Review by Lsnake
The Dark Knight Returns!
On a dark rainy knight..no seriously, this review will be relatively free of cheap knight puns. What it will contain, is several reasons why Arkham Asylum is the best superhero game to date. What Rocksteady has done here, is a genrebreaking example of how to take everything that is great with the hero of the comics, utilize all his strengths in a completely different and almost flawless way than any game before it.
The Joker has just been captured by Batman, and is driven personally by the caped crusader to Arkham Asylum, the special prison for the supervillains of Gotham who's considered too dangerous to be kept in the normal prisons. Batman doesn't joke around with The Joker, and the silk gloves are off when he brings in him, but The Joker has given up too easily and our Dark Knight is uneasy about it all. Needless to say, The Joker escapes once he's out of Batman's grasp and quickly takes control of the entire Asylum to unleash his masterplan. Batman is in for a long knight (Yes, that one sucked) and as always puts his life on the line to stop The Joker from winning.
The story is told throughout the game with short ingame cutscenes and dialogues, and the pace never stops up. As soon as you think you've figured out things, the game pulls the rug under you and things change around to ensure things stay fresh. Even to the very last moment, the game manages to surprise you. There were tons of memorable moments from the game, several laugh-out loud parts as the game continued to twist and turn and all the while the story remains exciting. While certainly not the best Batman story told, it actually becomes a highly entertaining and eventful story that is well worth experiencing.
The entire game is set on Arkham Island, both in and outside of the Asylum with its various wings and locations. It might not sound like much, but it's actually a huge location that gradually opens up as you get more and more utilities to travel the island. In many ways, it can be compared to the Metroid series, as increasingly better utilities ensures you can grapple, unlock and open up new areas and secrets. Doing so is also rewarded through both experience points, finding audio tapes of interviews with the popular inmates and even unlocking extra challenge maps.
Arkham Asylum is primarily split between three gameplay modes. Exploration, Detective Mode and Combat. Rest assured, all of these three modes works just great and they blend together to create a very compelling experience that captures the essence of Batman to perfection. There has never been any other medium able to recreate just what it would feel like to be Batman before, but Rocksteady has done it.
Starting with Exploration, it is heavily encouraged and you'll be greatly rewarded by taking your time to look around, search every corner and use all your currently available tools to reach all the different secrets and locations spread around. You'll find places you're unable to reach early on, only to receive upgrades later on that will allow you to reach those places. The game keeps it simple, yet has enough variation to ensure that you'll always need to mix between the tools at your disposal to reach all the extra areas and rooms. Batman can grapple onto buildings, gargoyles, fences, roofs, boxes, ventilation shafts and all kinds of objects and locations to gain height. From there on, he's able to further climb to new areas, or glide or rappel himself to other locations. All of this is handled with superb animation and playability, never does these mechanics become an annoyance. Once again, it pretty much works like Metroid Prime in how efficiently it allows for an addictive exploration in 3D by using a combination of brains and utilities.
A part of exploration is figuring out the 240 Riddler puzzles spread around in the place. This can vary from hidden Riddler objects to location specific puzzles you have to locate and scan. Completing these will grant you experience that are used to further level up Batman and develop his tools. Although most of them are easily solved, some can be very fun to figure out just based on the hint that Riddler gives you, and some might leave you scratching your head thinking "I don't get it".
Then there's the Detective Mode. It works almost like The Terminator's vision if you've seen those movies, where Batman scans the area for useful locations, objects and persons. It adds a very cool looking visual layer that bathes the image in blue, and makes enemies stand out as highlighted skeletons. In addition, it gives you information about what kind of weapon they're armed with, their pulserate and condition. It can see through walls and reaches very far, and is used to plan your attacks on groups of enemies. Typically when entering an area, it's common to activate Detective Mode, look around and get a list of enemies, if they're armed or not and from there on plan on how to best take them out. It can be switched on and off with a quick tap of a button, and although it's only required for a few parts of the game where you use it to track scents or fingerprints and such, chances are you'll quickly learn to love it. It very much feels and looks like something Batman would need to always stay one step ahead of his enemies. It is also used to scan areas for evidence, traces of substances, secrets and other details, and to locate things like destructible walls. Such a game mechanic could easily have become bothersome, but in Arkham Asylum it's so well integrated into the game that it becomes second nature immediately. There is in fact only one negative thing to say about Detective Mode, and that's that you'll rarely ever want to take it off, and that's only negative because the game is beautiful to look at in normal mode.
