Review by doctor 7
"The only thing thatís missing is an "Iím Batman" button."
The wait is over and Batman: Arkham Asylum has been released for the PS3, Xbox 360 and will be released shortly for the PC. Does it hold up to the high expectations? Is it really the best Batman game released? Is it really one of the best super hero games ever made? Can you really be The Batman?
I'm pleased to say that you absolutely can. Batman: Arkham Asylum takes every single aspect of what makes Batman Batman and mixes them together with astounding fluidity. You can quickly go from detecting clues to using stealth to take down enemies to brutal combat, or any order of the three, with amazing control and ease. I'd say Rocksteady Studios has outdone themselves but a franchise as impressive as Batman really deserves this kind of treatment. Setting the game on Arkham Island was an excellent way of allowing Batman to run into quite a few of his trademark foes, most notable of which is his undoubted nemesis the Joker who quickly springs himself loose after moving all of his henchmen to Arkham's prison facility resulting in one of the best adventures of Batman to date.
The game itself looks positively gorgeous, or rather its completely run-down and dirty atmosphere looks gorgeous. Batman: Arkham Asylum uses Epic's Unreal Engine but thankfully the texture pop-up commonly associated with the engine is almost completely absent except for a few minor hiccups. Batman himself looks fantastic. He's an incredibly well built man, even though his biography in the game laughably states he's 6'2" and 210lbs he's most definitely closer to 250 lbs of pure muscle, and the Batsuit design perfectly captures his frightfully imposing appearance. Throughout the game's story Batman's costume will take damage, fraying the edges of the cape and ripping open parts of his suit. Plus he actually grows some 5 o'clock shadow as the game progresses. They're all really nice subtle touches which add to the atmosphere. The villains, like Batman, look great too. Joker is tall and slender with frayed stitches all over his purple suit, Harley Quinn's new costume looks like clown S&M gear and Poison Ivy's leaf bikini reflects her seductive nature quite well. I could go on and on about each individual villain but I'll just leave it on the note that barring a few plastic faces on some guards everyone you encounter looks superb.
The environment of Arkham Island itself looks fantastic as well. I was quite pleased to see that my demo impressions held up throughout the entire game. The buildings have a great Gothic feel while the technology is an appropriate mixture of high tech gadgetry, torture gear and a bit of steam punk added for good measure. Natural environments are quite impressive as streams, creeks and waterfalls look just like something you'd see in real life, not to mention the plant life and rock cliffs. Though I only played the demo of the PC version the added PhysiX did improve the immersion a bit as paper stacks flew apart as you run by and hard landings on tiled floors would send tiles flying. I can't comment on the PC version any more than that but I'm sure it offers more.
As far as sound goes this game packs one of the best video games scores I can think of. You can tell it's been highly inspired by Danny Elfman's work on the original Batman movies by Tim Burton as it perfectly reflects the dark mood of the game. The sound effects are great too. In combat every strike lands with an appropriately pain-inducing crack, while blocks and counters have a muffled thud. Batman's gear, such as Batarangs and zip lines, all sound just the way you would expect them to. The voice work is without a doubt some of the best you will ever hear. Aside from a few relatively flat henchmen this voice cast is downright perfect. Getting Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamil to return from the Batman cartoons and voice Batman and Joker respectively was an excellent choice. They both have an excellent feel for their characters and Mark Hamil in particular has vastly improved since his first worked on Batman: The Animated Series in the early 90's. His menacing mad laugh and perfect inflection breath life to Joker's twisted brand of black humour.
Now as far as how the game plays I think the best way to explain it is to compare it to the Metriod series, in fact there are some stellar unobtrusive platforming sequences in the game. As with Metriod you can free-roam in a contained space and when new equipment is gained, such as a zip line which can be used to traverse over ledges, you are able to go to areas that were previously inaccessible.
