"Batman's a game with a few problems, yet it remains utterly captivating throughout the journey. Every inch of Arkham Island, every character nuance, every animation and every gameplay mechanism has been refined to a ludicrous extent. Every transition between styles is utterly seamless. It's a cohesive, captivating world, a tremendously engaging mix of action and sneaking, and one of the most exciting games of the year."
Sometimes, in this funny old world of games reviewing, it's easy to get caught up in your own excitement. When you've just spent a number of hours slamming your way through the latest high-octane blockbuster, the adrenaline continues to course through your system, and it can be easy to overlook a variety of problems. It can take a little while for the dust to settle, and to see the game in a more sober light.
Last week, I had the pleasure of playing through Batman: Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady's highly anticipated interpretation of the classic not-quite-superhero saga. It's a stunning game; a powerful, melodramatic and entirely authentic take on the Batman universe. That much is clear from the minute it starts. But it's still a game that, even a good few days on, continues to surprise me.
It was only when I found myself refreshing a forum thread this morning, just to see if anyone had got to that stunning scene where... or the breathtaking moment when... that I realised just how much of an impact Arkham Asylum was having on me. Take some of its most impressive sequences, stand them next to those of practically any other modern action adventure, and the difference is so overwhelming that it's almost unfair.
I want to tell you about these sequences. I want to talk about them for hours on end. I can't, because the game's spell often totally hinges around them, and spoiling Arkham Asylum's surprises would be obscene. But with shades of BioShock, Metal Gear Solid and Eternal Darkness, it would take a hardcore cynic not to be entirely blown away.
Batman's a game with a few problems, yet it remains utterly captivating throughout the journey. Every inch of Arkham Island, every character nuance, every animation and every gameplay mechanism has been refined to a ludicrous extent. Every transition between styles is utterly seamless. It's a cohesive, captivating world, a tremendously engaging mix of action and sneaking, and one of the most exciting games of the year.
As with last year's gritty blockbuster The Dark Knight, this is the Joker's story. His twisted presence is delightfully suffocating from the opening moments of the game right up until the very last. He's on the TV screens, over the PA systems and often right in front of you as he taunts, teases and compels you through the exquisitely paced narrative. Arkham Asylum powers through its plot as if the disc could self-destruct at any moment. It might not be the deepest tale in the world, but its presentation is remarkable. Aside from one brief hump, the next astonishing event is never more than a few minutes away.
Setting a whole game on one small island consisting mainly of a single institution might seem like a recipe for disaster. But the range of environments Arkham Asylum effortlessly guides you through is nothing short of phenomenal. After the opening couple of hours, the game is split into a series of areas, connected by a surprisingly large, semi-open-world hub section. It's a world that dynamically alters as you progress through the story, leading you through rustic prison cells, high-tech security complexes, an ornate Gothic mansion and even a lush indoor garden. The attention to detail is stunning throughout, with every room dripping with a thick, gritty, comic-book atmosphere. Arkham Asylum even manages to turn a sewer level into one of the most spellbinding, tense and enveloping sequences in the whole game. It's a terrific achievement, one that draws you ever further into the devilishly twisted universe.
Despite the generally linear progression, Batman places a heavy focus on exploration. The Riddler regularly pops up with puzzles to solve, which drag you away from the main route and into new areas, searching for various hidden gems to boost your experience. Much of the story is told via cut-scenes or scripted sequences, but there's an added depth to be discovered through unlockable character profiles and audio-taped interviews, littered around the game world. None are essential, but it's the sort of added fan service that contributes not only to Arkham Asylum's authenticity, but to the haunting credibility of the entire game.
But the real thrill here is in the fantastic range of approaches to combat. The Joker's goons are on the loose around Arkham, and though many fights consist of relatively straightforward melee action, the best see Batman swinging from the rafters, staying out of the enemy's line of sight, and silently swooping down for a careful, calculated takedown.
Batman's Detective Mode allows him to spot handy environmental advantages, as well as monitor human activity in the vicinity. Quickly, you'll find yourself grappling up to a conveniently placed gargoyle, swinging down to strap a foe up by his ankles, then flying off to another vantage point, sending the unfortunate assailant crashing down with a quick throw of your Batarang. The enemy AI responds staggeringly well to your behaviour, with armed guards arguing over whether to split up or stay together, and firing blindly into the air at their most terrified. If there's a problem, it's that such encounters are often a little too obvious, with larger rooms clearly designed with this playing style in mind. But it means there are frequent opportunities to let your imagination run wild with dynamic action possibilities. It's startlingly good fun.
Even the hand-to-hand combat stands head and shoulders above most competition, thanks mainly to its interesting focus on counter-attacks. When Batman's surrounded, he can quickly stave off incoming attacks with a quick button tap, turning the hit back on his enemies instead of relying on clumsy block tactics. Later in the game it's not uncommon to be faced with tens of thugs at a time, and the results are gloriously intense.
Your toolset increases gradually as you progress through the game, with new abilities and gadgets unlocked via experience points. By the finale, you'll find yourself effortlessly firing your Batclaw to snatch away an enemy's weapon, throwing your Batarang to momentarily stun the remaining opponents, then finishing off the lot of them with a well-timed combo move. It's just a shame that Arkham Asylum makes so little effort to integrate the upgrades system into its fiction. Where all these gizmos magically appear from when you gain enough experience is a mystery, and one that serves to slightly dilute the magic.
There are, unfortunately, a few more problems - though not a single one of them is anywhere close to game-breaking. The camera's often slightly unhelpful, which is particularly problematic on the higher difficulty settings. Arkham Asylum is no walk in the park, and the camera's occasional refusal to focus on the action is an issue. There's also a point where the game enforces a nasty stealth-only section, one that's unnecessarily fiddly and doesn't make much sense in the context of what happens next. It sometimes feels as if your actions on Arkham are a little meaningless. When the game absolutely demands you keep a hostage safe, on pain of a game-over screen, having her killed off in a cut-scene literally seconds later raises an eyebrow.
And the ending's disappointing. While the journey there keeps on getting better and better, the final showdown leaves a lot to be desired. It's too easy and too unremarkable, not different enough from standard combat to leave a lasting memory. It's even more infuriating because it sets up a fantastic idea, yet immediately dismisses it. The result is an encounter that's bland and predictable, especially weighed up against what it had you expecting a moment ago.
These annoyances bring the score down to a very solid 9, but make no mistake, this is an absolutely essential game. Deftly paced, deliciously atmospheric and utterly engrossing, Arkham Asylum can make a fair claim to being the most exquisite licensed game of this generation. More than that, it's also a very real contender for best in its entire genre. Take a plunge into Arkham, and you'll never want to escape its exquisitely malevolent grip.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (August 29, 2009)
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