Batman: Arkham Asylum Demo Impressions

So, as some of you may know, I love Batman. This isn’t just something that comes up in TSA towers (although it does, trust me), but is bought up a lot by some people I know. Now this love of Batman has obviously made Batman: Arkham Asylum a game that I’ve been hugely excited for. It hurt me when they delayed the game back in early summer, but at least it’s moved it to a place where I can actually afford to go out and buy the game, something I frequently don’t have enough funds to do. Now, less than a month before the delayed release, we’ve been given a demo of the title to sink our teeth into and give our opinions on. So what do I think? Well, put simply, it’s fantastic.

That’s right, my opinion boils down to that. Of course this would be a pretty short article if I left it there, so I’ll expand on it. The opening cut-scene is superbly done and really builds the atmosphere of the game. It seems a shame that this cut-scene, along with some of the others it seems, have been cut down (this is very obvious with the opening one as additional scenes from it are in the closing sales pitch) which leaves parts of the games feeling like the flow is missing in the transitions. Fortunately the opening of the games doesn’t suffer from this transitional issue, in fact the transition from the opening cut-scene into game-play was so smooth that I wasn’t immediately aware that it was time to take control. Mildly depressingly this was true both times I played through the demo.

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On the note of taking control it must be time to look at the controls and gameplay. The fight sequences put me in mind of the recent Wolverine game, although implemented even better. I simply loved the fighting in Wolverine, it was simple, easy to pull off but with possible depth in combos. While the demo does seem to be missing the depth that was present in Wolverine, it more than makes up for it in its flow and cinematic feel. The ability to move between enemies whilst in combat and keep the flow and timing of the sequence is simply amazing, as is the amount of variation the game gives you from one strike button.

Yes, that’s right, one strike button. I have a feeling that we’re going to see this heavily bemoaned in the near future, but let me explain. Whilst there is only one strike button, you have a button to ‘cape stun’ which essentially allows you to stun multiple opponents in one move and then quickly pick them off. Of course you don’t necessarily need to do stun opponents, the combat is fully directional. Push the stick in the direction of an enemy and press strike and you’ll hit them. Switch direction to another enemy and Batman’s target will change and the combat will pretty much seamlessly move on to the new enemy. This multiple enemy combat works pretty much perfectly, at least against unarmed enemies. However once you move onto armed enemies things change, and the stealth mechanic comes into play.

The thing with Batman, the important thing, is that he is just a man. This is reflected well in the game, if you go up against multiple armed enemies you will die. No question about it, a few shots to the caped crusader and you go down hard (and are taken to a brilliant cut-scene with a gloating Joker), so you best be stealthy if you want to survive. Fortunately that’s not too difficult it would seem, a simple press of RB with a gargoyle in range will shoot up a grappling hook and will quickly raise you to the rafters. From here you can use your Batarang to temporarily knock enemies to the ground, glide kick enemies who are in range or silently hang upside down and grab an enemy from above. While the tactical AI of the enemies doesn’t seem to be anything special, they’re reaction is simply brilliant. Depending on how much they’ve seen of you, and how noted your presence has been their state and reaction will change, all the way up to a frantic terror. The game will even tell you their state whilst in ‘Detective Mode’, essentially a HUD that highlights enemies (along with their heart-rate and mood) and things of use in the environment. When feature in a lot of games this seems like a bit of a cheat, but for me it makes perfect sense with the technology that Batman uses.

Now while this is going on a bit for a discussion of the demo, I’m very aware that I’ve only covered the upside of the demo. That may be because (in my opinion) there are a lot of good things in it, but it isn’t without its faults. As noted above the flow from the first cut-scene into gameplay is brilliant, but seems sorely missing from the other cut-scenes. Now this may just be the demo, but if the fade to black transitions make it into the full game I’ll be very disappointed. In addition the lack of boss fight in the game was very frustrating, particularly as it’s teased at the end of the demo. I have no idea how the dynamic combat, obviously designed for fighting multiple enemies, will translate into fighting a single boss character. From the enemies we’ve seen revealed there will clearly be a lot of variation in the boss fights, but going up against someone like Bane or Killer Croc would of at least allowed some judgement on how the combat will work one-on-one.

Whilst I enjoyed the stealth mechanic, it is perhaps a little too easy and certainly too simple. Hunting from the rafters is great fun, and causing terror and misdirection is brilliant. However I’d like to be able to lurk in the shadows of a dark corridor and engulf a terrified enemy in my cape. It all just felt a little too easy. This may also have to do something with the enemy AI. It really, really isn’t great. There is one point in the demo where you sneak up behind three enemies, in the middle of a corridor who are also facing the same way. Whilst this is clearly an extreme example and a set piece to demonstrate silent kills (note: not silent), but in general the AI is just lacking. Sure, they’ll come investigate a missing comrade, but beyond that they aren’t too curious. Again this might just be the demo, you are only playing through the intro level so it may well be possible that difficulty and intelligence ramps up later.

Final impression of the demo? I’ll be buying the game, but I would of bought it anyway. The demo certainly did its job and sold me on it. However what it really showed off is how right they’ve got the atmosphere and how perfect the decision to recast the “Batman: The Animated Series” voice actors in the same roles for the game. For me they absolutely nailed the feel, and Kevin Conroy is still my favourite Batman (although weirdly Christian Bale is my favourite Bruce Wayne). Mark Hamill as the Joker is absolutely perfect, although I think everyone knew that already. So essentially it plays right (although simply), it feels right and the voice actors are right. My advice? Go play this demo now.

Note: This is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game, but I’m reliably informed that the PS3 version is the same content etc…

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