Welcome to the Madhouse Batman
I have waited for this moment for a long time, through the slew of utter failed comic-book and movie games over the years. I can finally say it, I can finally say that I've played what is probably the best comic-book tie-in game that's ever been made until Rocksteady craft a sequel. For those who don't want to read an indepth review of the game, this is all you need to know.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is awesome.
Set in just one dark night at the infamous Arkham Asylum, Batman has finally captured his arch-nemesis the Joker. Batman drags the Clown Prince of Crime into the asylum onto to find that something isn't right. Cue a wild ride with twists and turns galore expertly created by Paul Dini, one of the writers who have worked on Batman and comics and so on for a while. This story is a superb one, full of quality writing and the trademark Joker humour that has made him one of the most beloved and iconic Batman villains. During this one night Batman is going to face some of Arkham's most dangerous inmates and bring his nemesis to justice or die trying.
Batman: AA is a polished game, right from the get-go it smacks of detail and design by a team who love Batman, they immersed themselves and by association, the player into the lore of the Batman universe and they got it spot on. This is the rare case of a game being not just the sum of its parts but a well created and developed whole. Yes, Batman: AA is just that good and it holds up on all platforms, PS3, PC and 360. The controls are tight and they can be broken down into three distinct but melded gameplay types.
Brawling: using the unique Freeflow Combat system the developers at Rocksteady have managed to craft a combat system that is simple to use, easy to pick up and devilish to master to get the best out of. Batman can attack by pressing the strike button in a steady and rhythmic fashion, combined with a direction on the left stick. He can counter with the counter button, timed correctly. He can also use any number of his gadgets like the batarang and batclaw by double-tapping the right or left trigger on the console versions. This will unleash a quick use of the device and can be useful in getting a breather during the more hectic battles (there can be as many as 20 opponents on screen at once).
He has a stun move and can evade by using a double press of the jump button combined with a direction. It is all simple and very quick to get to grips with, in fact it might seem as though it lacks depth and is flawed compared to learning tonnes of combinations from other fighting games - well, the short answer is that it isn't. You have to be aware of your surroundings, what thug you're attacking and how you get from one to the next. Combinations are the key to victory and your flow can be broken by a sneaky thug landing a cruel blow with a lead pipe or a swiftly thrown cinderblock.
The higher the combos the more chance you have of getting the golden meter, which will (when you upgrade) allow Batman to bust out some bone-crunching takedowns and some vicious throws. Rocksteady mix things up a lot by introducing new enemy types that require specific moves to counter, the game tells you what to do when you first meet these tricky customers, so you're never left in the dark.
Stealth: Seamlessly blended into the gameplay are the stealth sections, where Batman can use Invisible Predator moves to sow fear into the hearts of his enemies and zip from shadow to shadow overhead via the handy gargoyles that Arkham loved so much. Through various in-game upgrades the range of moves that Batman can execute here are extended, like the Inverted Takedown which is an iconic Batman move to pull off on a lone henchman. Joker's thugs won't know what hit them if you play your cards right and Rocksteady have made sure that you feel like the Dark Knight in this type of gameplay as well. There's nothing more satisfying than throwing a guy off a ledge with a well aimed ledge takedown and zipping off up to the gargoyles to lurk as his friends go mad trying to find you.
Detective Mode: Activated at any time it allows Batman an X-ray view of the situation and he can see important information. The number of thugs, their status and weapons are displayed in a minimal and easy to read HUD. This mode also plays a bigger part in the game than just situational awareness when you're tracking down Joker's thugs in a takedown situation. At several points Batman will be required to track down a certain clue or element in the asylum, here Detective Mode lets you search the crime scene for the information and discover a trail to follow.
All of the elements here blend nicely together and never feel disjointed in the overall scheme of things. From the brutal combat to the sneaky takedowns and the clue discovery, you feel like the Dark Knight every step of the way.
There are upgrades to unlock as you earn XP from the various things you do, whether it's from taking the fight to the enemy and getting some insane combos, taking down thugs quietly or discovering secrets in the Asylum from either Riddler trophies, collectable taped interviews with many of Batman's iconic adversaries or solving the Riddler challenges as you go along. These upgrades help you become more and more effective in combat, stealth and so on. As the story progresses you'll be rewarded with more and more gadgets too and some of these can be upgraded to provide additional functionality as well as options for takedowns and causing fear in the enemy.
