Tuesday, 29 September 2009

"Just as I expected. The agile crook also managed to slip an induction receiving antenna into your left trouser leg."

Now that I've spent a fair bit of time with it, I thought I would put down my thoughts on Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Batman shouldn't work; it's a video game based on comic IP riding the success of a movie adaptation. I struggle to think of a single recent game with either of these qualities that was better than mediocre; I hear the Marvel Ultimate Alliance games aren't too bad, and City of Heroes/City of Villains, although not based on a particular comic IP, are fairly well regarded. Nothing, however, can approach Batman in terms of style and passion. Batman: Arkham Asylum nails the one thing you want in a superhero game: it makes you feel like the Dark Knight himself.

The game begins with Joker captured and en route to Arkham. A wonderful sequence sees you escorting him to the depths of the Intensive Treatment building over the credits before, inevitably, the Joker breaks free. As you pursue him deeper into Arkham, it becomes clear that the joker has been planning his 'party' for some time, and you are his guest of honour.

It's worth pointing out that the game is not based on the recent successful films by Chris Nolan; good though they are, certain things key to the comic book had to be removed in the transition to the big screen. Though Arkham Asylum feels much more true to the comic book roots of the character, I would point to the critically lauded Batman: The Animated Series as inspiration for some of the stylistic choices (and, indeed, the story was written by Paul Dini, a writer for The Animated Series).

In fact, several of the voice actors return from the animated series return here; Kevin Conroy delivers a solid performance as the unflappable Batman, but stealing the show is Mark Hamil as Joker. You'll hear a lot from Joker throughout the game; he regularly pops up on the public address system to taunt you or, more likely, his own thugs scattered around Arkham. There are enough messages that they never get repetitive, though the thugs you fight for the most part of the game have considerably less variety.

The graphics are, put simply, gorgeous. The game runs surprisingly smoothly, even on a mid-level system. The character models are supremely detailed; it may just be my imagination, but I think you can even see Batman's stubble get longer over the course of the game. Some characters are definitely modelled after their animated versions (Killer Croc, for example). As this is the Unreal engine at work, outdoors environments are handled seamlessly (load times in general are very short, except for the unskippable start-up splash screen), though everything does tend to have a bit of a 'plasticy' look to it.

The visuals do a very good job of bringing Arkham to life; there are vague feelings of other games (the more gothic sections of Bioshock, for instance), but this is ultimately the comic book world of Gotham. The sprawling gothic buildings perfectly evoke the feeling of the infamous madhouse. In fact, you sometimes feel a little uncomfortable walking round it; to mirror Batman's sentiments, it's hard to imagine the place being conducive to anyone's mental wellbeing (I could talk for a while about this mirroring Batman's presence in Gotham; after all, in The Dark Knight Returns, Joker has effectively become comatose until Batman comes out of retirement. This would, however, be overly pretentious, so I won't).

The only thing which may cause drops in framerate is the PHYS-X effects. These are unique to the PC and add certain funky physical effects to the game; realistic smoke, cloth and paper curling and flapping realistically, breakable tiles, etc. These effects weren't present in the console versions and, to be perfectly honest, they're only ever a nice little extra; if you're suffering terrible framerates, you could happily turn them off.

Unfortunately, you may not see as much of the environment as you'd like as much of the game has you using Detective Mode. This vision mode allows you to see enemies through walls and highlights grates and weak walls for you to exploit. Though this sounds like it makes the game too easy, when you play for a while it just feels right; after all, you're Batman! The downside is that Detective Mode paints everything a deep blue, meaning you lose out on the lovely textures and models that have obviously had a lot of time and energy put into them.





Boss fights (not so good)

The 'silent hunter' gameplay is brilliant; you will occasionally be confronted with a room full of armed guards and will have to incapacitate them all before you can continue. Batman can use his grapple to swing about amongst the rafters and gothic architecture (ie, stone Gargoyles), and can sneak up behind thugs to silently knock them out. Other gadgets and upgrades offer more options, from multiple batarangs and selective detonating of your explosive gel (the inverted takedown comes highly recommended). There are plenty of ways to use the environment as well; there are walls to break down, grates to hide under, so you can meticulously plan your attack or improvise on the spot as you see fit.

The real joy in this mode, however, is watching the thugs become terrified as you take their comrades out one by one. You can hear them starting to talk to themselves ("I'm gonna die down here, and no-one's ever gonna know...") and see them shaking; occasionally, they'll even shoot into the shadows at curtains flapping in the breeze or a boiler venting off steam. Most of these sections are unlockable for play in the game's Challenge mode, so you can attempt them against the clock (or just have fun silently eliminating all the threats...).

Lasting Appeal

Challenge mode

Story mode replay

Hard mode

Unlockables (Riddler trophies)

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