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Batman: Arkham Asylum

Arkham Asylum is the most pleasant surprise I’ve ever had playing a video game. I didn’t expect anything more than a cash-in on the poor, defenseless Batman franchise, and in its place I found one of my favorite games of all time.

The first thing to notice about Arkham Asylum is the high-quality visuals. Batman, characters, and environments all look beautiful, and although some of the models may look slightly generic the culmination of the artwork is excellent. Set pieces contain excellent attention to detail, and the characters in particular are all a pleasure to view, movements and all. The human character models for generic policemen and Gordon look a bit “meaty,” a la Gears of War and other similar games, which seems a bit out of place, but the rest of the cast looks perfect.

Poison Ivy reaches out toward the player in her own personal prison.

Harley Quinn sits on a beam.

The plot of _Arkham Asylum _might be its weakest point (The Joker has taken over Arkham Asylum and its inmates, and invited some other old friends to the fiesta), but the narrative itself is of a much higher quality, which I was particularly surprised to find. The entire game contributes to this narrative - never before have I played a superhero video game where I actually felt like a superhero; as Batman, you beat thugs to a pulp, use explosive substances, zip and swing to platforms and ledges, throw Batarangs and control them remotely, grab enemies with the Batclaw, glide with your cape, and see enemies through walls with augmented vision. And all of these things can be done extremely fluidly - you aren’t going to be pausing in the Water Temple to put on your iron boots every two minutes - you’re going to fight and aim and escape and repeat without any breaking up the action with awkward interface or controls (I recommend a controller for this one if you’re on a PC). The amount of possibilities in combat is astounding, although it’s just as easy to take every fight head-on, with a fluid punch and counter system that feels like Streets of Rage - Batman Edition. Thankfully, players are pushed into hiding with the threat of live ammo present in certain situations, which might have been annoying if the stealth element of the game wasn’t as fun as the hand-to-hand combat.

Stealth plays a large role in Arkham Asylum - even with upgraded armor, live ammunition will drain Bruce’s health very quickly. Taking out enemies quietly one at a time is no chore like it has been in other games with stealth elements, because as Batman you have enough tools at your disposal to take out enemies in many different ways.

Batman takes cover at a corner, around which are two of the Joker's subordinates.

You’ll be leaving the Joker’s henchmen hanging from structures, cutting the rope to drop them next to other henchmen who in turn become increasingly afraid, until the heartbeat you are monitoring with your augmented vision is off the charts and you glide down from the rafters to knock it cold.

With this excellent gameplay helping the narrative along, I would have been satisfied enough, but not too long after getting started Arkham Asylum brings out the Scarecrow, in some of the best interactive experiences I’ve ever seen. In one particularly amazing sequence (if you haven’t realized by now, you should stop reading my reviews if you’re worried about spoiling games) an Arkham Asylum hallway that Batman is stumbling down transforms gradually into the alley where his parents were murdered, as he drops to the floor at the end of his psyche, a void created by the only people who care about him. It’s the first type of sequence that I truly thought “Only in a game would this work, and work to such excellent artistic effect.”

The Scarecrow taunts the player after death.

A young Bruce Wayne stands in a combination of Arkham Asylum and the alleyway where his parents died.

If walking into the deepest recesses of Bruce’s mind isn’t enough for you, the psychological play is taken one step further, as you dive into the rift between Batman’s subconscious and his physical surroundings in a visual representation of that territory.

Batman stands at the edge of floating pieces of concrete and buildings with ominous dark clouds and rain above and below.

There are a few sequences in the game where such concepts are explored, and each one blew me away. It was extremely satisfying storytelling that the player gets to take an active part in, and while not perfect it’s one of the best attempts of the kind I’ve ever seen, not to mention the fact that this is a so-called AAA title with the budget to provide the ultimate audio-visual immersion during these sequences. And on top of that, the game supports nVidia 3D Vision, which while not necessary to enjoy the game is absolutely stunning to see, and amazing throughout. nVidia PhysX also contributes to aesthetics, with papers blowing and spiraling down windy hallways and fog pouring into areas through vents, all of which can be manipulated by the player with Batman’s movements and cape, which flows fluidly behind him as he charges forth. None of these things are necessary, but I feel that they add a lot to the game’s aesthetic.

A monitor shows the Joker's video feed.

The Joker, one of the main forces in Arkham Asylum’s plot, is very rarely seen during gameplay on anything other than various monitors and through quite consistent audio feeds taunting Batman. Every once in a while he notifies his henchmen of developments while you are attempting to take them out without alerting them, which adds to the suspense of those situations. Harley Quinn plays a similar role, but is much closer to the front lines. Other supervillains are hinted at and make appearances, and one of the most disappointing climaxes involves a very disappointing boss fight with Killer Croc. It’s nearly easy to dismiss the lacking quality of the boss fights given the solid experiences with standard enemies.

The gameplay, while I have mentioned combat and stealth, contains some interesting “old-school” elements as well. The fighting is very reminiscent to older 2D street brawlers, as I mentioned, and the main structure of the progression through the game world is actually very reminiscent of “Metroidvania” style games, where you are in an open world with a marker in a blank spot on the map telling you where to go next, with a little backtracking from time to time. It’s possible not to notice this is the case because the environments in the game are so immersive, but every once in a while it’s necessary to take a look at the map, which makes it easier to note the structure of the progression through the game world. Added to this is the fact that various plot points see the game world transforming into very different atmospheres based on varying types of villainy, which serves to keep things interesting given the high quality of the artistic direction.

A batcave with many fancy computer monitors.

There are many extras that can easily be ignored spread throughout the environments. There are the standard collectibles backed by the Riddler, who will hack into your communication system to talk to you. There are also Arkham Asylum interview tapes with many of the villains which are fun to listen to, given that the voice acting in Arkham Asylum is absolutely fantastic. It’s very exciting to hear Kevin Conroy (Batman), Mark Hamill (The Joker), Arlen Sorkin (Harley Quinn), and quite a few others from Batman: The Animated Series reprise their roles for this video game, adding an excellent familiarity to the communication that helps anyone who’s heard their voices before feel right at home.

Batman sits crouched.

Despite all this, the game is not without its faults. One of the most glaring issues is also one of the most required to play the game properly - the detective vision that overlays a flat colored view highlighting enemies and completely obscuring the game’s artwork. Players absolutely must try to use it as little as possible to appreciate the game’s artwork, but unfortunately due to some poor design decisions this is not how the game is going to be played by the majority of consumers. It has already been stated that this issue has been taken care of in the sequel.

Another issue is the repetition of some of the game’s key activities. Batman opens a lot of vents, and punches a lot of brutes. It’s part of the job, and for that reason it doesn’t bother me as much as it could, however I would have liked to see even more narrative directions similar to the Scarecrow encounters, pushing interactive storytelling forward in new and different ways. What is present is of such an excellent standard that it’s forgivable there isn’t more of it.

I highly recommend giving Batman: Arkham Asylum a go. It’s a prime example of what happens when creativity and big budgets and teams come together (which is unfortunately a rare occurrence in all mediums) to create a great work, and it’s also one of the very few satisfying experiences that has been produced in the last few years.

Rating: Excellent