I wonder if Bob Kane knew that his creation, Batman, would reach such heights of pop culture significance and popularity. The Caped Crusader is as popular today as ever, after decades of comics, TV shows, toys, movies, and video games. The Batman video games have been everything from terrible to good over the years, but Rocksteady Studios and Eidos Interactives' newest, Batman: Arkham Asylum, is by far the best. Not only is Arkham Asylum the best Batman game, it's an incredible game all around that you absolutely should not miss.
This Game's Insane...In a Good Way
Before getting into the review, I do want to point out the important fact that most of the voice actors from the classic Batman: The Animated Series are here to reprise their roles. Additionally, Paul Dini pens the story, which is already enough to whet my appetite.
So the experience begins in Arkham. The Joker let himself get captured by the Batman and the police easier than ever before, so Batman is already counting on trouble. The first five to ten minutes of gameplay is like an interactive cutscene where the player controls the Dark Knight as he walks along side several Arkham guards who are transporting Joker to his cell. All the while, the Joker is in his typical deranged good spirits, cracking numerous jokes while strapped down to a stretcher. It's clear that he has a plan to escape, but it turns out his plan is much deeper than that.
Moments later, Joker gets away, and Batman springs into action. Joker quickly gets deep into Arkham, leaving Batman to pick up the trail of his whereabouts and intentions. From this moment forward, you'll lead Batman all over the island that Arkham was built on, facing dozens of henchman, puzzles, and infamous Gotham villains along the way in this twelve-plus-hour adventure. Batman's wit, physical prowess, gadgets, tech, and stealth will all come into play, and how Rocksteady packages the whole experience together is really quite special.
Let's start with the FreeFlow combat system. By now, you've probably seen footage or experienced the combat system for yourself. Honestly, the fighting system in Arkham looks, feels, and performs superbly. Controlling the actions of Batman as he fights two, four, eight, or even twelve bad guys at once isn't a matter of memorizing dozens of combos. Instead, players execute gorgeous attacks and counters with the face buttons and control sticks. To break it down further, take the Xbox control scheme: X attacks, Y counters, A jumps, and B makes Batman swing his cape across enemies directly in front of him, temporarily dazing and instilling fear into them. Mashing X is sufficient for unleashing effective, great looking combos, but Batman also has to counter other attacks to survive (there is no dedicated block button).
When a henchmen is about to attack, a visual cue pops above his head. Timing is key here, but Rocksteady made it one of those 'easy to get into, difficult to master' mechanics, so even first time players are able to do some sweet counter attacks. The types of counters Batman performs and how awesome they look stunned me, even ten hours into the game. I love the counter where Batman kick blocks and also whenever he head butts the guy behind him while maintaining control of their arm. All of the hand to hand combat is believable, easy to control, and looks fantastic.
To practice and fine tune combat abilities, Rocksteady included sixteen Challenge Missions that are unlockable as you play through the story. These Missions include combat and predator challenges. In the combat challenges, enemies continue to pour into the battle, with the goal being to take out as many as you can. Enemies will generally be empty handed, but some will find objects to yank off the wall to throw or bash you with. And yes, counters on enemies with objects is very cool. The Predator missions are all about taking out armed henchmen as quickly and efficiently as you can.
And Where...Is The Batman? (Hint: Not At Home Washing His Tights)
You know I would have been okay if every foe in Arkham was either a boss or these unarmed henchman -- the game would have still be awesome if that were all Bats faced. Rocksteady implemented a stealth system, however, that is most often used to deal with gun wielding henchman. Even with your batsuit leveled up to max, gun-toting bad guys will drop you in seconds, so stealth is all but required. This isn't a problem for Batman, who has several methods to stay out of site while dispatching one henchman after another.
The most obvious stealth tactic Batman has is being able to move while crouched, and being silent while doing so -- perfect for those stealth takedowns from behind. Batman can take cover at corners too, with a tap of a face button when the prompt appears. From cover, Batman can get a good view around the corner and even mark targets for Batarangs, all while staying out of site. The Batarangs can even target specific regions of the body, and if you're throwing two or even three Batarangs simultaneously (possible with upgrades), you can target different parts of different bodies. While you can't actually knock a guard unconscious from afar, which I thought was a bit disappointing, you can temporarily disarm them and/or daze them.
Batman's grappling tool is perfect for getting above the bad guys. Generally, during sequences where armed henchmen are about, there will be several gargoyle statues, mounted high above the floor. Batman can grapple between these easily, and can generally stay out of sight while doing so if you don't swing down too low or have the henchmen alerted and looking for you. With an upgrade, Batman can lower himself down and snatch a bad guy, and then leave him hanging -- sure to instill fear into his buddies. Also, from any high area, Batman can do a glide kick (as well as just glide and land) onto an unsuspecting foe, but you have to be quick about doing a ground takedown (one hit ground finish) before other foes in the area spot you. If you are spotted, and even if you're not, after taking out a henchmen it's a good idea to get back to the safety of a gargoyle statue to stay out of sight.
