Batman: Arkham Asylum
We can’t remember when the wheels of hype started turning, but by the time Batman: Arkham Asylum arrived the machine was running full tilt. We won’t go into details. We don’t need to. It’s all out there, waiting for you in the sprawling landscape of the internet; embargoes were issued, salacious rumours were started, and rash claims to the sort of greatness found in Half-Life and Metroid Prime began creeping into the previews.
It could be the dramatic resurgence of Batman’s popularity in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s films. It could be the simple allure of nourishing ambition after the drought of the summer. Whatever mix of factors actually created it, the impression that Arkham Asylum was more than just another superhero game became inescapable. The fanfare was too deafening to ignore.
This is not unusual. We’re used to the rapturous trumpet blasts disorienting the gaming press and heralding the arrival of the Next Big Thing. It’s a useful reminder to raise the defences and calibrate a sense of objectivity. Not that it made any practical difference, of course, because Rocksteady Studios has crafted a game with enough skill and daring to leave us stunned with admiration in little more than three hours. We wouldn’t call ourselves Batman fanboys, exactly, but there were moments during Arkham Asylum that made us drool as if we were.
Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine a serious fan of the mythology being anything less than delighted. Arkham Asylum has a number of strengths, but its sense of authenticity is by far the most prominent. Arkham is a spectacular setting, gothic and imposing, with a vast, over-sized moon permanently shining through the haze of green mist that wreaths its grounds. It is also the fallible home to the characters that make Batman the most appealing superhero in the firmament: the villains. Killer Croc, Harley Quinn, The Riddler, Poison Ivy; by limiting the gameplay to Arkham’s considerable sprawl, Rocksteady has allowed itself the freedom to bombard the player with memorable encounters while avoiding the nagging feeling that boxes are being ticked.
In every case, the character models and voice acting are superlative, with Mark Hamill’s demented Joker easily the best of a very fine bunch. Only Batman disappoints, his absurd bulk and stilted delivery losing some of the humanity that defines the character. It’s a marginal complaint, though, and the one obvious weakness in Arkham Asylum’s otherwise stunning command of atmosphere.
The phenomenon of being very impressive and subtly flawed all at the same time is endemic to every part of the game. Arkham might be iconic, and it might offer the freedom to call upon Batman’s full coterie of villains, but it also demands a number of jarringly contrived design choices. A major offender is the miraculous revelation that Batman had constructed a second Batcave beneath the building, just in case the lunatics ever managed to take control of the asylum. The sheer number of gargoyles lining the walls also beggars belief, but they’re both inevitable side effects of confining the gameplay to such a restrictive setting.
Rocksteady has taken several cues from BioShock in the way it exploits its environment, leaving villain-specific audio diaries in dark corners, and leaving certain areas inaccessible until Batman has earned the necessary tools to gain entrance. But Arkham lacks the variety and detail of Rapture; the hidden areas are rarely more than anonymous rooms, and backtracking across the same corridors, halls and gardens became tiresome before the story drew to a close.
The gameplay is roughly split between stealth and full-force combat, and Batman is ably equipped for both. His tendency to avoid killing unless it’s absolutely necessary means that his principal weapons are his fists, feet, and trusty Batarangs. The melee combat is all routed to a single-button and, much like the swordplay in Assassin’s Creed, is more focused on rhythm and direction than button combinations. It’s an approach that creates a wonderfully fluid feel, and the bruising slow motion on knockout blows is a satisfyingly voyeuristic way to punctuate each encounter.
However, once you’ve mastered the melee combat’s welcoming simplicity – and that’s unlikely to take very long – the fighting becomes a rote experience. There is a counter-attack button, and Batman can perform throws and, after chaining enough attacks, finishing moves, but there’s always far more happening on screen than there is on the control pad. It isn’t a game-breaker, exactly, but the lack of interaction will test the patience of gamers with a more hardcore sensibility.
If Rocksteady had included some new attacks in the upgrade system Arkham Asylum could have had its cake and eaten it too. As it is, the most satisfying way to engage the enemy is by stealth, using the Batclaw to pull Batman to an accommodating Gargoyle or ledge and silently stalking the room. An alternate vision mode marks out the Joker’s henchmen in red silhouette, even with an obstacle or item of cover in the way. Fortunately, there are several interesting upgrades that keep the stealth combat compelling throughout, and are a key source for those satisfying moments when you really start to feel like Batman. Our advice: acquire the ‘Inverted Takedown’ as soon as possible. You won’t regret it.
Other areas of the gameplay seem far more under-nourished. For example, there are numerous objectives that require Batman to trace missing people using his ‘detective’ skills. In practice, this translates to simply turning on his alternate vision and walking in a circle until the game highlights what you’re looking for, be it pollen-stained fingerprints or traces of whisky-breath in the air. With a little more care and creativity, this could have echoed the empowering detective work in Condemned 2, yet it becomes little more than a novel way of making a rice trail appear on the ground.
Yet despite the ways in which it falls just short of brilliance, Arkham Asylum remains one of the year’s best games. Rocksteady displays an admirable commitment to changing-up the gameplay, introducing new gadgets, environmental hazards and set-piece ideas right up until the final few hours. True, there is an equally strong tendency to over-stretch these ideas, bringing them back one more time than is strictly necessary and peppering the game’s latter half with repetitive moments, but it’s never less than fun. What’s more, there are moments of genuine bravery here, particularly a series of gloriously fucked-up interludes involving the Scarecrow that would make Hideo Kojima green with envy.
Qualitative comparisons with games like Super Metroid and Half-Life seem as ill-founded now as they did when we first read them. Arkham Asylum certainly has the ambition, but it lacks the inspiration in everything but art direction to sit beside such timeless greats. However, with a CV that boasts little more than the underrated Urban Chaos: Riot Response, Rocksteady Studios has produced a game as ravishing as Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and as compelling as Dead Space; one that very nearly lives up to its own hype.