Wednesday, November 18, 2009

[Game Review] Batman: Arkham Asylum

I’ve been playing Batman: Arkham Asylum on the PC and I’d say I’m pretty happy with it. It’s far from my favorite game ever (that’s probably Deus Ex), but it’s pretty good. Certainly the quality of the game is very high. It’s got some of the most visually impressive gameplay I’ve seen, both in terms of cinematic cutscenes and regular action. It’s also got very good voice acting and a dynamic, interesting storyline for the most part.

As the name implies, the game takes place entirely on Gotham City’s Arkham Island, home to an Asylum for the criminally insane, and, incidentally, home to many of Batman’s greatest rivals. The game begins with Batman escorting the Joker back to Arkham after having captured him attacking Gotham City. There’s a fairly long opening sequence as you walk with Joker’s guards into the depths of the Arkham facility before everything predictably goes to hell, but the walk gives you an opportunity to become familiar with some of the game’s controls and, if you pay attention, the layout of part of the Asylum that you’ll have to traverse again later.

The rest of the game is a hunt through the corridors and ventilation shafts of Arkham as you meet and defeat an array of villains ranging from Joker’s lackeys to well-known criminal elements like Victor Szasz and Harley Quinn. You also get to meet some of Batman’s notable and more noble acquaintances, including Commissioner Gordon and his daughter, the Oracle (formerly Batgirl). One of Batman’s gadgets is his computer-enhanced cowl which provides him with instant access to character biographies, maps, and real-time environmental information. This info often includes objects that Batman can pick up or interact with, as well as x-ray scans of everybody in the vicinity which are a big help in detecting thugs before they can jump you.

Batman’s other gadgets include his ever-present batarangs, which are handy for stunning bad guys and slicing ropes at a distance. He has his cape, which lets him glide down from above to avoid injury or even to launch a flying kick to an unsuspecting enemy. His Bat-grapple lets him zip up to high vantage points so he can climb buildings and perch on gargoyles. He can even drop down from those gargoyles to grab an enemy and hoist them up to dangle harmlessly above the ground.

These tools are especially helpful in what is arguably the most inexplicable part of the game – the Riddler has pointlessly scattered little question-mark-shaped statuettes all over Arkham. It’s a little hard to picture Riddler with a large sack of these statues thumping around in the ventilation shafts to hide these clues that do nothing but give Batman something to do to gain experience, but they’re there anyway.

So to summarize the positives: I like the graphics of the game, I like the story, I like the way the history of the Batman comics is woven through the game, and I like all of Batman’s cool gadgets (though I wouldn’t have minded if there were even more of them, as they’re as much a part of the Batman persona as his stoic manner and funky adversaries). Oh yes – and the game is quite long, so I feel like I’m really getting my money’s worth. Now on to what I don’t like:

It’s pretty apparent that this is a game that’s been developed with the console controller in mind. At the very least, it’s been heavily influenced by console-style gameplay, but as it was released first on the Xbox I think it’s safe to say that consoles are a key target market for Batman: Arkham Asylum. And here’s the thing – I don’t really care for console hand-to-hand combat. I’m a child of the 80s, before the concept was invented to that to succeed in a game you needed to know the secret combination of ←←→↑↓↑, which would result in a flying flipping lightning crescent jumpkick with triple-power and 10x experience score. Or something. I dunno. I don’t care to have to remember stuff like that when I’m playing a game. So in Batman, instead of relying on my aim and reflexes like I would in a more traditional first-person-shooter style of game (which, admittedly, Batman isn’t, at the very least because it’s a 3rd-person game where you see Batman running around at the center of your screen), instead I’m frantically clicking the left and/or right mouse buttons while double-tapping the spacebar and sometimes the left control key, plus occasionally hitting Q to toss a batarang, E to stun enemies with my cape, and C to grab them with my grappler. Combat is a fairly significant part of this game, and I find I dread it a little. It’s not truly enough to completely stymie my enjoyment of the game – particularly when I really enjoy using my grappler to zip up to the Asylum’s roofs and then glide down across the property, hopefully stomping on a thug when I land – but it’s definitely not as enjoyable for me as, for example, the combat system of a game like Wolfenstein which is much more to my liking.

The one other thing I’m not hugely fond of is the notion that a lot of the riddles you’re supposed to find are hidden in plain sight in places you’re not able to get to with your current equipment. And not just a few, but MANY riddles are hidden this way. So you know that you’re going to have to come back later and not just to one place, but to most of them. Worse, they’re not all accessed with the same gadgets, so it’s certain that you’ll need to come back to most locations more than once to collect everything. I do like the freedom to revisit parts of the game I’ve been to before, but I don’t really like the extent to which I’m forced to do so in order to complete the game. Worse, by the time you’ve gone back once only to realize that you have the equipment to retrieve some but not all of the riddles, it starts to feel like the game is teasing you. For the Riddler to taunt the Batman is one thing – but for the game to taunt me, the player, is quite another.

On the whole, this is a pretty good game. And for people who DO like the “Street Fighter” style combat controls (ie. the children of the 90s who came after my time in the arcades had passed), and there are a lot of them, this would probably qualify as a great game. I’ll certainly say that it seems to be one of the better superhero games, not that I’ve played too many of those. And it does generally live up to the hype I’d heard about it before I picked it up. I’m having a great deal of fun playing Batman: Arkham Asylum, which is, ultimately, the measure of the game, and so it measures up. I’d give it a B+, but those who embrace the console-style combat would probably be more apt to call it a solid A. Thanks, Eidos, for reminding me why I always liked the Dark Knight.

1 comment:

  1. Arkham Asylum is masterfully crafted with the Batman name, the graphics are excellent and the gameplay gives you a plethora options, a lot of care has gone into making this the first great Batman game. Anyway, if you have time, take a visit to my Free Games website.