Friday, August 7, 2009

I Should Not Be So Excited: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Many of the worst videogames ever made have been licensed games based off popular movie, TV, or comics properties. For every licensed masterpiece like Goldeneye, there have been dozens of mediocre to awful games with big names on their covers. You would think that a James Bond or Superman game would be hard to mess up, but it has been done time and again. So I make it a rule to not get too excited about licensed games - they may turn out OK, but it's best not to get your hopes up.

I'm afraid the upcoming Batman: Arkham Asylum has made me break my own rule. True, there have been mediocre (Batman Begins) and awful (Batman: Dark Tomorrow) Batgames in the past. But Arkham Asylum has a new developer, and they really seem to understand what makes Batman work. Batman does tend to punch people, yes, but his appeal isn't based on the punching any more than 007's appeal is based off his shooting megalomaniacs and odd henchmen. What both Bond and Bats have is style - Bond always keeps his charm and his cool, while Batman darts through shadows and scares the hell out of his enemies. He's more a trickster figure than a brawler. Arkham Asylum emphasizes these points: the game takes place on the secluded island housing Arkham Asylum (The Joker has taken over), and it takes place at night. The Asylum itself is suitably gothic, dark, and forbidding. In theory at least, it's the perfect playground for the Batman.

I must admit, the first Arkham Asylum demo disappointed me. It was completely combat centric, and the only gadgets you had access to were Batarangs. The combat engine is quite good - it plays well, and Batman is as efficient and brutal as you might hope - but the best part of a Batman fight is often his dramatic entrance, and the original demo didn't let us make it. The new demo, thankfully, fixes this. Most of the demo consists of a rather guided introduction to combat and stealth, but it ends with Batman in a large, high, and catwalk-filled room facing six enemies; how you eliminate them is up to the player. Here's what I do: I sneak up one enemy and knock him unconscious. Then I grapple up to a gargoyle - grappling works extremely well, which is very important for a proper Bat-experience - then make my way around the room until I am standing on a gargoyle above another enemy. I hang down from the gargoyle, then fall down on top of him, pick him up, knock him out, and hang him by his feet from the gargoyle. After this, the remaining enemies are justifiably nervous and easy to pick off; it's great fun to glide down from the ceiling and kick an unfortunate thug in the back. Like any good stealth game, you have many different ways of going about your mission, many ways of making your opponents fear your wrath.

As much as I loved the new demo for Arkham Asylum, it does have some issues. For one, the titular asylum has way too many bat-sized ducts and convenient gargoyles than is plausible. It makes for fun, but not believability. Furthermore, the camera does take a bit of getting used to, as when you're not in combat, it will automatically stay extremely close to Batman. I suppose it's done for atmosphere, but it does feel a bit awkward.

Arkham Asylum's gameplay seems pretty great, but I was also struck by the high production values of the game. There are unlockable character trophies and profiles, some of which you can view in the demo. They're quite well-done and fairly in-depth; in the Joker's profile, for example, you can listen to an audio interview with him. Furthermore, developers Rocksteady made a very good decision in hiring Paul Dini to write the story for the game. Dini, along with Bruce Timm, was one of the two people most responsible for the wonderful Batman: The Animated Series. Arkham Asylum is much darker than that TV show, but Dini also has long experience writing Batman stories for adult audiences, as he's spent years writing for Detective Comics, one of the monthly Batman titles. Also returning from the TV show are Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. Conroy does a far better Batman voice than Christian Bale, while Hamill is the best living Joker actor. Based off what little I've played, both do fantastic jobs.

Many people were surprised that there was no game adaptation of The Dark Knight. I must admit, I'm glad we're getting Arkham Asylum instead. As much as I love Christopher Nolan's take on Batman, his franchise doesn't yet have enough villains to support a game like this. Arkham Asylum, on the other hand, features the Joker, the Scarecrow, Bane, Killer Croc, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, and Mr. Szasz. I get the impression other villains appear, especially since there are "Riddler trophies" scattered all over the island. And while Arkham Asylum isn't based off a movie, it's plenty cinematic. When you clear a room of enemies, for example, Batman's finishing strike is shown in slow motion. Plus there is a lot of chatter going on in the background: the Joker uses Arkham's video and intercom systems to mock you; his insults are sometimes quite funny. Though Arkham's architecture is sometimes too videogame-y, it often feels like a real, albeit very sick, place.

After playing the first demo, I was a little worried about Arkham Asylum's prospects. After playing the second, I think I'm going to buy the game on day one. I just hope that the full game lives up to the promise shown in the demo. More to follow later this month when Arkham Asylum releases.

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