And Then There's Batman:
Over the years I've become jaded. With each passing movie turned into quick cash in on a superhero video game I've grown to dislike the genre and the subject matter. Barring a few gems here and there, superhero games as a whole have failed to impress me in any meaningful way, generally resorting to played out beat-em-up mechanics with a fresh skin of your favorite superhero of the quarter. And then, there's Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Batman: Arkham Asylum pits you (predictably as Batman) against the most infamous of villains, the Joker, in a crazy romp through the title set piece, Arkham Asylum. The opening scene will give you a good taste of what's to come, smashing around the asylum generally trying to halt the Joker's nefarious plot. You quickly realize that being responsible for many of the most notorious criminal's incarceration in the Asylum, its not going to be an easy task to bring things back under control.
The game has elements of many genres, and luckily the all blend together seamlessly, creating a great flow to the game. The Freeflow combat system brings the fisticuffs from the big screen and puts them into the hands of the player. The system allows you to take on mobs of enemies with ease, and look like a total badass while doing so. The simple blend of hits, counters, and dodging progresses nicely throughout the game becoming much harder toward the late portions of the game while still keeping the same mechanics. There have been few times where I've felt more like a true superhero in a game than when completing a prefect Freeflow combo on a large group of enemies (unbroken combo without being hit). The camera zooms appropriately during certain moves, allowing a better view of just how awesome you are.
Of course, it's just not Batman if you're blazing into hand-to-hand combat every opportunity, and the game makes use of a basic and enjoyable stealth mechanic to spice things up. At first its a very basic affair, hanging from conveniently placed gargoyles far above and out of sight of the lunatics below. Again, as the game progresses your available skills and the difficulty ramps up, and making a string of silent take downs while remaining completely undetected is not only challenging but rewarding. Seeing the enemies grow more and more panicked and jumpy with every take down is a nice touch as well. I went so far as to restart several stealth sections when i was detected, even in the sections where the game doesn't enforce that limitation.
Aside from combat and stealth sections, there's mild platforming and a light RPG style progression system unlocking upgrades as you move along. The final piece of the puzzle are collectibles scattered throughout the island, hidden by none other than Edward Nigma, the Riddler. These are completely optional, but award some healthy experience points and are thoroughly enjoyable. They range from trophies(both well hidden and completely obvious), to hidden audio tapes of inmate interviews, to actual riddles, typically needing a picture of something in a given area. Along the way the Riddler will taunt you and berate you, adding some nice motivation. Also any area you enter typically flashes up with one of the riddles for that area, to remind you there's probably something just around the corner you should look for. For someone who's admittedly out of the loop on his Batman history, the interviews and character bios found in these Riddler puzzles are a great touch, allowing me to read up on characters I would otherwise know nothing about. A nice touch is a map hidden within each section of the game showing approximate locations of the collectibles and where to find solutions to the riddles.
Obviously, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a game that tries to do many things, and luckily does them all quite well. The game is definitely much more than the sum of it's parts. To tie it all together is an engaging story, some well polished graphics (nothing amazing, but this is still a good looking game), and well paced game play. On top of it all, a well written script and great voice work make this a thoroughly enjoyable game. Without delving into the story to avoid any spoilers, the game makes full use of some of the greatest villains in Batman's world. Lastly, a group of challenge mode entries allows you to replay some of the game's moments trying for better times and scores, as well as some good freeflow practice.
It would be easy to call Batman: Arkham Asylum a great superhero game, but that would be selling it short. Instead, this is a great game, that takes full advantage of the craziness of the Batman universe. Combat, Stealth, and Story blend together to make the title very difficult to put down. Just before you tire of beating down a string of thugs, the game changes pace, each section never stays too long and you're always wanting more. I will put a couple of points about facial animation not syncing 100% to VO(Unreal engine), the 'sameyness' of some of the boss fight sequences, the fact that I played 80% of the game with detective vision on, but honestly these are just nit-picky things that did not in any way detract from my enjoyment of the game. Batman: Arkham Asylum has restored some of my faith in superhero games. This game is one of the best I've played all year, and is an excellent way to kick off the fall release schedule.