It's not often that I'm conflicted about a game. Don't get me wrong, review scores are in the eye of the beholder so I'm sure there are plenty of times that you've read something I have written and not agreed with me. I mean that it's rare for me to play a game during a demo and not have a solid idea of what the final product is going to be. I played bits of Batman: Arkham Asylum a few times before I finally got a copy to review, and I always found myself coming away with mixed feelings. I enjoyed the combat and attacking from the shadows, but the pacing seemed off and Batman's movements seemed stiff. Could Rocksteady really pull everything together to deliver on one of DC Comics' biggest franchises?
After having beaten the game, I can tell you the answer is most certainly "Yes."
It not what I say that defines this video review, but what I do.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is a third-person action game casting you as -- you guessed it, chum -- the Dark Knight himself. The title opens with Batman racing back to Arkham, Gotham's home for the criminally insane, with the Joker in tow. Seems the Clown Prince of Crime broke out a few weeks ago, but Batman was able to track him down and re-apprehend the baddie. However, things are never what they seem with the Joker, so after getting the wiry maniac back into the building -- a building stocked with hundreds of the Joker's goons after a "mysterious" fire at their prison -- Mr. J breaks free with the help of Harley Quinn, takes control of the penitentiary, and releases all the inmates.
Holy plot twist, Batman!
From there, you're off on an adventure that ranks right below The Dark Knight movie in terms of awesome Batman experiences. The actual Arkham campus is a loony bin spread across multiple buildings on one massive rock. With the Joker in charge you're going to have to swing over rooms filled with gas, save doctors, rip vent covers off the walls so you can make a path around locked doors, and move as fast as Batman can to stop the Joker from releasing an army of monsters on the people of Gotham City.
Now, that might sound like your typical Batman story -- and it kind of is -- but it's important to point out that this is a fairly adult title. Yeah, some of the folks from Batman: The Animated Series are back to reprise their roles (Mark Hamill is the Joker, Kevin Conroy is Batman, and Arleen Sorkin is Harley Quinn), but this isn't the cartoon. Harley's wearing a fairly skimpy outfit that shows off her lady parts, Poison Ivy's in some painted-on panties, colorful language like "ass" and "bitch" is peppered in, and there are people getting murdered left and right. Arkham itself is a dark and dingy place that just had every psychopath housed there run through the halls tearing the building apart. Dead guards are laid out on the floor, papers are strewn about, and the facilities have seen better days.
These adult themes tied in with a very, very Batman-looking world really drive home your connection to the story. I don't think I'm ever going to forget Mr. Zsasz holding a knife to a female doctor, her screaming for me to save her, the Joker screaming at Zsasz to kill her, and Zsasz screaming at me to stay back. After years of the Riddler being goofy, I realized Arkham's version of the character was on a different level when he told a Riddle that ended in dismembering a baby. Plus, the segments where you're under the Scarecrow's influence and Batman's worst fears are realized are some of the coolest, most cerebral parts of the game. These are the moments that wrapped me up in the experience and made me feel like Batman on the longest night of his life.
Gameplay in this dark, creepy world breaks down into three main portions -- fist fighting, attacking from the shadows, and exploration. As you move from room to room chasing Harley or Commissioner Gordon's kidnapper, you're going to run into bad guys. Lots of times, you'll find a crew milling about or the Joker will spring a trap with handfuls of guys who are ready to kill you. This is when you'll make use of your straight hand-to-hand moves.
Fist fighting in Arkham Asylum is pretty much the definition of an easy to learn/hard to master combat system. The game allows Batman to move faster than his enemies (He's a trained ninja, people!) and engage them in 360 degrees. You just point the Dark Knight at whatever enemy you want to attack and Batman follows suit. Through four buttons and mouse clicks -- strike, reverse, jump, and stun -- you'll unleash Mr. Wayne's fury on the scum of the Earth. Obviously, you can just mash the left mouse button and take down the bad guys with a healthy set of animations -- dropkicks, elbows, punches, and more are peppered in -- and reverse when you see the spider-sense icon pop-up above a bad guy's head, but there's a sweet science to this madness.
Find out how to dominate the challenge rooms in this episode of IGN_Strategize.
This system is great. I felt empowered as I knocked these creeps down, grabbed their bats and slammed them back into the attackers. I'm sure it sounds like the process could get repetitive, but the crooks start using tasers and knives eventually, and that leads to you having to fight them in a different way and avoid simply spamming your mouse; you need to get behind the taser-packing guys to strike and daze the knife dudes before socking them in the jaw.
As you ping-pong off people with your savage attacks, a combo meter tallies your strikes on the left side of the screen. As long as each of your attacks is landing (Don't mash the buttons; pick your shots.) and you're not getting hit (Reverse, Master Bruce!), the combo count keeps climbing. I'm sure it sounds simple, but you'd be surprised how good you have to be to link together massive combos. If you can get the count up to eight (five with an upgrade), you can do special moves once you've unlocked them, and I can tell you that I don't do special moves all that often.
Let IGN_Strategize be your Alfred.
Still, whatever your largest combo is by the end of the fight, you're going to get a bonus in terms of XP. See, there's this little circle in the upper-left corner of the screen that is your XP gauge. Pulling off moves and besting challenges fills in the gauge, and when the two ends meet, you get to pick an upgrade for either Batman's suit for more health, moves for super-cool takedowns, Batarangs for power and such, or other weapons like your explosive gel.