Sooner or later, you're gonna have to get down and dirty with the various mobs and goons running around in the place, and that's another mode where the game shows you just how seriously it takes Batman. The combat system of Arkham Asylum is superb. It is simple and easy to learn, but mastering it requires quick timing, reflexes and knowing when to strike. It captures the essence of Batman perfectly, and every punch and kick feels powerful. It's greatest asset is that it allows every player to pick up the control and really feel like they are one of the greatest martial artists on earth, without requiring you to mash buttons endlessly. Start hitting those buttons, watch the screen and pay attention. Timing and rythm is everything, and when you really get into the flow of the combat and Batman flips around from mob to mob, countering attacks in a big variety of moves while dealing large amount of punches all around, the combat becomes an addictive and fantastic little sport that ensures it's fun from start to end. You can chain together combos by playing it smart and avoid getting hit. The higher combo, the more experience is gained. And you want more experience to upgrade your suit, combat abilities and gear.
You are however advised to stay hidden and take out the opponents one by one, and that is one of the greatest strengths of this game. If you have seen Batman Begins, it pretty much works like the container scene where Batman glides in and out of the shadows, dropping one after one of the badguys as they gradually panic. If you couldn't help but grin back then, you're gonna love this game. Most of the time when you encounter enemies, there will be ways to take them out one by one. And once you do, you'll see and hear how a group of thugs goes from men to mice as their numbers are thinned out. It's a thrilling experience to hear how they fall apart as they discover their unconscious friends laying on the ground or hanging from a gargoyle. They will split up, gradually loose their focus and become desperate. They will start to panic, and as you continue to take them out you can't help but feel like you're just playing with them. And that's how it should be. After playing Arkham Asylum, even veterans in the stealth genre like Metal Gear Solid doesn't come close to capturing the same sensation of power and control. In addition to being technically superior in combat, Batman has several ways to thin out an unsuspecting crowd. He can swoop down and leave enemies hanging in a rope as they pass underneath him. He can glidekick into people to take them out, and if timed right jump onto them and knock them out. He can sneak around corners and throw batarangs to temporarily confuse opponents, even brutally drag them to the ground with his batclaw. Planting explosives that he can use to remotely detonate as unsuspecting enemies pass by is also very handy to safely take out foes while staying at a safe distance, sneak behind them and perform silent and fast takedowns..you'll be using alot of different combinations to handle the various groups of enemies, and the best part is that everything works so well.
With one notable exception, the boss fights in this game is perhaps the only disappointment. By standards set by series like Metal Gear Solid, one can't help but feel that most of the boss fights are plain and nothing special. This is a shame, but nothing that ruins the game. One has to remember that the villains doesn't have much to work with on the island, so things are kept more simple. There is however one villain that completely steals the show in terms of the actual fights, and it will not be spoiled in this review. The game is filled with tons of memorable moments during the normal gameplay and opponents, so the lack of memorable bosses doesn't hurt the game too much.
Once you have played through the main story, the game allows you to continue exploring the island afterwards, when you have fully unlocked your utilities so that you can hunt down all the secrets and riddles. This is a great move, as it doesn't force you to replay the entire game or rely on a guide so you don't miss anything. The game does lose some of the edge at that point though, as there's no goons around so you're mostly roaming empty corridors and areas at that point. It's still great for completionists, and much better than the typical "Point of no return" situations where you can risk never getting 100% if you miss a single item at a single point in the game.
