September 2, 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum Review

Shawn Lebert Says Thunder crackles throughout the evening in the turbulent thunderstorm that runs over Gotham City. Its lightning delivers an ominous glow over the cityscape. There, the Dark Knight roars through the quiet, wet streets of the night; the Batmobile screams in a burst of impossible speed, heading toward none other than Arkham Asylum – where all of Gotham’s loonies find themselves imprisoned. On this eve, Batman captures his nemesis, Joker, suspiciously easy and the Caped Crusader isn’t gullible in the slightest to believe that nothing is going down behind the scene. Keeping Joker cautiously close, Batman takes him personally to his imprisonment. You don’t have to be the world’s greatest detective to know that something is very wrong.

From Rocksteady Studios and published by Eidos Interactive, comes a game that is focused on becoming an acceptable entity within the well-developed and completely loved Batman universe. Batman has become one of the greatest and most iconic characters to ever grace the comic medium to this day. Batman’s mature and realistic qualities in a world nearly controlled by crime, makes him a fan favorite. The term “super” hero is loosely synonymous with this inspirational Dark Knight figure, as there is nothing absolutely above or beyond anything that any other man could do.

After Bruce Wayne’s parent’s death, his focus growing up was to keep himself at top performance physically and mentally, just so that he can atone and justify for the murder of his parents. He felt that a city deserves a protector, a savior, a hero – so that no one else could go through the pain and heartache of his long lost father and mother. The birth of Batman symbolizes the readiness and the forever commitment for Gotham City, the city’s answer. Aside from the law, Batman must take into his own hands the life-long demons that forever haunt him on that night of his family’s death in order to pacify his blame. Bringing justice to the city, and the world, became his promise to save everyone.

Batman: Arkham Asylum isn’t an inspiration from the movie license. In fact, Arkham Asylum is derived right from the mighty and massive Batman comic, making it completely devoid of any traces of the movie licenses for the past decade. If you are a fan of the comics themselves, you’ll begin to see such inspiration from the beloved graphic novels, such as The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, penned by Tim Sale and the distinct visuals, created by Jeph Loeb. Arkham Asylum capitalizes on the creativity from past Batman story arcs, making it a unique story on its own. With the help of Paul Dini, co-writer for the game, and writer for well-appreciated involvements such as Batman: The Animated Series and the Detective Comics, you’re in for one story written from the masters themselves.

Comics have been around for years, and the Batman universe is perfect for the medium, so how does it fare into the realm of video game interactivity? Does Batman soar, or should the Bat signal be kept off to wait for yet a more enjoyable calling?

The beginning whips right into the aftermath of a foiled plan devised by the Joker to attack the Gotham City’s Mayor’s office. As the Joker is now in custody, the Batmobile heads toward Arkham Asylum, the Clown Prince’s home away from home. The same night, a fire breaks loose in Blackgate Prison, which houses hundreds of prisoners, who are temporarily transported to Arkham until further notice. The Joker seems at his top, silly state of mind, spitting jokes at Batman left and right. But deep down, Batman knows something isn’t right as he gave up all too quick without much of a fight.

As Batman arrives, he’s quickly greeted by Arkham’s personnel but Batman wishes to see Joker sent to his cell personally. Something’s all too fishy and the Dark Knight isn’t going to let his guard down yet.

Arkham Asylum’s story, co-penned by a Batman: Animated Series writer, delivers a strong punch of a script, revealing a lot of our favorite and infamous inmates, including Killer Croc, Mr. Zsasz, and Poison Ivy, who are already imprisoned from the get-go. The story manages to hold much more of Batman’s foe gallery as the events unfold, and one would assume that with such a great involvement from an entire cast of no-gooders, that the development for each one of them is on a one-dimensional surface. Arkham Asylum manages to capture the essence of each baddie down to their bones, telling you that the one behind the script knew what the hell they were doing. With much love for Batman: The Animated Series, and arguably the best representation and development of Batman, Batman: Arkham Asylum’s story is a natural telling of a comic given the life as a video game.

Very early into the story, the joke is on Batman as it’s revealed that Joker has plenty of authority on the grounds of the asylum, locking our Bat in for the hungry, crazed inmates that await their doors to be opened. Chaos begins as personnel and security guards have no control, separating man from beast with a few helpful strings pulled by our creative Joker.

The Arkham Asylum becomes a deep, dark labyrinth that Batman must navigate in order to hunt down the man in laughing purple. With the Batman caught in Joker’s grasp, and having him grapple with hundreds of loose inmates, it gives Joker time to unravel his plan for Gotham City, seeking and developing a project known as “Titan,” which is based on a chemical similar to Bane’s venom, but is much more potent. If Joker somehow got his hands on such a chemical, fully knowing its effects and putting it into Gotham’s water supply, well, the outcome could be Baneful. Gotham City cowers in fear, as Batman is locked up within Arkham Asylum. If there was any outside help, Joker promised an explosive response to many areas of the city, making the asylum the top of the news for the evening. Batman might be alone on the inside, but luckily has a way to communicate to Oracle from her station, providing assistance whenever he needs it.