You're also going to earn XP by taking out your opponents from the shadows. While there are going to be those times where Joker's men ambush you, there are also "Invisible Predator" moments. This is where you get the drop on a roomful of bad guys who are patrolling. These sections are cool because they forced me to play like Batman and not some random action game character. I'd shoot up to a gargoyle, kick on detective mode to see how many enemies I was up against, and then start picking them off one by one. If there was just one dude with a gun in the group, I'd glide in to take him out and then move to the other baddies. If there was more than one gunman, I'd stick to the shadows so as not to get my brains blown against the wall.
There's a lot of freedom on how you want to engage these bad guys, and it's one of the best parts of the game. You could wait for a guy to be alone and then glide kick in and perform a ground takedown, but you've got access to Batman's entire utility belt if you want. Once everything's unlocked, you can use explosive gel to blow out walls and knock guys out, you can throw Sonic Batarangs that'll then explode, you can pull people over railings with the grappling hook, and you smash through windows to take guys out.
And all of that is just for starters. There's a line launcher, grates to pop out of, and gargoyles to hang bad guys from. Still, for me, the most satisfying parts of these missions are the silent takedowns. This is where you crouch, come up behind an unsuspecting grunt, and choke the guy out. There are a few animations for these moves, and they're so quiet that even a bad guy just a few feet away from the attack can't hear it.
While I enjoy the fact that the AI doesn't notice friends getting silently KO'd, there are plenty of times you'll plop down next to a goon or come right up on his peripheral vision and not be seen even though you would be in real life. Playing on Hard, which is available from the start, makes the AI a bit smarter, but I still could've gone for more attentive henchmen.
Still, Arkham excels despite any miniscule gripe I might have, and a big part of that draw is how much fun it is to explore this place. There are six main buildings on the island and each is cavernous. These places are filled with cells, laboratories, libraries, and more. Most of the interesting rooms are locked or blocked, so it's up to you to use your cryptographic sequencer to hack security panels or the gel to knock down walls and crawl through grates to get where you're going.
The driving motivation behind these quests will be the 240 Riddler challenges in the game. Every so often, the man in green chirps a riddle into Batman's earpiece that pertains to the room the Caped Crusader is in, and it'll be up to you to locate the answer and scan it with your analysis tool. Beyond those word problems, the Riddler's challenges include trophies he's tucked away in the asylum, visual puzzles you can only solve through Detective Mode, and more. It took me about nine hours to finish this game on the normal difficulty, but once I was done, I doubled back and spent another two or three hours polishing off Edward Nigma's challenges -- it was pretty awesome to walk around the empty buildings (there's no aftermath to play through so a completed save just picks up right before the final battle) and get to take in every poster, prop, and sight gag Rocksteady included as a nod to the comics.
Without spoiling anything, finding Ra's al Ghul is pretty cool.
One of the things you'll be collecting as you go off on the Riddler's challenge is patient interviews. These are five-part audio logs for each of the main villains in the game. Each one of these is a mini-story showing you how sick these people are as they converse with the Arkham staff -- Poison Ivy almost kills her doctor, Croc talks about eating people, and the Joker turns Harley to the darkside. Each of them is riveting and really gives you a well-rounded look at who the Scarecrow is and why the Riddler is so crazy. These are stored in the character bio section for each main villain. Even though most don't have audio logs, there are 42 bios to unlock.
As if all this story mode content wasn't enough to keep you wrapped up in your Robin PJs, Arkham Asylum also tosses in 16 challenge rooms for you to go nuts in. Again, these are broken up between 360-degree fighting and the Invisible Predator challenges, but there's more pressure thanks to the three medals for every event and the online leaderboards. For the straight fighting ones, you'll need to pull off certain scores to come away with one, two, or three medals. Getting the highest honor of three awards means that you're chaining together insane combos and decimating anyone who gets in your way. Eventually, you'll only have a certain amount of time to finish these fights. Meanwhile, in the Invisible Predator rounds, you'll get medals for pulling off certain feats such as zip-lining into an enemy and knocking him over a railing as well as blowing up three different walls while taking out three different enemies at the same time.
Personally, I wasn't sold when I first heard about these challenges -- I mean, they're in the same environments as the fights in the story, so it's kind of like you're just replaying certain levels again. However, once I started chasing scores on the leaderboards (which are displayed when you're browsing through the different challenges) and hunting the Achievement for the 40-hit combo, I could see how great these sections were to just drop in and fight. Again, it's a blast to be Batman and take out crooks with flipping punches and well-timed Batarangs, so it's only more fun to do it as fast as possible and beat your buddy's score.
I've touched on how well-done and important characterization is in this game, but I do need to take a second and tell you how good the voice acting and sound is as well. There were plenty of times I'd find myself just sitting in an air duct listening to the Joker yammer over the loudspeaker. Mark Hamill is excellent in this game -- his inflection, his timing, and everything else is just spot-on. Thing is, he's not the exception to the rule -- Batman, Poison Ivy, the Riddler all sound excellent. Sure, some of the guards are hit or miss, but the characters you care about nail it. Add in the fact that you have an orchestral score that fits the dark, brooding mood of the game, and you have a title that is everything a Batman game's supposed to be in terms of mood.
In terms of visual fidelity, Batman: Arkham Asylum looks great. The island is that right creepy/cool mix, and the fact that Batman's face and suit takes damage as the story progresses drives home how bad this night has been. Still, the CGI stuff has a tendency to get some pixelization and the in-game cutscenes have guards with bug-eyes and shoddy lip syncing. None of those are giant issues, but they're there and it can hurt the presentation to see Joker wiggling his head around while talking to Batman but clearly never be looking at Batman. If you want to start a flame war, the graphics are richer and sharper on the PC when compared to the Xbox 360 and PS3. Still, it's not enough to matter in terms of how great this game truly is so don't expect a score difference in terms of reviews.
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