Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum (Xbox 360) Review

Like the Dark Knight himself, I did not see this one coming, and thankfully, mistakes can be a wonderful thing. Like everyone else, I had certainly heard about Batman: Arkham Asylum, but I can't say I was psyched about the game at all. Most Batman-themed games, like most super hero games, tend to flop, and I just naturally assumed this game would fit right into that category. It didn't help that developer Rocksteady Studios has only one other game under its belt, of which I'd barely heard of and certainly never played.

This all changed when I saw my Xbox 360 Dashboard's Spotlight Channel advertising Wal*Mart's intention to sell the game for $38.83. For a brand new retail release, this cost is unheard of, and needless to say, I decided to do a little digging into the game.

No one seems to know for sure, but the general consensus is that the $38.83 price tag was a complete accident, but since it was already advertised, Wal*Mart chose to honour it for the first day of sales. Whether that's true or not, it forced other retailers to sell the game at the exact same price. EB Games matched them, and Best Buy and Future Shop matched the cost and kept it for the first three days. Each retailer also had their own specific pre-order bonuses (it's been nearly a month, and I'm still waiting for my strategy guide, Best Buy!) to try and entice gamers to give them their cash, and there was even a very unique "mix-up" with Future Shop the morning of launch day.

On August 25th, first thing in the morning, Future Shop's web site listed the game as $7.67! Observant customers quickly printed off the page, ran to Wal*Mart at 8:00 am (when that retailer opens) and got some exceptional price matching. I was not one of those lucky gamers, but Future Shop then changed the price back to $38.83 about an hour before 10:00 am, when they open, and claimed it was a typo which they would not honour.

The general speculation here is that Future Shop did this as a way to get back at Wal*Mart for forcing everyone else to take a cut in sales by having to match them. Regardless, all this corporate foolishness was good fun to watch, and benefited us, the gamers, very strongly.

In light of all this, I took a keen interest in the game and decided at the $38.83 price tag to give it a chance. Had the game turned out to be a flop, I could easily sell it for more than I bought it for, but luckily, there's no need. Batman: Arkham Asylum is the single best game of 2009 that I have yet played, plain and simple. It blends an excellent mix of gameplay styles, combined with excellent writing and voice acting to make this a strong contender for Game of the Year.

Based on the comic books themselves, Batman: Arkham Asylum is written by Paul Dini, the man behind the exceptional Batman: The Animated Series from the early '90's, and key characters are also voiced by the actors who portrayed them in that same series. Kevin Conroy voices the Dark Knight, Mark Hamill voices the Joker, and Arleen Sorkin lends her talents to Harley Quinn. The rest of the voice cast performs exceptionally, matching the wonderful tone of the script.

The game begins with Batman speeding his way to Arkham Asylum. In a brief confrontation, he apprehended his long-time nemesis, the Joker, however the caped crusader feels uneasy as Joker didn't put up much of a fight at all. Turns out Batman's concerns were justified, as Joker is able to quickly take over the Asylum, locking everyone inside. He even manged to have his henchmen from Blackgate Prison transferred over prior to his arrest, furnishing him with the muscle to keep control.

Not only does Batman have the Joker's henchmen to content with, who come in several varieties to mix things up, but many of the villains he's locked away are now free and looking for a little payback. You're introduced to Killer Croc in the game's lengthy, moody, and exceptional intro, and you'll also encounter the likes of Zasz, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, and more. Of course, being a criminal mastermind, the Joker is always after more than a little traditional chaos, but just what his master plan is is something you'll need to discover on your own.

The Dark Knight, being who he is, tends to be prepared for most anything, and Batman has a host of Gadgets at his disposal. Originally, you'll just have your Batarang available to stun enemies, but as you progress through the story, you'll get some more interesting devices such as Explosive Gel, a Zip Line, and the Bat Claw. There's even more, of course, but I don't want to give it all away, and each Gadget has it's use, either in manipulating your environment, solving puzzles, or flat-out kicking ass.

And speaking of doing nasty things to random posteriors, the FreeFlow combat system kicks! The game's controls take a little getting used to, but after several minutes, you'll have most of it down and will be able to expertly tackle several enemies at once. Simply pressing "X" will attack your enemy, and as you're pounding on him, you can press the Left Stick in the direction of another foe to launch yourself at them seamlessly, stringing together a series of combos. If an enemy gets close to you and you see "Spider Sense" above his head, it means he's going to attack and you can press "Y" to Counter him instantly. You can mix in loads of moves with your combos, including Batarang tosses, Bat Claw Grabs, Ground Take-downs (to knock and enemy out), and a few special moves you earn by leveling up.

