Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Dark Knight Triumphant

Despite multiple successes in comic books, television and film, Batman has just never really been able to make that pivotal leap to video games. However, developer Rocksteady Studios clearly set out to change all that with Batman: Arkham Asylum, a third-person action title that not only manages to far surpass every comic-based video game ever released, but might be among the most satisfying gaming experiences in recent years.

The game begins with Batman hauling the Joker to Arkham Asylum, a decrepit nightmare of an institution that houses all of Batman’s worst foes. The Caped Crusader notices fairly early that it seems as though the Joker actually wanted to get caught and, as is almost always the case, Batman’s right. With the help of his gal pal Harley Quinn, Joker breaks loose and takes control the asylum with his arch-nemesis locked inside. As the Dark Knight, it’s your job to foil the Joker’s latest plot, facing off against iconic Batman villains such as Bane, Killer Croc, Poison Ivy and Scarecrow along the way.

While the story is pretty simplistic overall, writer Paul Dini (Batman: The Animated Series, Detective Comics) keeps things fresh throughout, and the superb voice cast—which includes animated series veterans Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin as Batman, Joker and Harley Quinn respectively—makes the experience all the more cinematic. As a Batman story, it’s not quite as good as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, but it often comes close.

But that narrative attention to detail would be for naught if Arkham Asylum wasn’t fun to play and, fortunately, this game is about the closest you can get to a Batman simulator without putting on a cape and scaring the neighbors. Most of the game’s fast-paced battles pit Batman against large groups of baddies at a time, but the game’s free-flowing combo system makes taking down goons a breeze and a whole lot of fun to watch. It’s amazing how varied Batman’s ass-kicking repertoire is considering that the combat essentially relies only on an attack button and a counter button. It’s a real testament to the animation work.

When Batman’s not cracking skulls, he’s skulking around in the shadows to dispatch thugs one by one. At certain points in the game, you’ll come across gun-toting henchmen that require the stealthy approach, which can include sneaking up on them, stringing them up from gargoyles or swooping down on top of them from the rafters. By utilizing the X-ray vision-like Detective Mode—which can also be used to track down clues and solve puzzles—Batman can identify which goons are packing heat and can even see how nervous they are by monitoring their heart rate.

Batman’s also aided in his adventure by a plethora of Bat-gadgets—including line launchers, grappling hooks, explosives and the always-cool batarangs—to help him beat down bad guys and explore every corner and crevice of the island. Sure, each of these devices serves a purpose in the gameplay, but they also help you feel like you really are Batman. And that level of immersion is important.

Production values are top notch, with detailed character models and creepy environments reminiscent of BioShock, another phenomenal title in which atmosphere plays a critical role. Complementing the graphics are some pretty impressive in-game physics. You may find yourself slipping up during combat as you admire the fluid movement of Batman’s cape.

It has flaws, including some lackluster boss battles and simplistic puzzles, but there’s no reason for an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 owner not to pick up Arkham Asylum. Even without the Batman license, this is a well-constructed action game that offers up a ton of gameplay variety with polished visuals and a great story. It even provides plenty of reasons to keep playing long after the story is complete. The Riddler has scattered puzzles and challenges all over Arkham for you to solve, while you can compete for online high scores through the game’s Challenge Maps.

Arkham Asylum is a dark and refreshingly mature take on the Batman mythos that one hopes signals a new beginning for superhero video games. Whether or not you’re a Batman fanatic, this is some of the most fun you’ll have on a console this year.

1 comment:

Eric Lindberg said...

Totally agree. This game is really fun and well-designed. The combat and stealth attack system is awesome and I love the various comics references scattered throughout. Also, you're right about reasons to play after the story is over. My friend beat the game days ago and we're still collecting riddles and exploring areas we hadn't found yet.