Friday, September 11, 2009

Batman : Arkham Asylum Committed To Design Excellence

I'm tired of all my reviews beginning with "Beaten". Looking back at my blog, almost every one of the reviews over the last year has started with that word. I'm going back to bad headline puns (wherever possible), and I'll just mention whether or not I've beaten the game in each review.

On to Batman : Arkham Asylum, then. The dark night of mediocre - to - good releases of 2009 is finally over with the arrival of this game, the best new game of 2009 so far, probably the best licensed superhero game ever made, and one helluva polished product. This game is great on every level, and yes, this morning I beat it.

Like Ghostbusters : The Video Game, the player gets to really feel like Batman in this game. Let's make these two games the watermark of how to make a licensed property work on that level. Arkham Asylum pits the Caped Crusader against the Joker and his sinister plot at the famed institution, where all the costumed villains go to get therapy (or just imprisoned). The story is fantastic - good enough to be its own movie or comic book - and unfolds with twists and turns throughout.

The gameplay has Batman walking, running, and grappling around the island and its various spooky environments in third-person view, normally, with the camera changing angles during fight scenes, and a few 2.5D side-scrolling gameplay sequences thrown in for good measure. Batman gains new gadgets, combat moves, and other upgrades throughout his adventure, and at almost all times has access to a "detective vision", sort of a tactical X-ray, night sight, and environmental analyzer rolled into one, that is so useful that I rarely turned it off.

The detective vision shows other people as skeletons, letting the player know if they are friend or foe, armed or unarmed, and dead or alive. It can be used to track wiring to security boxes, see weak points in walls, and so forth. It's a shame that it's so good at times, as the graphics of the game are also so well done that it's a shame to miss them. The voice-acting is also very good, and not to be missed.

Ah, combat. This game is the prime rib of action-brawlers, with the fighting moves that the Dark Knight has being fine-tuned to an exceptional degree. It has a simple button layout, but allows for the development of powerful combo attacks and free-flowing combat, leaving the player gleefully punching and kicking through hordes of henchmen like a whirlwind. Combat can also be honed in the optional challenge modes, short scenarios that are great for practice, as well as having XBox Live leaderboards so the player can see how poorly they fare against the million or so other players who've scored higher.

Stealth is the bat's best choice in many scenarios, and really the only way to take out rooms full of armed foes. Sneaking around in the rafters, taking out the henchmen one at a time - it never gets old. Watching their reactions, and hearing the Joker's comments to the over the loudspeakers is a joy.

While the main villain is the Joker, of course, there are appearances by other classic Batman foes, some as boss battles, and some as mere cameos of sorts. Of special mention is the Riddler, who has set up an amazing collection-quest set of challenges on the island. Batman's full arsenal of gadgets is required to get them all, and fortunately finishing the game does not prevent their acquisition.

Most of them are simple tasks like find the glowing question-mark trophies, or smash 20 of the chattering, wind-up Joker teeth laughing all around the grounds, but others require some thinking just to figure out what sort of puzzle is going on in the first place. It's by far the most satisfying collection quest I've seen in a game this generation, and I was proud to figure them all out on my own. Searching around for them is made easier by discovering the maps of where they all are in each section, but the map doesn't just hand the riddles to Batman.

Much of the collection quest opens character files and trophies, each adding to the lore of the cast of characters. The bios of each character explains their stories and abilities, and even lists their first comic book experience. Awesome.

There's also something that I can't spoil that occurs at one point in the game that filled me with absolute fear and then absolute glee. It was pure design brilliance, a totally insane moment where the developers mess with the players to a degree unprecedented in the history of videogames. Hats off to them for doing this thing. Players will know it when it occurs.

Everything about Batman : Arkham Asylum is design brilliance, though. There's great combat, a fantastic story with twists and turns, gorgeous graphics, tons of exploration in moody environments, lots of gameplay variety, files of lore to experience, and a sense that the player is really Batman for the entirety of this lengthy quest to stop the Joker.

Word is that some downloadable content is just s few weeks away, and with all the challenge modes I've unlocked, I can say that even though I've stopped the Joker's sinister plot, my time at Arkham Asylum is not quite through. The Fall 2009 videogame season has kicked off quite well with Batman : Arkham Asylum, a game that's polished and playable in every way.

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