And when you're done with the actual game, you can take on the challenges. The challenges are split into two types. Pure combat ones means you'll be put in a small area with tons of badguys trying to gang up on you, and you'll have to try rack up high scores by chaining attacks with the combosystem. You'll go several rounds against repeatedly harder opponents and at the end your score is ranked online. Predator is more focused on taking out the set amount of enemies silently and quickly by using stealth and isolation. Arguably the harder of the two modes, as it forces you to employ all your tools and skills while constantly planning and reacting to the situation. Both modes are really addictive and entertaining, and provides instant entertainment from the best of both worlds of Arkham Asylum. You don't even need to concern yourself about score, as the challenges are available just as much if you just want to either slug it out or practise your skills on taking out enemies and working on tactics.
Once all that is taken care of, you can still enjoy reading up on all the different characters in Batman lore, listen to interviews with the villains, look at models of the characters closeup and more. Hopefully more content will be delivered, but the game itself delivers at least 10 hours in the main story mode if you're taking your time with the main story and looks for Riddler clues without reading up in advance. Then you can count all the extra time trying to climb the ranking on the challenges, and trophy hunting. It's well worth replaying as well, because most of the battles can be handled differently. There are usually so many different ways to approach the situation at hand, that it ensures replays of the game will remain interesting.
Based on the Unreal 3 Engine, Arkham Asylum looks for the most part stunning. Especially the environment is absolutely breathtaking, with some massive amount of details to every location. Everything from buildings to the smallest objects are rendered with an exceptional amount of detail, and no place in the game feels empty or boring. It simply looks great in every way, and you can tell from the start that nothing has been saved on the visual quality and environments. One room filled with calendars took my breath away, simply because of the details spent on one single room. For the most part, the characters are just as good, but some of the minor complaints about the graphics do belong to the characters. Hair and eyes are unconvincing and directly distracting in how off they tend to look. Some guards tends to suffer from "Bug-eyes" in which their eyes look too big and alien. Animation is pretty much spot on, and most characters look pretty convincingly built and rendered. Batman and The Joker are given top priority here, and they got a wide range of animations, which I wanted to give a special mention.
When Batman is fighting, he'll do some serious amounts of moves. He'll jump over and around, dodge, counter, punch, throw, kick, even grab enemy weapons and smack them back with it. All of this is animated to the point of near perfection. There is very rarely any glaring shifts between his moves, every punch, kick, jump or move he does flows into the other to a point that belongs to professional animation. Considering that it's completely playable, you always feel in control and it looks this good, this is some of the best I've seen in any fighting game. A typical fight can start with a mob coming at Batman, he dodges the punch, does a few punches back, jumps over the back of the crouched mob directly into another mob who tries to smack Batman with a crowbar, only for Batman to counter it by taking the crowbar himself and smacking the guy back, turning around to counter a backattack and throwing that opponent into the crowd. That is just a short fight over in five to ten seconds, and it looks absolutely fantastic. In the end Batman will also perform a nasty looking finisher, some that had me groaning in pain and laughter at seeing a well placed kick straight into the spine of a mob.
Oh yes, the cape. The cape deserves a few words as well. It looks superb in every way from hanging from Batman's shoulders when walking around to becoming stiff and supporting his glides. It really looks great. In addition, during the heat of the knight (Yes I know..) Batman will take visual damage, and his suit will have tears and cuts in it. This is another visual delight that shows the amount of detail and love that has gone into making every part of this game.
If you are reading this review, chances are you're either considering buying, or you already have bought the PS3 version of Arkham Asylum. I wanted to add that The Joker becomes playable on the challenges on the PS3 version (Requires download from PSN), and he's just as well animated as Batman himself! He's even crazier to look at, as he does all kinds of wicked moves that feels right at home with his personality. The Joker is actually a pretty decent fight, using his unreliability to avoid and trick his enemies while dealing some nasty punches and tricks back. This feels right at home here.
