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Batman: Arkham Asylum (Xbox 360) artwork

Batman: Arkham Asylum (Xbox 360) review

"I don't know how this game turned out the way it did. It shouldn't exist. It's a glitch. An anomaly. In all the best possible ways. "

I don't know how this game turned out the way it did. It shouldn't exist. It's a glitch. An anomaly. In all the best possible ways.

That a Batman videogame should be released about this time was, of course, inevitable. There couldn't not be a Batman game, not after Batman Begins had gotten everyone excited (and buying Batman games) again. There was going to be a game based on The Dark Knight, that, statistically speaking, was guaranteed to suck, but lots of things went very wrong and somebody disappeared it. Someone in a very expensive suit somewhere probably considers this a shame. But come on, this is a frikken' squillion dollar license; there was going to be another videogame sooner or later. It just so happens that there was a spare kicking around in development.

You'd think that a license as profitable as Batman would command that any videogame entry be handled by, say, Activision or EA, who would have called up whichever of their many development studios was enjoying their work the most and told them to make something "like the movie". Instead, it went to Eidos, who casually handed a project to some guys calling themselves Rocksteady. What these guys were doing making an "original" Batman game is anyone's guess, because it would be their second game ever. Batman: Arkham Asylum materialized out of nowhere to turn heads at E3 in 2009, and their lead developer heard people talking about whether it might be a candidate for "GOTY". "What's GOTY?", he asked, entirely without irony. At E3.

(GOTY is Game Of The Year. Just making sure!)

The smart gamer, today, is cynical - especially so of licensed games from developers they haven't heard of and who aren't at least familiar enough with the biz (or jaded enough) to understand that years possess games these days. This is why, despite an impressive E3 showing, Arkham Asylum was presumed to still not be that great. A positively glowing "world's first review" didn't help, because not only was it a "world's first review" in a print magazine, but because Eidos are, if not the most persistent practitioner of review "manipulation", definitely the worst at covering their tracks (and sure enough, repeated allegations of embargoes of reviews "unless they were over 90%" immediately followed).

This is why many people were more shocked by the fact that Batman: Arkham Asylum didn't suck than they were by the fact that it was, in fact, amazing.

Far from being a "game of a movie" or even a tie-in, Arkham Asylum is its own little original story; it exists in the comic book mythos, with characters from all corners of this continuity voiced by actors reprising their DC Animated Universe roles, not least of which is Mark Hamill's Joker, whose scheme to take over the island provides the entirety of the game's plot. Its world, consisting of the titular Asylum in its classical depiction as an island facility complete with mansion, is open to exploration; you are free to go anywhere on the island to which a man with a badass gliding cape and a grappling hook could conceivably get. You have access to both of these awesome items from minute one (along with a few other neat tricks) and will eventually acquire other, even more awesome items as the game progresses, both through plot events and upgrades. It plays like what has come to be known as Metroidvania; though you are free to explore, your progress is gently encouraged towards certain locations, wherein plot happens, and as you progress, you acquire new capabilities, and more and more of the world becomes accessible; you will find a new toy, and think "hey, I remember a place where I think I can use this!" You'll get bolder and bolder until you're leaping and flying around like, well, Batman. Doors will keep opening, but they'll never close behind you. Nothing in the game is missable; you'll have the run of the entire island by game's end. Eventually you'll start seeing shiny things just out of your reach and the first thing you'll ask yourself is "what sort of fancy tech could possibly get me over there?"

More often than not, Batman will run into guys who are insane/stupid/coerced enough to try and take him on. At such times, he will be required to neutralize these unfortunate souls, painfully but non-lethally, by way of a nifty combat system focused more on timing and strategy than learning combos; you, the player, merely need to pick an action (attack, stun, counter, evade, etc) and a direction; Batman will gracefully vault (or turn) to the nearest enemy in that direction and perform the specified action. With very few exceptions, any move can be chained into any other move without breaking the flow of combat, and the targeting is so well done that it'll be no time at all before you start cartwheeling around entire groups of enemies, keeping them all simultaneously subdued, feeling like a total badass, like, well, Batman. As the game progresses, you'll gain access to new and improved ways of integrating your combat techniques; you'll be able to integrate toys like the Batarang and the Batclaw into your combos, you will be able to throw enemies into hazards, off cliffs, or into eachother, and you'll acquire new, devastating, takedowns. Needless to say, all of this is beautifully and flawlessly animated; a guy in a bat costume effortlessly destroying small armies of bad guys has never felt so natural.

