane. This is just a cut-scene at the moment but the graphics and lighting are beautiful and the voice acting is, simply, the best I’ve ever heard in a video game. Needless to say, things don’t go quite as planned and you end up trapped on Arkham Island with the inmates and various super criminals who would quite like to see the costumed vigilante that put them there being torn to pieces. The cut-scene ends and leaves you standing with oncoming enemies (recently transferred Blackgate Prison inmates – Joker’s goons) but such quality are the transitions between cut-scene and game-play that it’s often not obvious that a transition has been made and you might find yourself caught off-guard.
This initial combat serves to show you the ropes and there are a couple of moves to be picked up later but the combat controls are simple. Basically it’s one button for strike, one for stun and one for counter with the fourth face button being used (via double-tap) as an “evade move” where Batman leaps out of the way of advancing enemies. As you progress via the game’s “RPG-light” upgrade system you can unlock new fight moves which are performed, after building up some combos, via dual-button presses. The upgrade system also allows you to buy new abilities and add-ons for your gadgets which will come in very handy in the latter stages of the game.
The combat system allows smooth transitions between moves that are very cinematic and whilst I was initially expecting the combat to become a bit repetitive it was enjoyable right up until the last fight of the game. Batman doesn’t use weapons, other than his trusty Batarang, so almost all of the combat is hand to hand with the odd bit of assistance from one of your gadgets. This makes you feel all the more special when you lure a goon into a pre-laid trap. There is no other way to say it: You really feel like Batman. Outwitting, out-fighting and out-manoeuvring your enemies is the only way to progress and as any Batman fan will tell you, that’s exactly what the Dark Knight is all about.
This brings us to the first negative point with the game: the enemy AI is a bit rubbish. You can (as in the demo) sneak up behind them for a “Silent Takedown” (which isn’t actually silent) and remove one goon when there is another standing yards in front of him, or even directly beside him. As long as you’re not within the enemy’s, fairly restricted, cone of vision then you’re safe. I think the developers missed a trick by not including much sound-interaction too. I lost count of the number of times I wished I could ping a batarang off a wall to get an enemy to turn around and see where the sound came from. They don’t appear to hear them. They also easily lose sight of the huge man dressed as a bat when he is above normal eye-level. This is a much smaller concern than it sounds though, as it doesn’t really detract from your enjoyment of the game.
The style of the game is tricky to describe but it is basically comprised of widely linear sections joined together by open-world sections in the grounds of the asylum. The buildings contain set-pieces in certain rooms where you have to despatch a number of guards before you progress. You can move between any of the buildings on the grounds (providing you can get past the guards and into the buildings) at any stage with sections opening up to you as you upgrade your gadgets and beat more of the game. It never feels as though you are merely walking from one point to another, there is always a different route, a new ledge to discover or a few guards to take out on the way. If you lose your way the handy “Detective Mode” can highlight notable items which will often point you in the right direction. This mode is also called on during the main story to track key figures via fingerprints DNA or scent. It’s an interesting way of signposting your route without “breaking the fourth wall”.
If you tire of the mission progression and want a bit of variation you can follow Riddler’s clues to find some unlockable content (comprising mostly of character bios, virtual figurines and challenge modes). There are 240 separate things to find before you complete Riddler’s tasks and some of them are really quite tricky. I’m still hunting for a few of them myself but finding the maps that have been left by Riddler certainly helps to narrow down the locations.
Just about every Batman villain you can name is featured in some way in the game, even if only via a cameo appearance. From the famous names like Joker, Poison Ivy and Riddler to the less well known fan favourites like Killer Croc, Harley Quinn and Bane. Even some relatively minor villains are mentioned (Calendar Man, Black Mask and Humpty Dumpty!).
All in all, the level of fan service is amazing, with recognisable faces from Arkham’s comic book appearances cropping up at every turn. There are new characters appearing for the first time in this game including the enigmatic “Spirit of Arkham” who has left coded messages around the grounds of Arkham which unfold into a story as you pick them up. The interview tapes that are dotted around the map also flesh out the back story and bring a great amount of detail to the characters. They tie the game intricately to the larger themes of the Batman universe: psychology and fear. In reference to these two over-arching themes, the sections of the game that feature Scarecrow deserve a special mention, they are so well implemented in such a clever way that they will probably stand out for years to come in much the same way as the famous “Psycho Mantis scenes” from Metal Gear Solid.
I think, perhaps, when Eidos said that this was the closest they’d ever got to a perfect video game they might have meant in terms of gaming. At various times you will encounter mechanics that make you do all the traditional video game things. You have to time your jumps, hide to avoid being trapped in the light and killed, progress slowly and carefully, count boss attacks so you can be ready to retaliate at just the right time. The list goes on. This game is crammed full of all the familiar old mechanics from the history of video games but they’re dressed up in such a way that they don’t feel clichéd or tired. Speaking of which, there are what amounts to quick-time events dotted throughout the game but they are rarely signposted. They are always a required button press at a specific time but as part of your natural move-set. It’s a very clever way of shoe-horning yet another video game mechanic in without making it intrusive.
So, what about the extras in the game? Well, the absence of multiplayer might be seen as strange these days but I don’t think it would have worked for this game. I mean, really, there is only one Batman isn’t there? There are, in the absence of multiplayer modes, challenge rooms (including the PS3- exclusive Joker playable character) which are basically a contained version of the set pieces presented in the game where you have to clear a room stealthily or fight off a number of opponents at once. The medal system is unforgiving and I can see the later challenges being nightmarishly difficult to obtain gold medals for.
All in all Batman: Arkham Asylum is a fantastic video game, worthy of all the praise it receives. Although there are a couple of minor flaws in its execution (lack of sound-awareness in the poor AI and a relatively cheap final boss stand out) there really isn’t a lot that you could fault with this game. It is certainly one of the best releases this year. Whilst there is still a long way to go and a great deal of titles still to come, Batman: Arkham Asylum will, we feel, ultimately be considered amongst the best video games of this generation.