Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Batman: Arkham Asylum may well be the most surprising game of the year. Developed by little known studio Rocksteady Studios, the game is of an exceptionally high quality. Not only is it one of the best superhero themed video games I’ve played but it is probably one of the best uses of a license tied-in with a video game. This is a game where the developers clearly get what is so beloved about the franchise and they have ably translated that into an interactive experience.
Playing as Batman is incredibly empowering. He is stacked with cool gadgets, and any confrontation with a gang of unarmed goons is an incredibly lopsided affair in your favour. In most games, these sort of sequences would feel like a grind and yet in Arkham Asylum, they never fail to entertain as you will almost always have your pick of how to dispose of your hapless adversaries, whether by dropping in from the ceiling with a well-placed foot to the jaw, sneaking up from behind and incapacitating them or simply storming in and enjoying an indulgent slow-motion dance in which you wail on your enemies and effortlessly counter their offence. The fighting sequences are effectively played out with just two buttons, a strike and a counter button, but the emphasis is on timing and stringing together combinations and the rewards are a wide range of bone-crunching and occasionally context sensitive carnage. The presentation of these fights are so well executed that, as aforementioned, these simple combat sequences rarely fail to entertain.
Batman is empowering but he is also, in essence, a normal man but with some awesome gadgetry. So the tables are turned when you come across an enclosure with armed goons. The Dark Knight will fall pretty quickly in a hailstorm of bullets if you try and storm the fort with punches and kicks. This is where you get to indulge in the other side of Batman, as a predatory animal of the night, taking out the henchmen one by one in silent fashion. The effect of this style of play is heightened by the excitable chatter of the goons as they realise their buddies are being taken out one of by one. In one of the more challenging sequences of this type, I took down six out of seven armed guards in an area and the final man standing was in such a panic he started firing his gun when he heard an industrial fan make some noise. Then, once he composed himself again, I silently dropped down behind him and choked him unconscious.
Nailing the play mechanics of the Dark Knight is probably the most important aspect of the game but an unexpected bonus is just how well Rocksteady did in the game’s presentation. The Arkham Asylum environment is superbly designed, its Gothic architecture and rugged terrain being well served by the Unreal 3 engine which also gave us Bioshock and Gears of Wars‘ visuals. The cast of characters are brought to life by the voice actors of the animated Batman series and Mark Hamill, in particular, is excellent as The Joker.
In an example of playing to their strengths, Rocksteady actually give Batman himself very few lines of dialogue that aren’t simple exposition to direct the player to the next location. Thats for the best because both the character and the voice actor are quite dry in the delivery of their lines. Instead, they leave it to The Joker to have the lions share of the one-liners and mood setting monologues via Arkham Asylum’s CCTV.
The game contains a wide variety of playing styles, shifting from beat ’em up to stealth-action to puzzle-solving using a rather nifty ‘detective mode’ which allows you to scan for fingerprints and clues to the whereabouts of your target. The puzzle solving dynamic is also comparable to the Metroidvania series, where you can find yourself returning to previous environments as a new Bat gadget now enables you to explore previously inaccessible areas.
Occasionally, some of the play mechanics come off a little half-baked. The two-dimensional one-hit kill showdowns with Scarecrow come to mind. However, the addition of some fantastic hallucogenic visual trickery pre-empting these battles means that these rather average slivers of gaming aren’t spoiling the party. Its a case where sometimes Arkham Asylum gets by with style over substance.
Batman: Arkham Asylum makes a strong case for itself as one of the best superhero games ever made for a home console. Its also one of the best uses of a license, which is somewhat coincidental as it came out just a week after The Beatles Rock Band which also shares this quality. Overnight, Rocksteady have attained triple-A status as a game developer and their next project will be highly anticipated. I, for one, would be happy to see them return to the Batman license. Throughout Arkham Asylum, you can see in the distance the towering landscape of Gotham city. Surely the next move is to let Batman and the developers loose around the city of Gotham itself?