Batarangs and the grapple tool aren't the only gadgets Batman has, but they are the first ones available. The other gadgets are unlocked throughout the story as needed. These other wonderful toys include explosive gel, the Batclaw, and a Sonic Decrypter. Before elaborating, I do want to add that I like how the aiming works with the Batarangs. To strike something, simply use the right analog stick to move the yellow crosshair over the object in question, and then release the Batarang for a nearly guaranteed hit.
The explosive gel is used to blow through weak walls and floors, which you can identify especially well with Detective Mode, more on that shortly. The gel is also optionally used to create traps for henchman, with upgrades to it that allow automatic and multiple controlled detonations. The Batclaw used to knock down an enemy or more commonly, to remove a grate from an out of reach vent. It also comes into play a few times when you need to pull down boxes to create cover that Batman can crouch behind. The Sonic Decrypter allows Batman to remotely decrypt those pesky electric guard barriers that are spread throughout Arkham.
There are a few other gadgets, but let me move on to Detective Mode. Detective Mode is a secondary vision mode that is turned on and off instantly, and that can be left on as long as the player sees fit. While on, important objects are highlighted, including enemies behind distant walls. Bodies that appear blue are unarmed foes or dead bodies. Enemies tagged in red are armed, and yes, quite deadly. All types of bodies show heart rate and that corresponds to a state of being (nervous, terrified, unconscious, etc). Different characters and important or special objects in the environment appear orange. These objects may include gargoyle statues and a few types of wall mounted boxes or terminals that control electric barriers and exhaust fans. Exhaust fan control boxes come into play whenever Batman has to clear rooms filled with that dangerous Smile-X gas Joker used in the old Tim Burton movie. To do this, you must locate and hit control boxes with a Batarang to turn on the fans.
Another great part of Detective Mode is that Batman's sensors are used to keep players pointed in the right direction. As an open world type game, players are able to run about Arkham island freely, exploring to their hearts content. But, to advance the story, certain main quests must be complete. Getting to important locations that are part of these main quest is usually done through following a trail. Trails may include the DNA of a bleeding NPC or the tobacco from his pipe. Regardless, following these trails is in fact better and more engaging than a simple compass heading.
While on the topic of getting around Arkham, I would have liked to have seen some improvement with the map system. The map and several other categories of information is reachable by pressing Back or Select. The map is scaled well and has a legend and all that, but what is missing is a mini-map and a way to gauge topology. Unless I'm misreading it, there just isn't a way to distinguish if a marking on the map is above, below, or at the same level as the player. Most of the time, this is not a problem. However, if you have found a Riddler map and are trying to hunt down his challenges and collectibles (more on this later), it's a pain to have to pause the action, check the map, look around, check it again, etc. A mini-map that allows you to keep moving and playing while looking at the map would have been great.
Escaping Death And Going Batty Over Collectibles
To finish up on a topic while sliding into another, let me pretend that you may be asking yourself: "self, what happens if you fall into a room of poisonous gas or from a tremendous height?" Well, normally you would die, right, but this is Batman we're talking about here! Okay, so it's still very possible to die, but that's only if you are slow to react and don't hit R1 or RB quick enough when the prompt appears. It's really not much trouble to do so, and when you do, a brief, seamless cutscene shows Batman launching his grapple and pulling himself up to safety. There is no penalty or limit to how many times you can do this, which is cool. Most times it won't even be necessary to use this escape mechanic, but we all make mistakes, and I think it's great Rocksteady gives players a quick second chance rather than a load screen.
On that note, load times are fairly brief. The many in-game cutscenes are seamless and beautiful, too. Loading occurs when players go between major hubs of the Asylum, namely Arkham East, West, North, and a few other areas I will refrain from potentially spoiling for you. Checkpoints are dropped in often and quietly in the background, so that if you do die, you're never that far back. Regardless of how you die, during the load screen, one Gotham villain or another will walk towards the screen, and offer you one of several taunts. Joker appears whenever his henchmen kill you or if a level hazard gets you, while other villains like Scarecrow appear if they are the cause of your death.
I most often died when I didn't handle an armed henchmen situation properly. On that note, Batman gets health back by kicking ass and solving riddles, just like in real life. Some boss fights are fairly tough too, and there are a handful of times when you have to get to a certain area without being detected at all (and if detected, some important NPC gets killed). Other moments have you scrambling against a clock, requiring you to quickly save some NPCs before a trap the Joker has setup kills them.
And then there are the Scarecrow sequences. Scarecrow is used very well in Arkham. Think of the Scarecrow sequences as somewhat similar to the dreams in Max Payne, except more intense and dramatic. It's yet another well done gameplay mechanic that Rocksteady managed to wisely fit into the total package, making the whole experience extremely well rounded and satisfying. That's really all I feel comfortable saying about these, as I would hate to disrupt the surprise to any readers.
