Games based on movie / comic licenses usually suck. It’s true that now and again, one title may break that unfortunate rule but, that’s because the developer took the setting/time period/world of a particular intellectual property and made it its own. If you have played any of Bioware’s RPGs set in the Star Wars universe you know exactly what I mean.
My hopes for Batman then were damn near zero. Think about it, all the pre Christian Bale movies were cringingly terrible. I mean George Clooney and Micheal Keaton as Batman?! WTF?! Even my very limited time with Batman games on certain consoles was extremely disappointing. Even though I had been following the development of Arkham Asylum, the fact that it was essentially a console title being ported over to the PC had more than tempered my enthusiasm. It seemed like mediocrity is all I had to look forward to.
Boy was I wrong. To put it in very simple words, this is not only the best Batman game in existence anywhere on any platform; it is hands down one of the best games I have EVER played in my 20 years of gaming. Every single part of this masterpiece shows that it was designed and programmed by people who both respect and love the source material. Understand this: Arkham Asylum isn’t a comic book or movie story that been adapted to a game. It was obviously written and created with the sole aim of using the game as a fitting medium to make the player feel like he was the Dark Knight himself.
Without giving too much of the plot away, let’s just say that the story revolves around Batman’s nemesis (The Joker) taking over Arkham Asylum and trapping Batman. Essentially a hospital/prison for the criminally insane, Arkham is home to Gotham city’s worst nightmares. There couldn’t be a better setting for a game like this. From a design perspective, it’s easy to see why this is the case. It would have been downright silly to have the game set in say, the heart of a metropolis like Gotham and then give the player the “illusion” of being in a free form world by granting access to only certain buildings (something every GTA games has been guilty of). Every minute of the game is set on the fictional island that Arkham is located on. Different levels will have you getting to different parts of the madhouse. In many cases, the player will be required to back track and revisit old locations. The surprising thing is that it never feels boring because even though technically, you are going to a level you have already been to, you often need to take a different route or employ different methods to get there. Also, you will frequently unlock different parts within a level that you previously did not have access to. This is a direct result of Batman getting his hands on newer gadgets as the game progresses. Far from being a tacky gimmick, this works very well as it genuinely keeps the setting and indeed the game itself, from getting stale. Not that the story with its twists and turns wont manage to do that.
Graphics wise, this is the best use of the Unreal engine seen to date although the weird “sheen” inherent to character models in the engine still persists. The dark look fits the game like a glove and the color pallete is perfect for the gothic feel the island has. Physx is supported in the game and if you are fortunate enough to have a machine that can max this feature out, you are in for a real treat. As it stands however, it’s hardly something you will miss if it isn’t enabled.
The music seems heavily inspired from the last Batman movie which is good news. The general tone is rather “broody” and reflects the high production values of the title. The voice acting is, well, perfect. The Joker in particular, stands out. And bringing in Kevin Conroy to voice Batman? Let’s just call that an epic win and save ourselves some time.
But all that pales in comparison to the real meat of the game which is of course, the jaw-droppingly awesome combat. As simple as the control scheme is (you only need the left and right click for majority of battles), devote the time to master various combos and it will quite simply, blow your mind. Make no mistake however, as badass as batman is, rushing a room full of gun toting thugs is still suicide. Some key levels will actually require that you take out threats whilst remaining unseen. Luckily, Batman has more than enough in way of moves, gadgets and sheer awesomeness to even out the odds. Mid combat batarangs? Check. Mid combo grapple? Check. Use of cape to stun foes? Check. And of course the “ ZOMG I actually did that !!” inverted takedown? Sweet lord, check, check, check. If you do find yourself struggle with the combat aspect of the game, the thoughtfully provided “challenge mode” will help you hone your skills to bring a whole world of hurt on the psychos. Think of it as a virtual dojo where you can spend endless hours combating waves of foes or replaying your favorite levels even after you have beat the campaign. You can even see how your skills stack up against fellow Bat fans via the games for windows leader boards. I would actually recommend spending some time getting the combat right as pulling of decent moves will get you much needed experience points that you can trade for upgrades. This will help to tailor the gameplay to your liking. So for example, if you would rather upgrade your gadgets rather than improve your direct fighting skills, you can. This brings in a slight RPG flavor to the table as well as adding to replay value.
Preparation is vital in many levels. As is detective work. This is where the much talked about “detective mode” comes into play. At the push of a button, the player’s perspective switches to a kind of x ray vision that will allow Batman to see through walls and isolate the most dangerous threats. It is also pretty much essential for solving many of the Riddler’s “riddles” (more on this later) as well as searching for forensic evidence and clues.
Finally, there’s the “riddles”. This one is hard to judge really as it’s such a personal choice. Does the story really necessitate me running over the island looking in every nook and cranny just to collect randomly placed “trophies”? Umm, no. But getting them does net you precious experience as well as unlock different challenges etc. I personally did not spend anytime collecting any of them during my first walk-through and it did not make any difference. You can however, choose to chase after them once you complete the campaign. It’s really up to you.
All this praise would have you believe this is a “perfect” game. Unfortunately, there are some niggling things that keeps even a rabid fanboy like me from saying that. These issues do mar an otherwise perfect experience. For starters, there’s the repetitive character models. It’s hard to see why a game with so much attention to detail let this one slip. It seems that when inmates at Arkham aren’t stabbing each other with spoons, all they do is work out and pump steroids. Almost all the thugs look the same. And I mean exactly the same. There is hardly any visual distinction between them at all. Disappointing really. Then there is the relatively generic boss battles. They are not bad but don’t stand out they way the rest of the game does. Also, though the save system is frequent enough to not be painful, there is no way to select specific save slots. So, if you want to replay say, a particular boss battle again, too bad. You can’t. Not unless you start a new game from scratch. Eh? And just imagine if something goes wrong with the save file and it gets corrupted. Well, now your are screwed. For this reason I recommend making regular manual back ups of the same. Lastly, and this one is a real fail, you cannot tweak the control scheme in anyway. WHAT? Don’t get me wrong, the keyboard and mouse controls work like a dream but not giving the player the option of reconfiguring the key bindings to personal preference is just plain dumb. This is a PC title dammit!
None of this however, changes the fact that this is one terrific game. Worthy of your time and money, regardless of whether you are a Batman fan or not. Ultimately, the best thing I can say about it is that is just feels like Batman. That should seal the deal for most of us.