The FreeFlow combat is certainly the most fluid multi-enemy fighting system since The Mark of Kri. I think the best way to describe is by saying it's a brawler combined with rock, paper scissors and a touch of DDR. You have a multitude of attacks at your disposal: basic strikes, counters, dodges, throws, take downs and more. In order win fights you need to combine them all. The challenge in Batman: Arkham Asylum is not to win the fights but to actually not get hit. Getting hit breaks your combo meter which has quite a few negative effects. For one you get less XP at the end of the fight, which means less health recovered and less upgrades. In addition you take a whopping amount of damage compared to other games and finally you lose your ability to perform special moves such as a combo throw or instant take down. The way combat works is relatively simple. Once you perform three successful attacks you enter an almost super combat mode where Batman will be able to hit an enemy, regardless of range, with a melee attack. Every hit you make in this mode will instantly knockdown an enemy but will not incapacitate them for longer than a few seconds. In order to do that you need to leap on them and knock them out but that takes time and leaves you open to attack so you need to time it right. Continuing attacks on opponents builds your combo meter up which allows Batman to perform special combat moves after every 8 successful attacks, later 5 after a purchased upgrade. These include picking up an enemy and throwing them, and yes you can throw them into other enemies, as well as an instant take down in which you cannot be attack and will permanently disable an enemy. While all this is going on you need to be aware of all the enemies around you. The auto-attack works to a degree but you have to use your control stick to target the direction of the enemy you want Batman to attack, you cannot just keep pressing the attack button. Also you will need to counter any incoming hits, which is easily done if you're paying attention by simply pressing the counter button. Add to this enemies with attacks you can't counter but instead have to be dodged and you've got a combat engine that is easily to pick while still having a ton of depth that requires situational awareness to truly master. When you manage to get the hang of it the combat system is downright perfect as you can fight 10 guys at once without missing strikes or being hit literally allowing you to fight like Batman.
However it's not just the combat element of gameplay that excels. Both the stealth and detective elements work well on their own and complement one another very well. You can easily sneak around and zip line above enemies with ease so long as you're aware of their presence and detective mode comes in quite handy with this. It allows you to see enemies through walls and notes enemies with guns as well as highlighting items of interest (such as collectibles, grates you can open or breakable walls). Occasionally through the game you will need to use detective mode to track someone using either alcohol, tobacco, blood or hand prints. Sadly that element of detective mode feels inspired it's all done the same way: your detective mode simply isolates a path of whatever you're tracking and you follow it.
Stealth combat, like the FreeFlow combat system, is handled very well. Batman has a vast stealth arsenal which allows for each stealth combat scenario to feel as varied and fresh as hand to hand combat. Batman can perform a basic silent take down from behind an enemy, cape-glide and deliver a crushing kick, or perform a trademark inverted hang and swoop down on an enemy from above. There is also a multitude of situation based attacks such as pulling someone over a ledge or blowing up a wall to knock an enemy out cold. Needless to say you'll never be short of silent or indirect ways of taking down foes.
As far as replayablity goes there's quite a bit for a single player game. All over the island in story mode there are plenty of riddles to solve and collectibles to find. These unlock things such as character bios and audio interviews. They also unlock another great replayable feature of the game: Challenge Rooms. The Challenge Rooms are either combat based, where you need to either fight four waves of enemies, with each wave increasing in difficulty, or stealth based, where you silently take down a room of armed guards while performing specific take downs or attacks. All of these challenges have Leaderboards so you can either compete with your friends or everyone on Xbox Live for the highest score. To give you an idea of how long it takes to really beat Batman: Arkham Asylum I finished the game on Normal with 100% completion including the Challenge Rooms in about 20 hours.
Now one has to admit that this game isn't flawless. The titan-type boss fights get a bit repetitive, there's a touch of texture pop-up in places, the detective element of the game feels a bit too easy, you can't manually save and there are a few bugged locations where you'll find yourself unable to move and will be forced to load the last auto-save. However all of these are terribly minor flaws that are easily forgotten when you take the rest of the game into account.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is indeed deserving of all the praise it receives. It looks great, it sounds great and it plays like an absolute dream. If you've ever wanted to be The Batman this is your chance, the only thing that's missing is an I'm Batman button. This is the best Batman game ever made. In fact I think one could call it the best superhero game ever made.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 09/02/09, Updated 09/10/09
Game Release: Batman: Arkham Asylum (US, 08/25/09)
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