It’s a strong script that becomes an enjoyable journey. It reminds me a lot of Batman: The Animated Series, but has its own mature flare that will satisfy a vast audience from youngsters to fans of the Batman for years. Everyone will find something to get out of it. It packs a punch on all of the different dimensions of the Bat, revealing the natural crime fighter that he is, but the game is also heavily dependent on detective solving. In fact, while our hero is a master martial artist, it actually comes in second to solving puzzles in logic and obstacles.

Without a doubt, the story in Arkham Asylum completely captures the world that Batman lives in. Along with his cast of characters, who all have deeper development, comes as a surprise at how they managed to pull off the detail for each character’s role in this game and make them sound like they danced right off the comic.

Batman: Arkham Asylum utilizes the Epic Games Unreal Engine 3. The third-person camera falls identical to past games like Dead Space, where the camera isn’t necessarily fastened to the back of Batman at all times. You have the freedom to spin it around the character, back and front, being able to view in all directions in case you ever need to.

Even though Batman is a big, intimidating individual, if you decided to jump on the bad side of the fence, his physical abilities aren’t limited to his robustness, allowing him to have cat-like movements, which complement the abilities in the game: from walking, sprinting, crouching and walking, and rolling from encounters. With the interaction from your surroundings, you have tons of options to explore as you can choose to be brutal, quick to the immediate punch kind of guy. Or if stealth is your tea, you can play the clever game of fear with your opponents resulting in silent takedowns on ground or even in the air, making it a playground of options to choose from.

The combat within the game uses a “freeflow” combat system, as the configuration for the buttons are simple and never complicated. One button is used for punching, one for stunning, and the other for doing a takedown – which is a “fatal” blow on opponents. Although Batman, given his reasoning for what he believes in, doesn’t do anything lethal, and only renders them unconscious. The fighting among multiple enemies is where the combat glows and becomes addictive. Hitting the attack button three times turns into a combo, allowing you to freely move about the area to land a deadly hit on another enemy to continue the combo meter. Keeping up the combos are not difficult; the game plan for fighting isn’t to be hasty in fervent attacks, but to be precise and accurate, making it seamless from one enemy to another. This combat system pretty much defines how the Batman moves and works in a given violent situation. The animations for the destined knuckles or kicks into someone’s face are bone snapping and incredibly satisfying. Counter-attacking is just as important as enemies will attempt to thwart your attacks with their own from behind, resulting in a break from your combo. Be aware of when an attack is coming, and if accurate, a counter-attack begins, ensuring the man who tried to mess with you will be left with a hand full of broken fingers. It’s all pretty much perfect and fun. There are, however, moments when you try to master such combinations that during an attempt to continue a combo, Batman just simply punches the air; therefore, messing up the combo, when you were clearly doing it right.

The boss sequences are gargantuanly epic, and while the controls never felt like they were in the way, the decision for Batman to be walking stiffly in a threatening situation appears awkward, where Batman should be on a tippy-toes, ready to roll away in a given situation.

The targeting system is limited, and it’s only used when aiming a batarang. Although it doesn’t seem like Arkham Asylum truly needs a targeting system because the camera helps without your attention. But if a bigger enemy needs to be targeted and you don’t have a batarang out, flipping to a batarang, and aiming it, just to target might make you sloppy.

Aside from the combat system, every location within the game gives the gamer an opportunity to react to it. From gargoyles to fly upon, to floor vents to creep up to an enemy, the choice to react to a dangerous situation gives you the freedom to react to it any way that you like. A personal favorite of mine is gliding from a stone gargoyle to an enemy in the air and then slamming your feet into their head. Or hanging underneath in the air like a bat to sweep up any prey that walks underneath you is fun too.

Batman: Arkham Asylum brings something that other Batman games have never attempted: you will probably use Detective Mode more often than the regular mode. In using such a mode, your surroundings change to a certain hue, identifying key elements within a location that might help you to conquer an obstacle in the way or to locate a hidden object that may be undiscoverable with the natural eye. If unsure of what’s around the corner, Detective mode identifies enemies and whether or not they are armed, which helps you decide how to handle the situation. It goes even further by showing the mental condition of your foes, which helps determine what type of action you can make in the game. Detective mode shows Bruce Wayne as the scientist as well, building an incredible foundation for the Bat suit and using it for medical purposes to solve an important clue. Important features include tracking fingerprints to DNA through a built in forensics lab in his head-piece. How amazing is this guy? It’s incredible how much detail was invested in making the experience for this mode.

