Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum review

As a comic book fan (granted, more Marvel than DC, but still), I was curious about Arkham Asylum. And I know that some of my readers, who've never really cared for comic books or enjoyed comic book-based movies (even Spider-Man!), who have basically been hearing the press about AA and thinking, "good comic book game, but not for me."

It's time to fix that line of thinking.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is a good comic book game. I'd agree with the reviewers who have said that it's the best comic book game ever, and it's certainly the best Batman game by a large margin. But to simply label stop there would be doing the game a huge disservice. Forget that Batman's a comic book; Arkham Asylum is a great game. Period.

The story, by long-time Batman scribe Paul Dini, is actually pretty basic. Batman had caught the Joker with suspicious ease during his latest caper. More suspiciously, a fire at Blackgate Prison caused a large number of criminals, many former members of Joker's gang, to be transfered to Arkham Asylum on the same night. Figuring that Joker was up to something, Batman decided to personally escort Joker all the way to his cell at Arkham. What Batman hadn't counted on was that the Joker wasn't planning an escape, he was trying to take over the Asylum with a little inside help. So it's up to Batman to rescue Commissioner Gordon, defeat a couple of super villains, and stop the Joker's master plan.

What really makes AA shine is the execution. At it's core, the gameplay is fairly simple. The camera is a third-person over-the-shoulder camera similar to recent Resident Evil games or Dead Space. The X button is the attack button. This is an important distinction from being a "punch button," because if three goons are attacking you from three sides, you might tap X, X, X and Batman might punch the first goon then throw and elbow back at the second goon before spinning a kick at the third goon. The Y button is for counters. When an enemy has blue lines by his head it signals that he's going to attack, and by pushing the Y button Batman will counter that attack. This makes combat fluid and somewhat free-form instead of just churning out the same combos over and over. It also makes you feel like Batman when you're kicking, punching, kneeing, elbowing, flipping, parrying, and blocking, surrounded by eight goons, and taking them all out without taking any damage.

Combat, while very satisfying, isn't actually a major focus. In fact, when enemies have guns, they can do a lot of damage to Batman very quickly, and sometimes it's best to be a little stealthy. Batman's stealth isn't the same as Sam Fisher or Solid Snake's, though. Batman isn't trying to get by undetected. Batman's still going to take enemies out, but with stealth takedowns or by picking off stragglers in a group then fading back into the shadows. (A little advice on this note, buy the "Inverted Takedown" upgrade as soon as humanly possible. You'll thank me later.) One of the game's highlights for me was taking out no fewer than ten armed enemies in one room without being seen.

Mostly, though, Arkham Asylum is about getting from point A to point B. Arkham Asylum might be comprised of a few buildings on an island, but the entire game takes place on that island. You might find that your current objective has you go to one area, where you get info that leads you to another area, only to follow your objectives back to the first area. Events that happen in the game will cut off some routes or open new ones, and some areas will be unaccessible until you get a certain upgrade, ala Metroid.

If fantastic combat and exploration are like cake, the game's atmosphere is like a creamy filling. I've heard it compared to Bioshock in that sense, and while I'm not sure they're conveying the same sense of atmosphere, the level of atmosphere each game brings to the table is similar. Arkham Asylum is a run down, creepy mental institution in a run down, creepy town. Even without any supernatural enemies, the game can tread close to survival horror at times. Some of the best scenes, including one very reminiscent of the boss fight with Psycho Mantis in the original Metal Gear Solid, are when Batman is suffering from the effects of Scarecrow's fear toxin.

The icing on all this delicious bat-cake is the voice acting. I think the voice acting in a lot of games today has come a long way from the "Jill Sandwich" days of the original Resident Evil game, but Arkham Asylum's voice work is truly a gem. Fans of the DC Animated Universe will recognize Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin as the voices of Batman, the Joker, and Harley Quinn, respectively.

If you like video games, even if you don't really like Batman or aren't really familiar with him outside of Christopher Nolan's recent films, do yourself a favor and play this game. With a lot of game's slipping into 2010, and even as much as I loved F.E.A.R. 2, Arkham Asylum has become my front runner for Game of the Year.

Final Score: A+

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