Like it or not, licensed games typically sell based on the name more than anything else. As a result, developers simply "go through the motions" when churning out a game with a license, and the creative juices are reserved for original IP. Not so here. Batman: Arkham Asylum may have a license attached. It may have voice actors reprising their roles. But it's also a finely polished adventure that, aside from a few minor blemishes, is one hell of a ride.
Set on Arkham Island, the entire course of the game takes place within the grounds of the asylum. You can see Gotham in the distance, but you'll never actually go there. The game keeps you focused, and while it may feel a bit constrained at times, what it lacks in raw area is made up for in spades by an amazing level of detail.
The story kicks off with Batman returning The Joker to the asylum, only to discover that it's all an elaborate ruse. With the help of his part-time lover Harley Quinn, The Joker has taken control of Arkham and trapped Batman, Commissioner Gordon and the staff inside. Playing as Batman, it's up to you to discover the motivation behind The Joker's plans all while dealing with an island full of psychopaths who all have it out for the Bat.
Arkham itself is as much of a character as anyone you'll encounter. Each building is distinct and packed with detail. The overall architecture is suitably gothic, yet each interior is appropriate to its function. For example, wandering through the medical facility is a wholly different experience than checking out the botanical gardens. Yes, there are architectural similarities, but nothing ever feels like a cut-and-paste job here. This is an island that was crafted with a purpose and you're going to see it all, from the high-tech penitentiary to the crumbling sewers underground.
It all makes for good visuals, even if things do look a bit plastic at times. One point of disappointment here was the promise of PhysX support on the back of the box, but no implementation of PhysX in-game. Sadly, PhysX support appears to be PC-only, which means no volumetric fog, detailed cloth animation or random destructible items such as paper and tiles. Perhaps it was a simple misprint, but when a game features the PhysX logo on the box we expect the game to support PhysX, especially since Sony announced PhysX SDK support for the PS3 a few months back.
If you're the type of player who likes to stick to the story, Batman: Arkham Asylum has you covered. Objectives are always presented in a linear fashion so there's never a question of what you're supposed to be doing next. Getting from objective to objective is as simple as looking for the flashing exclamation point on your map. Not everyone likes the continuous hand-holding, however, and that's where the Riddler's side missions come into play.
Although he never directly appears in-game, the Riddler visits Arkham in spirit, taunting you with secondary objectives. Most of these are simple "find the hidden trophy" exploration jobs, but the most satisfying are the riddles. Nearly every area has at least one riddle that must be solved by taking a picture of the described area or object. Some of the riddles are plainly obvious, while others will require a slight bit of head-scratching before the solution presents itself. You can finish the story mode without completing a single one of the Riddler's tasks, but those who take the time are rewarded with extra experience points for in-game upgrades and unlocked challenge maps to play separately from the adventure.
Character-wise, Batman: Arkham Asylum is packed with fan service as Batman faces off against more than just one big name in the franchise. Sure, you'll encounter The Joker and Harley Quinn, but you're also going to run into the likes of Bane, Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow and Zsasz. A multitude of other villains are referenced in various ways, even though they don't actually appear in person. Either way, for those who are hardcore fans of the franchise, it's a nice touch.
Making your way through the story, three types of gameplay quickly become apparent: combat, stealth and exploration. Combat is perhaps the weakest of the three due to Rocksteady's "button-mashing" approach. In short, pretty much all the fighting is handled with two buttons and timing. Get the timing down, and you'll be whipping out amazing combos with a simple tap-tap-tap. It makes for nice eye candy, but it's nowhere near deep.
The stealth gameplay is referred to as "predator mode" by the developers since it is most directly inspired by the classic Batman of the comics. Here, the focus is on creating fear and eliminating enemies when they are vulnerable. Batman isn't a superhero with superpowers; he's a man with a suit and lots of toys. Even great toys aren't going to stop a machine gun's bullets, so you can't go racing into a room of armed thugs. If you do, you die. It's that simple. Instead, Batman must use the environment to his advantage. It's a mechanic that works absolutely brilliantly and is the best element of the game.
Exploration is more or less standard platforming, but combined with Batman's cool gadgets. Since the map always tells you where to go, the challenge isn't in figuring out your destination; it's how to get past the obstacles in the way. For example, you might need to enter a building which has the front door blocked. The solution is climbing up onto the roof and entering through a maintenance shaft. Finding the best way onto the roof is the challenge. With each area covered in grapple points, exploring vertically is just as important as looking around horizontally. Combine this with Batman's nifty x-ray detective mode vision (looking eerily reminiscent of the "radar vision" used in the Dark Knight film, glowing eyes and all) and it's easy to spend time just wandering around.
Where Batman: Arkham Asylum stumbles is in the boss fights. Some, such as the battle against Poison Ivy, are challenging in an old-school, learn the pattern way. Others, such as the (multiple) fights against the Scarecrow, are brilliantly executed. But most are repetitive fights against low level enemies and are more an exercise in button-mashing than any sort of challenge. As an example, take Harley Quinn. The build-up to the eventual fight with her is excellent, yet ultimately there is no fight. You battle Quinn's henchmen and then she is dispatched in a cut scene. Whoever thought this was a good idea needs to be smacked on grounds of general stupidity. Thankfully, the poorly executed boss fights are but a minor portion of the overall experience.
Audio is a strong point for Batman: Arkham Asylum, be it music, sound effects or voice acting. Mark Hamill reprises his role as The Joker, while Kevin Conroy stars as Batman and Arleen Sorkin voices Harley Quinn. Because all of the actors are veterans of their respective roles, they all sound completely natural in their characterizations. Hamill's Joker steals the show any time he is on-screen, while Conroy's Batman is sufficiently brooding. Environmental effects accurately place items and enemies in perspective, and background music accents the mood nicely.
In addition to the main game, Batman: Arkham Asylum also features a wealth of unlockable information in the form of characters bios, audio interviews with key inmates, beautifully rendered character trophies and the aforementioned challenge maps. Challenge maps are split into combat and predator style, with the goal of the combat maps being a high score and the goal of the predator maps being elimination of the enemies as quickly as possible. There are a total of eight distinct maps that are unlocked by way of the Riddler challenges in the main game. You can also unlock "extreme" versions of the maps for an additional challenge. Once the main game is over, the challenge maps provide a surprising amount of replay value as you strive to reach the best possible score.
Thanks to an exclusive deal with Eidos, PlayStation 3 owners benefit from a little something extra in the challenge maps, that being the ability to play as The Joker. Playing as The Joker is not just a skin swap but a completely different experience. You play on the same maps as Batman, but you don't have any of his abilities or his toys. The Joker uses a different fighting style, a different walk animation and he only sports three items: a set of remote-controlled, exploding teeth; a set of x-ray specs to let him see through walls; and a single shotgun that can fire through multiple people, assuming they are in a straight line. The Joker doesn't come on the game disc, but rather is available as a free DLC from the PlayStation Store.
There have been many different Batman games over the years, but none quite so polished as this one. Batman: Arkham Asylum combines the best elements of the classic Batman mythos with the modern-day interpretation of the hero. The end result is a game that outshines its flaws and is quite simply a blast to play.Score: 9.3/10
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