Detective mode is a must, considering that a few hours into the game the communications within your Bat suit is hacked by none other than Edward Nigma, the Riddler, who now gives you hundreds of little puzzles throughout the game for you to solve. Yes, hundreds. These little puzzles could be from picking up Riddler trophies, to solving riddles themselves, which you must identify an answer to the question in the current location with Detective mode. There’s A LOT to do beside the main storyline and Riddler has you in it for extra hours as he attempts to stump you with his quizzical lines.

As you progress on your riddle-solving side, in doing so will give you unlockables, which can range from detailed character bios to character trophies to even challenge maps. This keeps you interested in collecting all that you can for a little prize-worthy return for all your hard work. Not just that either! The game also uses an experience meter too, and the more that you find or the more you fight, you gain experience and those points will upgrade your suit, your equipment, and your fighting moves. There is a ton to do in this game for unlockables and it’ll keep you interested by all means.

If you thought just unlocking stuff from the main game was it, prepare yourself for a challenge mode when you’re taking a break from the story, as this mode is comprised of levels of beating up thugs to levels of sneaking around and silently taking out your foes as quick as possible.

Not only are there riddles to solve, but also throughout Arkham Asylum is the mysterious history of Mr. Amadeus Arkham, the man behind the asylum itself. Here, focusing on locating hidden elements too, you’ll be rewarded with hearing about the history of the asylum and also his personal experiences over his creation.

From the cut-scenes to the game play, the graphics are consistent and sharp throughout and some of the most detailed I’ve personally seen. If compared to anything, it reminds me of the production quality from Gears of War 2. Not just in physical appearance, but the detail and value put forth to make these character models and areas are literally jaw-dropping. The game allows the player to zoom in whenever they see fit, and it was fun in the earlier hours to zoom into Joker’s face, watching the movements from his bloody red, smirking lips to the darting, haunted eyes with perfect lip-synch made each moment masterful and wonderful. The appearance of Batman was nothing less than menacing – as the Bat figure, of course. Being able to read his face through the dark mask, being able to even detect a slight facial gesture of feeling whether he was pulling a vent open or punishing a random thug, the expression was there and very noticeable.

The surroundings were amazing in landscape and color, and although you use Detective mode for more things than regular mode, you are compelled to turn off that mode just to look at the surroundings naturally. The only downside is that perhaps the game was too dependent on Detective mode; therefore, not being able to see the world naturally. Upon thinking over the appearance of the world and then altering it for Detective mode, makes it even more incredibly detailed at how much focus it was from the developers to make each place one way and then mask that with the alternate mode.

There were some events within the game that simply made you “wow” at all the effort that was pushed into making this game. Not to spoil anything important, but there are some real good moments with the Scarecrow and his nightmares in which you find yourself coming across a few times. This isn’t just coming from its presentation but the presentation complements the writing of these special moments in the game, making them relatively heart-felt and emotionally powerful giving an extra layer to Batman and his internal struggle.

The voice work for Batman: Arkham Asylum is pretty much phenomenal. It’s not surprising that Mark Hamill is the ideal Joker’s voice, reminding us of past times in Batman: The Animated Series that made his voice so legendary to hear. Each line in Arkham Asylum read by Mark Hamill was multi-dimensional in itself: from the silly remarks to the cut-between sprees of laughter, making him sound purely natural for the role. Kevin Conroy, starring opposite to Mark Hamill from The Animated Series, too, reprises the voice for Batman. His deep voice sends chills down our spines, knowing that voice from years past, making him the ideal voice for Batman; resulting in a perfect collaboration between voice actor veterans such as these two. Here’s hoping they make a sequel together, because it was just wonderful hearing them again.

The music in Arkham Asylum was dark, foreboding, conquering and struck the right moments when needed. From the fighting to the Scarecrow nightmares, each track has something that we can attach to. While it was an original work, there were some noticeable moments of Batman Begin­s­-ish, Hans Zimmer triumphant flare. There’s nothing wrong with a little inspiration from work that is great.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is the ideal Batman game. Not just as a video game, it is the ideal embodiment of Batman and his universe melded into an interactive platform. All the characters had life and development that was purely natural and inviting. As Joker’s maddening laughter continued, Batman’s self-less fight kept on, as he remains true to himself and the people of Gotham City.

Arkham Asylum houses the Batman we’ve grown up to love from The Animated Series and creates the loved hero in a single video game that we perhaps haven’t ever seen. This is Batman at his top performance and there really isn’t anything out of place with the characters or its development.

This game is, personally, the best “super” hero video game ever created and quite possibly one of the best video games ever developed this generation in terms of story, game play and presentation entirely. If you are a fan of Batman, immediately pick this up and await something special, as you’ll be proud you did. Both fans and regular gamers will find this game as one of the best games in recent developments and once you’re done, you’ll instantly ask for a sequel.

Grade - A