Computer Game Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum

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BatmanWarning: Possible Spoilers. Playing two XBox games in a row, and finishing them both? This is unheard of! Work really must be quiet.

After enjoying Assassin’s Creed II I was in the mood for a bit more gaming, so I popped one of my birthday presents in the noisy ol’ white and grey machine (it still amazes me that they let this thing leave the drawing board saddled with an operating noise like a 747 landing)—Batman: Arkham Asylum. I’d heard good reports about the game. Indeed, once I’d got over the fact that it wasn’t Creed III, I enjoyed it immensely.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is an action-packed mix of combat, investigation, story and stealth. Let’s apply my earlier review criteria and look at it in more detail:

Unfortunately, don’t expect too much from the story. The Joker takes over the asylum and throws a lot of goons at Batman while taunting him over the loudspeaker system. Sure, there’s a bit more to it than that—a few other classic Batman villains appear, Joker does have a vague master plan overall, but the focus here is on gameplay, not story. It’s a shame, because a few hallucination sequences (brought on by the Scarecrow) give a taste of how much more interesting things could have been.

With such a long legacy of characters to draw on, B:AC doesn’t disappoint. The game is improved immeasurably by the quality of voice acting by actors from the animated series, most notably Mark Hamill (of Star Wars fame) as The Joker. However there’s really nothing new here to discover about these characters, and they stay firmly within the boundaries already defined for them in the Batman universe.

This is the strong department for B:AC. Using, as it does, the Unreal engine, which was created for first-person shoot-’em-up games, it definitely feels like that type of game, but there’s also much more to enjoy here than just killing bad guys. Batman can flip into a Detective Mode that turns his surroundings into a kind of x-ray monochrome, identifying exits, grappling spots, and most importantly, little skeletal versions of the bad guys with feedback on everything from whether they’re armed to how nervous they are about their imminent demise. It’s a very thematic way of giving you as a player the edge that Batman would have in these situations, and works incredibly well. I especially enjoyed using the grapple gun to zip about the environments, or hanging upside down from a convenient gargoyle to silently grab an unsuspecting goon. You can also pop up from under floor gratings, skulk through ventilation shafts, crash through windows—all those sneaky tricks that make you feel like you’re the pointy-eared batty one.

I found the combat system excellent, since it replaced nitpicky button combinations with cinematic, free-flowing combat. Batman really does feel like he’s running rings around your average pack of muscle-bound goons, and every combat ends with a big slo-mo climatic blow. It’s great to see a game emulate the feeling of movie fight sequences so well.

For those who like that kind of thing, you can go back after you’ve finished the game and fight battles in Challenge mode.

If I hadn’t just played Assassin’s Creed II, I would have been quite impressed, but I think the Unreal engine isn’t quite up to the same standard, most notably when it comes to outside areas. B:AC looks great, but it’s a stylised look, and natural features and vegetation can appear blocky and unrealistic. You also get that strange, somewhat dated, effect when you hit a place where you know you should be able to walk—a sloping roof, for example—but instead Batman just moonwalks on the spot. After the incredible freedom of AC II this is jarring.

There are some nice little touches though—for example the way Batman’s outfit appears to get progressively more tatty and torn as he progresses through the game; and in general the indoor areas look suitably detailed and grubby.

The difficulty level—for me anyway—is just about right, except for a few annoying spots. The worst offender is a terrible sewer sequence that made me feel like I was back in the bad old days of repetitive mazes in pre-rendered adventure games. Really, any game developer who mentions the word ‘maze’ when designing a game should be immediately strangled for the good of humankind.

Fights with unarmed opponents are usually pretty easy, and even the ‘boss’ battles never got so difficult that I couldn’t crack them after a reasonable number of attempts—even if I did have to give up in frustration and come back and try again later a few times. The game provides you with a hint or two if you keep dying, and thankfully doesn’t bring you back right at the start of a long sequence if you’ve already passed a mid-point checkpoint, and allows you to skip cutscenes. Nice.

Batman: Arkham Asylum’s clever blend of combat and stealth is definitely worth experiencing. It could be improved by more realistic outdoor environments and a more interesting and involving story, but otherwise it’s as close as you can get to walking in the caped crusader’s natty black boots.

Four silent takedowns out of five.

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