Review by Crofty
"The Dark Knight, mastered"
You know, I knew very little about Batman: Arkham Asylum before release. The only real time I took note of it was after experiencing the demo which came out not long before the game's release. Before that I did what I do to most licensed Western developed games: I ignored it, and let my - usually justified - cynical nature mark the game as something that will ultimately turn out like most super-hero/comic-book games: rubbish. A mere rush-job of a game, with half-arsed repetitive combat and sporting the Batman tag to rake in easy money from the usual crowd of gamers/casuals. Of course, the demo immediately knocked me back and proved my preconceptions entirely wrong and, after many many hours, the final release has actually made this eternal cynic change his attitude towards future releases forever.
Aside from the license, the chosen graphics engine also served to fuel my initial - but now completely disproved - theory; the Unreal technology had yet to impress me, with its overly plastic character models, texture-build issues, and rather dull presentation in the games which featured it. However, it does seem Rocksteady have made best use of this technology outside of Epic themselves, with the game not showing much in the way of graphical hiccups, but rather embracing the elements that the engine is best utilised for (though it has to be said that the characters can and do still look overly plastic, but nothing to the dire extremes we have experienced in the likes of Bio-Shock). The dark tone and setting is presented in a fitting and impressive manner with Arkham Island offering various facilities to showcase some minor - and welcome - variations in appearance. After spending a fair while in a linear and almost claustrophobic building, it's a great feeling to be let outside and embrace Arkham Island fully. With a large moon in the sky, and surrounded by Gotham City, the size and scope of the Island evades you no more. It is eventually decided that Rocksteady's choice of engine, and use of it, is definitely for the best.
The main cycle to Arkham Asylum is, generally, to beat up punks, scan for clues, sneak up on punks, do some platforming, rinse and then repeat. However, the Island offers much in the way of side-attractions, the most obvious one being Riddler trophies and riddles. Some of these hidden extras can be collected/solved extremely easily, but a lot are also very well placed and require some lateral thinking to obtain, but it's always a fun experience, either way. The developers also have to be praised for leaving enough information to locate each riddle (therefore reducing the need to use guides/internet on some of the more tricky ones), although I think there are better in-game solutions out there than by simply placing Riddler maps in the game (especially when I doubt the Riddler himself would ever leave Batman a map to solve his puzzles easier). Even so, without these clever Riddles included, Arkham Asylum would still be a meaty and enjoyable game, so it ultimately leads to a more richer, polished and enjoyable experience overall.
Of course, Batman isn't on Arkham Island just to solve riddles, and Rocksteady have given a high action, and enjoyable story, if a bit short on depth and intelligence, though not every game needs to be an emotional roller-coaster. The Joker is up to his usual tricks, and has planned an elaborate event that involves Batman and a few other familiar faces that should be well known to most gamers, and even those not usually fond of comic-books or super-heros. The music and sound effects complement the story and setting, and seemed well fit to me, and helped the overall illusion of making me feel like I was playing as the B-man (which, I have to say, this game is really really good at). Definitely worth noting that both voice actors for Batman and Joker do an excellent job, and help keep the sound at a good quality (the unimpressive facial animation/lip-syncing lets the side down for presentation, though).
Joker's main arsenal to keep Batman's progress slow is an almost infinite army of prison inmates. They're mostly huge guys with bulging muscles, but lacking in brain cells which makes them easy prey for Batman. The vast majority of these goons can be dealt with with hand-to-hand fighting which showcases Rocksteady's, quite frankly, superb combat component. Like Sony's God of War games, you can defeat your enemies by button-bashing your way through, or to learn and embrace the dynamics offered by a very robust and deep fighting system. The button command layout is very basic yet - paired with gadgets you obtain through the course of the game - can be utilised to offer some very cool and satisfying combo situations. If you've watched and learned carefully, by the end of the game you should be easily racking up 20 hit combos, throwing enemies about like confetti, and finishing crazed inmates off by countering their incoming attacks.
There's a few variations on the types of enemies you will face (such as guys with knives and electric-stun pipes) along with some environmental alterations (keeping inmates away from obtaining rifles from a rack, for example), which can keep the combat fresh for the most part. However, the game is half-reluctant to throw some proper boss battles at you, and instead chooses to re-use already seen enemies. Because the combat is so fun and enjoyable, this isn't necessarily a huge flaw, but with the potential on offer it's a shame Rocksteady didn't offer some more inventive boss battles than what the game already features (I count two for the entire game - not a huge number, sadly).
There are times, though, when straight up hand-to-hand combat isn't an option for our gun-avoiding hero. Whenever you are faced with a room filled with armed inmates, Batman is to make use of his well-known stealth abilities and clear the way to get to the other side safely. Again, like combat, Rocksteady have done a fantastic job here. The AI isn't the most intelligent, so don't be expecting sophistication on a Splinter Cell/Metal Gear level, but since Arkham Asylum isn't all about stealth as one aspect it's impressive to find that there is still plenty of depth and genuine enjoyment to be had here. The stealth sections (or 'Predator' as the game would prefer) are most likely the times when you feel more like you are a real Batman than any other part of the game. Being able to hang from the rooftops, swoop down and take out armed inmates is an unmatched feeling in any other game I have played. Smashing through glass windows and landing on an enemy below is handled so well and so authentically; it's extremely easy to see that the developers for this game really have a passion for their source material, and the game feels so much better for it. From the way Batman glides from above, to his aggression when ripping an air-vent off the wall - Rocksteady have essentially nailed what Batman is about.
I would actually compare Arkham Asylum to Metroid Prime, since like that game you are essentially given an overall map to explore, piece-by-piece, but can only open certain new areas when you've the right equipment. Arkham Asylum allows you to prioritise some of your upgrades by the amount of experience you gain from battle, which you can use to purchase something new (like an improved Batrang, or increased armour). And, like Metroid, the game is divided into different gameplay elements, that all play equally as well. It is certainly a linear game at its core, but allowing the player to freely explore and select upgrades helps the game feel larger and impressive overall.
Rocksteady have clearly done what many others cannot; they have resisted the urge to rush out an incompetent game for a quick buck, and have - instead - taken a sensible amount of time to create, develop and polish a great game. They haven't cut any corners, they haven't cut back on content (the challenges, riddles and free download content easily highlights this fact); they've just taken a license based on something they clearly adore, and have spent the right amount of time to craft something amazing. The fact that I would mention Metroid Prime in the same sentence as Batman: Arkham Asylum should already be enough to prove that this game is worth owning immediately.
Yes, it has a few faults, such as Rocksteady's over-enthusiasm to help you beat the game in the way of unavoidable tips/hints, overly-plastic character models, and lack of unique boss fights, but the difference is, Arkham Asylum, unlike most games, has enough else going on to almost completely overshadow these errors. I'm still having a hard time getting my head around the idea that a Western developer can offer quality like this, especially with a well-known license. In fact, all I can really say before going back to the game again, which I definitely will, is that I hope Rocksteady can fully understand what they have achieved, and know that by keeping up this effort they will fastly become a top-class developer. The cynic in me is yelling "don't trust them! They will add multi-player for the sequel" and "they will surely make sure content is kept back for the second game, and sell it to us later!", for this is the tradition I have experience all to often. Yet, because Rocksteady have already done more than enough to shock and impress me in equal measure, I am willing to put my faith in them.
As it is, Rocksteady have created something magnificent, and, until I meet their next project, all I will say to them is 'More of the same, please!'
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 10/09/09
Game Release: Batman: Arkham Asylum (EU, 08/28/09)
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