Once you earn enough XP, you can increase your Health, upgrade your tech, or maximize your combat potential. You can also get the wonderful Inverted Takedown maneuver. Batman relies a lot on fear and keeping to the shadows, and while you can often drop into the fray and kick some butt, doing so is not always advisable. Instead, Batman can move around easily on Stone Gargoyles conveniently placed all throughout Arkham Asylum's ceilings, and snatch enemies up when they get close enough, hanging them from the Gargoyle upside down. Batman can also Glide Kick into combat, swoop around, and generally pull off a lot of really amazing moves. Honestly, the developers did such a good job with how the game feels, you really _do_ feel like the capped crusader.

Powered by the Unreal Engine 3, the game simply looks amazing. It's dark, it's moody, and everything is extremely detailed. Many people have referenced a BioShock-like feeling while playing the game, and from a certain perspective, I agree. Exploring the halls of Arkham Asylum does often feel like Rapture, and that's certainly not a bad thing at all. The architecture is older, the Asylum is in disarray, and there's panic in the air. You even get to collect audio logs, patient interviews, which help you gain insight into your foes. Visually speaking, the only major flaws are that character models can look a little plastic-like up close, and the lip syncing tends to be off a lot, but honestly, these are minor compared to the overall visual splendor of the game.

Audio wise, as I already mentioned, the voice acting is spectacular. The music is ambient and quite suitable to the game, and all the sounds effects are wonderfully done and contain no hint of campy '70's cheese.

In addition to combat, stealth, and puzzle solving, there's also a lot of items to collect. 250 of them, to be exact, thanks to the Riddler, who's challenging you in his own unique way. Most games today feature a bunch of annoying collectibles, it's an easy way to toss in Achievements and most of us just grind through them because they're there, but Batman: Arkham Asylum really puts a lot of effort into its collectibles, and I found them a lot of fun to seek out and find. It certainly helped my motivation listening to the Riddler mock me, and begin to argue and express disbelief when I came close to collecting every item. For the most part too, they're not that difficult to find, you just need patience and a lot of back tracking as you'll often need to wait for a specific Gadget to gain access.

In fact, finding items and enemies is usually no chore at all, thanks to Batman's Detective Mode. Tap the Left Bumper, and Batman's vision switches to Predator style, displaying the entire world in blue. Environmental objects you can interact with show up as orange, you can see enemies as skeletons through walls if they're hidden, and you can also identify if they're armed, what their heart rate is, and if they're calm, terrified, etc. It's a great vision mode, and I spent most of the game walking around with it on, and it saved me from grief several times.

While Batman: Arkham Asylum does not feature a Multiplayer mode, it does feature Challenge Rooms in addition to the Story Mode. Challenge Rooms are maps based on Campaign levels unlocked by completing Riddler challenges, and they come in two varieties: FreeFlow Combat and Invisible Predator. FreeFlow Combat Challenge Rooms see Batman taking on about 4 waves of Henchmen, where your objective is to incapacitate them all and rack up a high score. In Invisible Predator Challenges, your task is to take out the several armed henchmen in the room as quickly as possible, while also trying to complete three bonus objectives. These can be as easy as taking a thug out with an Inverted Takedown, to as difficult as taking three henchmen out at the same time with Explosive Gel by having different walls collapse on them.

And if the Challenge Rooms weren't enough to add to the game's replay value, the Riddler Challenges also unlock 3D character models for you to view, and also Character Bios of everyone in the game, as well as other comic characters for you to read. Since I never followed the Batman comic books, I found this invaluable as there were a few enemies who I had no clue about prior to the game.

In fact, when it comes right down to it, the only major negative I found in the whole bloody game is Batman's ability to dodge. You dodge much the same way you do in the Gears of War franchise: Point in the direction you want to roll, and _double tap_ "A." Sadly, unlike Gears of War, your dodge isn't instant, as the Dark Knight takes a second to actually execute his leap. This lead to many occasions where a tougher enemy or boss smacked me around when I tried to get out of the way, and led to a lot of cursing and swearing on my part.

There was another odd bug I experience at one point where a piece of rock debris actually stuck to Batman, and followed me around where ever I went. An odd clipping/collision issue, I suppose, but this only happened once. I also had the game lock up on me once while I was loading a Challenge Room, but otherwise, Batman: Arkham Asylum is very polished; one of the single most polished and complete Single Player experiences I've enjoyed on the Xbox 360.

Without question, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a breath of fresh air in a very slow year for gaming. It's a game that manages to do just about everything right, from an engaging story, to varied and polished gameplay, to the excellent use of the technology underlying the game. And at the original $38.83 price tag, how could anyone argue? Even if you missed that great deal, you owe it to yourself to try this game out. It is, without question, one of if not the best superhero games ever made, and quite honestly one of the best Single Player experiences ever developed.


MikeD said...

Ouch, easy on the commas you're making my brain hurt.

Juxtapose said...

But they're so adorable!