Of course, all this changes when the bad guys have guns; pinnacle of awesome as Batman may be, bullets really hurt, and one guy with a gun can still ruin Batman's day in a straight up fight. These situations call for the other of those Things That Batman Does™; stealthily sneaking around rooftops and shadows, lying in wait, and striking from the darkness, disappearing enemies one at a time, preying on the fear of his friends as they slowly figure out there's something in here with us!. Arkham Asylum's combat system is good in and of itself, the platforming mechanics are fluid and fun, and the stealth action is appropriately tense, rewarding, and completely free of bullshit; the very existence of five or so armed dudes in a room full of grapple-able surfaces and catwalks heralds the bringing together of everything that is good about this game in one glorious self-contained package. By the end of each of these little set-pieces you will feel as badass as, well, Batman. The guys will be milling around at first, wary but unaware of your presence (sometimes they know you're coming but don't know you're actually there). You find yourself a nice shadowy vantage point. A bad guy passes below. You swoop down, take him out in one swift blow, and string him up for good measure. His buddies hear you; they rush over to investigate, but by the time they arrive you're already halfway across the room. They see the guy hanging and they realize it's on. You can use a Batarang to cut the guy down to spook them a bit more; if you're good, you can land the first guy onto another guy and knock him out that way. They're on edge now; they pair up in back to back formations and start patrolling the room, slowly, deliberately, cautiously; you'll probably need to use traps to take both guys out at once to avoid being shot. They're not stupid. This isn't Metal Gear Solid; they're not going to just forget about it if they don't see anything new for two minutes - they'll stick to their formations until they find you or you get them. Eventually there's only one guy left. He knows what's coming. He's terrified. By now he's running around the room, spraying assault rifle fire in random directions, turning around every few steps. He's probably aware it's not going to help him but too afraid to care. You take him down by gliding from the other side of the room and kicking him in the face. You will probably dust your hands, in real life, there and then.

The stealth encounters are as varied as the straight-up fistfights; there are any number of ways to dispatch an unfortunate foe depending on context; there are gliding takedowns, hanging takedowns, over-ledge takedowns, corner takedowns, sneak attack takedowns, and any manner of your choosing of stunning them from afar (Batarangs, explosive traps, etc), closing in, and just punching them until they drop. Every so often, the game will "hint" at a particular approach in a particular location, but really, there are always lots of options open to you.

The backdrops against which all of this takes place are also appropriately beautiful, although calling them "backdrops" might be underselling them; very few of the elements in any given room are just there for decoration; every wall, every ledge, every platform, and every little obstruction can be made to serve a purpose in either combat or stealth. As backdrops, though, they're still pretty good; the island is as beautiful as an insane asylum could reasonably be expected to be, but all the details are present and correct, and the designers aren't above throwing you a few lovely vistas every now and then. Aesthetically, Arkham Asylum has humble intentions but realizes them very well; the game is as pretty as it needs to be, and the soundtrack is sparse, but distinct, and effective.

Really, the true triumph of Arkham Asylum is not so much the fact that it allows you to play as a videogame character with the characteristics and abilities of Batman, but the fact that even despite the simplicity of some of the game mechanics (chiefly, combat) it manages to fully capture and realize the experience of being Batman; it makes grappling and gliding easy, it makes freeflow combat a matter of simply paying attention to the right guy and still deriving a feeling of fulfillment from beating him senseless, it allows you to revel in the gradual buildup of fear in a diminishing squad of armed henchmen while knowing (and this is the beauty of the thing) that really, you're just as scared of them as they are of you! In a way, playing Arkham Asylum embodies the very nature of Batman; it is about believing that you are an invisible asskicking machine, being bold in the face of guys with guns, and detaching oneself from the fear of combat, thinking tactically, to punch this guy, counter that guy, throw that guy into that guy, etc, until, surprise! Everyone's unconscious but you! Arkham Asylum has its own distinctive flow - it calls very little direct attention to its own mechanics. There's no ingame talk about how you're supposed to be planning your fights rather than fighting them, but instead there is the bare minimum of pointing out specific varieties of enemies; these are the regular guys, these are the guys you need to stun, these are the guys you need to vault, watch out for guns just lying around, or the guys without guns will become guys with guns and you don't want that, etc, and the game leaves you to figure out how to deal with a room full of an assortment of these in a manner that doesn't leave you vainly trying to react to whichever one of them is punching you at the time. In other words, Arkham Asylum doesn't play like a game designed by what we're used to thinking of as "game designers"; the people who designed this game are not (yet!) consigned to an established method. They just made a game where you can be Batman.

