I’ve had a hit and miss relationship with superhero licensed games in the past, and I’m not alone. Licensed games are always approached with a healthy dose of cynicism and uncertainty. We always worry that the developer has spent their time butchering our beloved heroes, and fear that the character we play will be a two-dimensional shadow of their usual, larger than life selves.
Batman, in particular, is one of the comic book heroes that’s had his own fair share of digital travesties. While there have been a couple of exceptions – most notably the excellent Sega Mega CD incarnation of Batman Returns (sans the awful platforming sections) and the surprisingly enjoyable take on Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins by EA, most have been pretty dire. Thankfully, this is a situation that’s set to change – big time!
Holy Batgames, Batman!
Batman: Arkham Asylum is one of the most eagerly awaited games of the year, and this reviewer doesn’t mind admitting that his Batman fanboy status has exaggerated this anticipation to almost unbearable levels. Ever since I first saw early details of the game, I’ve hoped that this would be the Batman game we’ve been waiting for. What better way to capture the dark, brooding and often brutal nature of the Bat than to plant him in the midst of the terrifying Arkham Asylum – ‘home’ to all of his psychotic, deranged and downright evil foes? Yes, Rocksteady, known for the great FPS Urban Chaos: Riot Response, was always on the ball for this one, and as you may have already guessed, have done a fantastic job this time around.
BAA is part beat ‘em up, part adventure and part platformer all rolled up in an atmospheric and authentic Batman world. This world isn’t themed on any one particular Batman incarnation, but instead takes cues from a number of the Bat’s outings. There are elements of the comics, the WB cartoons and even the recent movies. However, even with all of these influences, the game retains its own unique take on the license, and shows that Rocksteady really has gone out of its way to make this a true Batman title. These guys clearly understand the nature of the Dark Knight and his disturbed foes, and it shows.
Joker at large
The game begins with Batman speeding through Gotham City in the Batmobile (which looks almost as good as Tim Burton’s vision of the Bat’s wheels) with the Joker in tow. After capturing the Clown Prince of Crime, Batman is delivering his arch nemesis to Arkham for some much needed physiological help. The only problem being that the Joker practically surrendered to Batman without a fight. Fearing something is wrong, Batman uncharacteristically accompanies the Joker into the bowels of the asylum, only to find himself in what could be The Joker’s deadliest scheme yet.
As soon as you take control of Batman, even through the introductory walkthrough of the asylum’s entrance, you know that you’re in for a great time.
Visually BAA is excellent, particularly the character models. Everyone, even the most mundane enemy thug or security guard looks great, and the overall sense of coherent design makes Arkham feel like a real, believable facility, albeit one with a dark and gothic, Batman-style feel. Batman himself looks just the part, and resembles some of the more impressive graphic novel appearances of the Caped Crusader. And the super villains you’ll encounter are all spot on, especially the main antagonist, the Joker.
To add to this visual splendour, Rocksteady secured the services of two long-time Batman stars – Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. Conroy has voiced the Dark Knight in the WB cartoon series and is excellently cast here, and Hamill reprises his role as the Joker, one that he’s also voiced for the cartoon series. Both do a sterling job, as do many of the other cast members. This is accompanied by a great, dark soundtrack that, again, suits the game perfectly.
With such solid visuals and audio it’s fortunate that the game also plays smoothly. Rocksteady has spent a lot of time refining the combat system to make it both approachable and flexible. Whilst the setup is about as simple as it gets (with one major attack button and a stun attack) the free flowing combo system is implemented well. Batman can string together smooth combos and can attack assailants in all directions. A counter-attack system in also in place, and is just as easy to use. When flashes appear above a foes head, he’s about to attack, and with the press of the counter attack button you can quickly block the incoming strike and beat down the attacker.
As well as fighting with his feet and fists, Batman can also make use of his range of gadgets, including the iconic batarang and the useful bathook, which can be used to grapple enemies towards you, or to disarm them from a distance.
As you progress through the game, fighting foes and finding secrets, you’ll earn points; these point are then used to buy upgrades, such as a remote control batarang, better armour and more powerful combat moves.
Combat isn’t the only skill Batman has, though, and stealth is also a major weapon in his arsenal. He can crouch and sneak up behind foes to take them down silently, and can use his gadgets to get the drop on his foes – literally. By using the grapple you can climb up onto ledges and gargoyles, letting you observe the enemy. From here you can glide down using Batman’s cape and dropkick a foe to the ground, throw batarangs to knock down foes and you can even grab an unsuspecting foe and string him up in the air. This not only takes said foe out of action, but will scare the other enemies. This fear can then be heightened by throwing a batarang at the wire holding the thug, dropping him on top of his allies, who will react accordingly.
In fact, the element of fear is an important one. The more fearful your enemies are, the more likely they are to split up or make mistakes. They’ll fire at inanimate objects or bursts of steam from pipes, leaving them wide open to your attack.
To help Batman get the better of his foes and to make the most of the environment he’s equipped with his cowl’s ‘Detective Mode’. When activated, this overlays a digital HUD which can pick out important environmental features like ventilation ducts, grapple points and, of course, enemies. It can see enemies through walls, and also informs you how many enemies are in the immediate area, and if any are armed.
This mode is also used for many of the forensic trails you need to follow, and can analyse crime scenes to find these evidence signposts. For example, in one situation Batman manages to find a bottle of whisky that belongs to a person he needs to track down. After analysing it with the cowl, a trail of alcohol vapour is overlaid, allowing him to track down his target.
The platforming element isn’t the dreaded feature we usually worry about in such titles, and works in a similar way to Nintendo’s 3D Zelda games. To jump all you need to do is hold A to run and Batman will automatically jump from the ledge. He’ll also grab ledges on his own, and to cross large gaps you can use his cape to glide long distances. This all handles well, and isn’t the frustrating mess platforming shoe-ins usually end up being. Some situations can be a little glitchy, however, but these issues are few and far between.
Riddle me this
As well as the main combat and adventure elements, and a sprinkle of platforming, BAA features side quests in the form of Riddler challenges. These can be a simple as collecting hidden question mark trophies or destroying a set number of joke chattering teeth, or can be a little more puzzling, forcing you to solve a riddle and find a specific object or area. These all blend into the game, appearing as you wander around the asylum, and fit nicely in to the proceedings.
As well as unlocking points to buy upgrades, these also unlock character bios, which give insight into Batman and his allies and enemies. You’ll also find interview recordings of the Arkham inmates, which is a great feature, and one that further fleshes out the villains for those unaware of how deranged they really are.
Although contained on Arkham island, the game world is quite large too, with both internal and external areas. During your adventure you’ll journey through containment wards, the Asylum grounds, medical facilities, botanical gardens and more, all of which keep the game feeling fresh and enjoyable. It’s an open world, and once out into the grounds, you can explore as you see fit, although you’ll need to find additional equipment to access some areas.
Batman Arkham Asylum is a game that’s all about the details. The obvious love for the license the developer has lavished upon the game is constantly evident, and all elements of the game, from aesthetics to gameplay, meld together into a classy and enjoyable Batman outing that far surpasses any previous games based on the license. This is a game that simply needs to be played, whether you’re a Batman fan or not.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is out now.