Friday, September 4, 2009

Arkham Asylum: The Demo Didn't Lie

A month or so ago, I wrote a blog post about Batman: Arkham Asylum, wherein I expressed my high hopes for the title. Of course, I knew that licensed videogames are usually awful, and that superhero games in particular have a dark history. Rocksteady, the Brits behind Arkham Asylum, had only released one game before Batman: A mostly-forgotten shooter called Urban Chaos: Riot Response. I hoped Arkham Asylum would live up to the promises of its second demo, but I didn't expect it to be quite as good as it turned out to be. Arkham Asylum is one of the best games I have played this year – and I have played some very good games – and probably the best single game released in 2009. It's not perfect, but it tries really hard.

I've described the basic gameplay in my previous post on Arkham, so I'm not going to go over the basics again. Instead, I'm going to talk a little about how the developers made Arkham Asylum so successful.

First, while Arkham never feels like a real place – the facility's architect clearly had Batman in mind, what with all the ducts, gargoyles, and breakable walls – it nonetheless feels alive. Part of this has to do with the much-praised Riddler challenges. Some of the "challenges" consist of nothing more than finding hidden question mark trophies, while others require you to find various "relics" of famous and obscure Batman characters. You never get to fight Mr. Freeze or Killer Moth, for example, but you get to see the traces they left on the island. Though Batman can't interact with most objects on the island – if there's a book on a table, you can't move it, nor can you break the table – all the little details help make Arkham Asylum vibrant. There are 240 Riddler challenges, but the developers, evidently kind people despite their Britishness, provide in-game maps that, once found, make it comparatively easy to locate any remaining Riddler challenges. You won't be tearing your hair out trying to complete all the Riddler's "missions."

Most of my friends will tell you that I have far too high an opinion of Christopher Nolan's two Batman films. So some might be surprised to hear that I think one of Rocksteady's best moves was to ignore Nolan. True, there are some aspects of Nolan's Gotham that appear in this take on Batman, but villains like the Scarecrow and even the Joker are far different from their most recent cinematic appearances. More importantly, the game uses a few villains unlikely to appear in a third Nolan movie: Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, and Killer Croc. All these villains have distinct purposes in Paul Dini's script; this isn't just a boring supervillain team-up. And while none of them ally with Batman, it's clear that some of the villains are working at cross purposes with the Joker and his crowd.

Paul Dini has done great things with Batman both on television (Batman: The Animated Series) and in comic books (Dini wrote Detective Comics for several years), but the TV show had strict content limitations and there are some things you just can't fit into a twenty-two page monthly comic. Dini's script for Arkham Asylum is "adult," but not painfully so – there's not much in the way of blood or cursing for the sake of cursing. There is, however, some wonderful black humor, especially if you take time to listen in on the conversations of Joker's henchmen. When you sneak into a room of foolish and unaware thugs, it's tempting to jump from cover and beat down the bastards quickly, but it's worthwhile waiting to punish them, as their conversations are frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Dini's script only loses its quality at the very end of the game, when something ridiculous happens to facilitate a final boss fight.

Even the weakest parts of the script benefit from the wonderful voice acting. Mark Hamill, the best living Joker actor, gets first billing in the VA credits. He deserves it, as his Joker gets by far the most dialogue of any character in the game – the Joker taunts Batman over intercoms, lectures to his thugs, and even occasionally tries to kill you. Kevin Conroy, another actor from the Animated Series, plays Batman. He sounds great, as ever. The rest of the cast is just as good, but Hamill and Conroy are by far the most important to the game's success.

I've played many games that hide their best parts behind several hours of tedious or over-easy gameplay. Metal Gear Solid 4, for example, has some of the best stealth gameplay I know. Unfortunately, it also has awkward rail shooter segments and a few poorly-implemented fights. I might want to replay parts of it, but there are several portions I never want to touch again. There are no really odious portions of Arkham Asylum, but even if there were, Rocksteady has added a "Challenge Room" feature to help us avoid them. As you finish Riddler challenges, you will gradually gain access to these rooms, which can be accessed from the main menu. Not only do the Challenge Rooms let you replay the best stealth and fighting segments from the main game, but you can also compare your scores to others' with the online leaderboards.

Whenever I finish a game, I think about what I would have differently from the developers. In some cases, it's a lot. With Arkham, there's not much. As other reviewers have said, the boss battles are somewhat weak; there are some portions of Arkham Asylum that are almost straight lifts from Metal Gear Solid, but Rocksteady doesn't yet have Hideo Kojima's knack for memorable boss fights. I'd also like to see more Bat-gadgets. While most of the gadgets are great fun to use, especially the Batline, the grapple, and the Sonic Batarang, a few of the items disappoint. One item, for example, is only used to hack into security panels. Couldn't hacking have been automated and that gadget slot been filled with ninja-style smoke bombs? I'd like to see more integration of gadgets into combat; as it stands most gadgets are fairly useless in a fistfight. Finally, I'd like to see more gliding and more jumping from really high places. Because Arkham Island only has so many insane leaps to take.

I absolutely loved Arkham Asylum. Though it's a somewhat short game, there's plenty of good post-game content, and the game is so fun that, for me at least, a replay or two seems inevitable. If you like Batman and have a PS3 or an Xbox 360, this is a must-own. If you're one of the two people who doesn't like Batman, you should try it too. It just might make a convert of you.

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