Previously mentioned, the detective mode also looks very unique and cool. It has this dark blue shade, and objects and enemies are highlighted in lighter colors that stand out, enabling you to quickly identify points of interest. Batman himself looks normal except for gaining a slightly otherworldly hue that looks quite cool.
Overall, the graphics are stunning. You might be somewhat bothered by bad hair models and animations as it just looks terribly fake and plastic (Especially Harley), and eyes aren't really looking right. But those are two very minor gripes with the graphics, the rest is top-notch. More or less free of any visual bugs (Ever so slight texture-tearing here and there but nothing big), with a stable framerate even during the most intense action with tons of badguys, Arkham Asylum might not be the most impressive game visually but it still looks really good. Great is a better word for it.
I'll start by saying what every other review has said. Mark Hamill is The Joker. While I've personally been a lifelong fan of Batman: The Animated Series where Hamill voiced The Joker, it's not just about that. He has the perfect voice. He is the spirit of The Joker. His voice is always delivered with a sense of disturbed humor, a wicked grin, a menacing joking tone. He nails it, and there is no discussion about it. I was surprised at just how much dialogue he actually has. He'll constantly spew jokes and insults, both to Batman and his own guards, and you can tell how much work was done when he has individual lines based on how many of his goons you take out. I was deeply impressed by the voicework in Arkham Asylum, and Hamill's most of all. Not that Kevin Conroy as Batman is any worse, he's just as perfect as Batman as Hamill is The Joker. Conroy oozes self-confidence, a calm and commanding tone that displays strength and wisdom. Conroy has always been great as Batman ever since he took on the mantle in The Animated Series. Let's also not forget Harley Quinn, who's once again voiced by Arleen Sorkin, also from The Animated Series. She really has a standout voice, while not always the most convincing one it's always a blast to listen to.
The thing is, there's not a single bad voiceactor to be found in this game. Everything from the major heroes and villains, to the lowliest goons and minor guards are given memorable, solid voices that makes the game full of personality and quality.
Then there's the soundtrack. Here's hoping it will get a proper release, because this soundtrack has moments that rival what Hans Zimmer did with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. It's not all around as strong, but it has several moments that are absolutely fantastic. It does take cue from the previously mentioned scores and mimics them without sounding like a complete copy. The end result is a hauntingly efficient score that stays with you and enhances the game greatly. I dare say it's one of the best videogame scores of 2009, but a proper release of the score needs to be heard to give it a final verdict. But from what I heard during the game, it's a serious contender. It's quite different from both Burton's and Walker's scores, but this is just fine. Staying close to what Zimmer and Howard did with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is what this game needed to maintain a serious and fitting atmosphere and sound.
Already when I started seeing pictures and videos of this game, I had a growing gut feeling that it could actually become really good. When I tried the demo, I was almost completely convinced. And now that I have completed the full game, I will remember it as the best superhero game to this date. In fact, saying superhero game is almost injustice because of the rather unpleasant reputation they tend to have. Arkham Asylum should be looked upon like The Dark Knight, as the example when a game finally did it's hero justice and delivered a genrebreaking product that sets a new standard. Built upon a fantastic combination of exploration, stealth and combat, with great graphics, marvelous sound and perfect voiceacting while telling a great story that keeps you driven until the very end, Arkham Asylum is simply a masterpiece of a game. It's not perfect, some of the bossfights are nothing special and some visual elements can be somewhat distracting, but on the whole there is nothing to prevent this game from being the best superhero game ever created, and one of the best stealth-action games to grace any console as well. You don't even have to be a fan of Batman to enjoy this game, as it's simply a great stealth-action game with a delicate close combat system, addictive exploration and stunning graphics and sound. Accessible to everyone with three different difficulty levels, easy to learn controls and game mechanics while offering plenty of content and a fantastic experience all around, Batman: Arkham Asylum is simply one of the best games this console generation.
Let's hope that The Dark Knight Returns...
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Batman: Arkham Asylum (EU, 08/28/09)
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