That said, Arkham Asylum does check a few of the boxes on the Modern Game Developer's List Of Ways To Add Replay Value To Your Game™, most of which are part of a list of little challenges set by longtime Batman nemesis the Riddler. The most common of these consist of finding little trophies scattered around the island in various nooks and crannies - often, they're in plain sight but out of reach, requiring you to either find another route or figure out how to get to them. The second most common involves solving actual riddles by way of identifying certain objects in the environment - most of these are references to the wider Batman universe, so be prepared for a few head-scratchers if this is all new to you. Beyond that, there's a ton of art, character profiles and 3D models of assorted Batman characters to unlock, as well as interview tapes for some of Arkham's more famous inmates. There's a treasure trove of information to please the longtime fans, and enough to make a pretty good education for the newcomers. You'll also unlock a variety of challenge rooms, split into "Predator" challenges consisting of the aforementioned stealth combat set-pieces, and "Combat" challenges where you simply beat up on a lot of dudes in a room, if that's more your thing.

The additional content in the game is fair enough (though some of the riddles are a little suspect; they're laughably easy if you know the Batman Universe character to which they refer, and indecipherable otherwise), and the Predator challenges are (of course) very fun, but we'd be remiss to not call out the Combat challenges for the mess they are; the goal of these is not merely to survive the fact that a bunch of guys are trying to beat you up for some reason, but to accrue a "high score" by fulfilling a variety of requirements to score points: points for landing good hits, points for takedowns, points for variety, and, if you want any chance at all of hitting the gold, points for never taking a hit (ever!) and points for finishing each fight in a single, flowing, uninterrupted combo. Most of the enjoyment of Arkham Asylum's brawls come from the realization that, "whoa, man! You just beat all those guys in a single combo! That was awesome!". Arkham Asylum's combat system is very good, but placing this kind of demand on the player (ie, constant perfection) stretches the small flaws in the system to breaking point, until suddenly it becomes a chore. The demands get steadily more ridiculous; first the variety of enemies, then variety with gun lockers (in rooms with no platforming spaces, where one guy with a gun can shred you in an instant), then enemies with electrified floor, and then enemies plus bosses… it's just unreasonable. The fights go on for too long, and have too many factors to warrant making those kinds of demands on a player. I can't recall a quicker turnaround of loving a game to hating it than the first time I finished Arkham Asylum's story mode and went to play a Combat challenge. Their mere inclusion warrants a reduction of Review Score™. I would have liked this game more had the Combat challenges simply been absent. The Predator challenges are awesome! If it'd been just those, it'd be fine! Hell, the story mode, as is, with all its inherent replay value, could have constituted a complete package worthy of the highest praise.

Time will tell whether Arkham Asylum was a fluke or the first of many; a sequel was inevitable from the moment there were whisperings about "GOTY" at E3; because this is Batman, it's going to sell, whether or not it's good. That Arkham Asylum was this good was unexpected, and whether its sequel will be as good is unknown. But, expectations for the future aside, Arkham Asylum is a must purchase for lovers of Batman and lovers of videogames, and especially lovers of videogames made by relatively new talent being handed a license and told to go nuts. Many a great game was made by telling a developer to make a game out of ______, sending them on their way, and waiting to see what they came up with. Creativity and thoroughness (and a degree of fearlessness) can go a very long way; Arkham Asylum is your proof.

Fedule's avatar
Community review by Fedule (May 28, 2010)

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