I've dropped several popular Batman names thus far, and there are many more to be encountered on this forsaken island. The more significant characters Batman encounters, and even several that you never encounter, are included in the Character Profiles tab. There are forty-two of these to collect, and several items within many of these profiles to find, too. Character profiles include a nice colored drawing of the character, their Story, Attributes, and Facts, and additional material for many of them. These additional materials are usually audio tapes of psych sessions with various Arkham doctors. Villains such as Harley, Croc, Joker, Ivy, and several others all have tapes to find and enjoy. There is even one, multi-part uber-Profile to be found too: the Spirit of Arkham. Cryptic etchings found on walls reveal details about the origins of Arkham from a mysterious voice. I have yet to find all of these, but I'm finding them in sequence, which is great so as to get a good understanding of the story that these markings are telling.
Well, if you're into exploring and finding objects and picking up collectibles, Arkham Asylum has you covered. For most games, I don't drive myself crazy trying to find every collectible, but for Arkham, I may very well (and if so, I guess I'm already in the right place, aren't I?). I'm already looking forward to my second play through in hopes to find the rest of the numerous collectibles. These collectibles are more than just random objects; the Riddler is in fact behind these 240 collectibles, or challenges I should say. Riddler will talk into your earpiece, taunting you at his introduction early in the game that he's smart enough to hack into your comms and smarter than you in general. His amusing and taunting comments are more than enough motivation to work hard to find all collectibles and complete his challenges. These include finding all Riddler trophies or statues in a certain area, as well as destroying 5, 10, and 20 sets of Joker's chattering teeth that are in different areas, harmlessly snapping about on the Asylum floor. Each area also has several riddles, and these are fun -- some are hard and I have no trouble admitting I missed a bunch of these during this first play through. Other riddles are more easily solved, but most have a fine balance that will require some thinking. It's great that you can look at a riddle and you have all the time you need to think about it. I found myself mulling over possible solutions for a riddle in one area while being in a totally different area. Whenever you have the solution, or think you do, snap a picture by pressing and holding down the Detective Mode button for a sec.
Presentation, Platform Differences, DLC, And...The (Few) Issues
Before wrapping up with the several things I didn't like, I wanted to add a bit about the graphics and sound in Arkham Asylum. Visually, it's a stunning game. I thought the lighting, animations, framerate, water effects, and all that good stuff was just gorgeous. The cutscenes are numerous, seamlessly integrated, and very well done; I was impressed. I liked how the lips were in sync with the dialogue and all of the body language presented by the characters. The Joker looks especially great. Oh, and the fact that the bodies of defeated enemies stayed on the ground for an extended period of time is cool.
As for audio, Arkham honestly does some of the best work I have heard in a very long time. The voice acting, including many of the original cast from the 90s cartoon, does a superb job. The script is great, too. The effects package is great as well; I loved the sounds of impact from the combat system and the eerie chime that plays before a message is broadcast over the Arkham PA. The soundtrack pops up at just the right times and adds to the experience.
Between the two platforms, PS3 and 360, I can't tell much of a difference in presentation or control -- nothing that made one better to me than the other. The PS3 version does require at least 1.2GB to install, but if you have more than enough space, it can also install up to 3.8GB of data. The PS3 version also has some exclusive content. There are five game trailers of Arkham presented in HD, a behind the scenes video interview with voice actor Kevin Conroy, story writer Paul Dini, and the devs from Rocksteady. This behind the scenes feature includes a few chapters, namely "The Concept of Batman: Arkham Asylum," "The Look of Arkham Asylum," "Behind the Cinematics," "Working Across Continents," and "Sounds of the Asylum." The Batcave Outpost is available on PS Home, too. The coolest difference is ability to play Joker in up to eight Challenge maps that you've unlocked while playing through the story (as Batman). Playing as the Joker isn't an after thought, as he has his own animations and gadgets that distinguishes itself from playing as Batman significantly.
To play these Joker Challenge Missions, you must have the PS3 version and the ability to download from the PSN Store. I'm confident we'll see a lot more DLC for Arkham in the next few months, and I'm already hopeful and expectant of at least one sequel in the next few years...
Clearly there's a lot of great things about Arkham, but what's detracting from the experience? Not much, to be blunt about it. Any nags I had about this game were greatly offset by the numerous, constant positives. That said, my list of 'issues' would start with the frequent use of ventilation systems to get around traps and dead ends. From the first ten minutes of the game to ten hours later, Batman will make use of the spacious, sometimes curiously (conveniently?) placed ventilation system. I'm not suggesting that I have a better solution off the top of my head, but I felt like all this duct work crawling was a bit of a cheesy way to handle level design.
Earlier I mentioned and elaborated about a couple of map-related problems (the lack of a mini-map and topography), but I'll just reiterate that here. I'd also include that the Joker does, at times, talk too much and you'll hear him say some of the same lines over again (via the PA system on the island), which detracts from the immersion a little. Also, I thought the armed henchmen sequences were just a little bit contrived in that they tend to breakdown to just using the gargoyle statues to plan attacks and escape. On that same token, it just doesn't seem right that Batman can't use his Batarangs to knock out a foe or two, but I imagine the concern here was abusing the 'predator' stealth design Rocksteady has going here.
Besides these minor points, this game rocks. To the summary...