With 12 to 15 hours of core gameplay and probably more if you're hunting down every secret and collectible, the game is paced just right and has a beautiful play/reward pacing - you never feel as though you're playing a contrived or dull part of the game at any point in the experience, a rare feat for a developer.
Batman has a useful map as well that gives you pointers if you get lost.
It should be noted that Batman is not super human; he can still die if he's detected by armed thugs and riddled with bullets or punched to death, so bear this in mind. On the higher difficulty levels the game is punishing when you're discovered in Invisible Predator gameplay, either avoid and evade or witness Batman gunned down by merciless thugs.
For a game that uses the Unreal Engine (3) Batman not only looks good, but there's no frame-rate drops or noticeable texture-pop in. That has been one of the biggest problems with this engine to date and Rocksteady have polished it so much that it positively shines across all 3 platforms. There's much debate here that the best looking version of the game on the consoles goes to the 360 over the PS3, but it's only marginally better looking on Microsoft's console. The PC version of course looks absolutely fantastic on a high end machine but is no slouch on lower spec machines either. The sense of detail, the quality and the atmosphere of Arkham Asylum and the Batman universe in general has been brought to life by Rocksteady's artists and as a Batman fan myself I can truly say, job well done guys and gals. This is one of the most detailed and best looking games that just ooze with visual appeal from the environments, characters and models. A nice touch here is that Batman takes visual damage as the night unfolds, from various events in the asylum he ends up looking more and more battered as you play the story.
The animations in the game are fluid and when you get a good flow in combat, they look almost balletic. It showcases Batman's training as a combat machine as well as his athletic ability during climbing and gliding. Everything here is spot on across all of the platforms and from the lowliest thug to Batman himself, it all comes together perfectly in terms of movements and cinematics.
The Unreal Engine supports some decent physics that are well implemented on both console versions, they give a sense of weight and life to the environments and Batman's cape as a physics object is particularly stunning and moves like a real cape does. The game really shines though physics wise on the PC using PhysX to simulate things like environmental destruction. On the PC version there is paper that kicks up when you fight and tiles that break from vicious blows. There's smoke that is truly particle based and it billows around Batman as he moves through it. The animations and weight of the moves are better tracked too thanks to PhysX.
The developers at Rocksteady have done a good job with the AI here. It reacts nicely to Invisible Predator tactics and it can be spooked the more and more terrified it becomes. It goes on active search patterns, works as a team and can totally lose it when confronted with Batman when there's only one thug left out of a group. It'll cower and it'll run away sometimes. It all adds to the sense of personality these guys have. It's great fun just messing with the thugs in a level, setting off remote explosions or cutting down a hanging villain as a friend passes close by.
A great quality score accompanies the game and kicks in at the right moments, it adds to the overall atmosphere and swells/ebbs/flows just when you'd expect it to.
Great sound design accompanies the music and everything combines to bring Batman's world to life like never before. From the tink of a batarang as it strikes the metal wall behind a terrified thug to the snap of the grapple gun, it's all perfectly realised.
Voice and Dialogue
Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill return to their respective roles as Batman and the Joker. These two veterans of the voice industry have thrilled audiences with their performances from the Batman Animated series, countless video games and cartoons for ages and ages and it's awesome to hear their talents in the game. They deliver a great performance and they're both on top of their game with this title. They're joined by other veterans of the industry as well as the Batman Animated series too. In fact this game has some quality talent all around and even the bit part actors are excellent.
The dialogue is crisp and in some places perfectly hokey for the Batman universe, yet it all has an underlying menace about it and from every moment of perceived comedy comes a moment that will truly make you shudder as you realise just what's going on with Joker's plan. Paul Dini and the other writers have done a spot on job and crafted a storyline and dialogue that is truly worthy of the Dark Knight.
This is not the kiddy camp Batman that some people might think it is.
There isn't any, so you're going to have to contend yourself with the leaderboards and posting the best times for the many unlockable challenges in the game, split between combat and stealth gameplay types. All of your unlocked goodies from story mode carry on over here and these rooms are excellent to train you in the combat and takedown gameplay (as well as being a lot of fun).
Do you have bats in your belfry?
If you've made it this far on the review, then congratulations to you Bats, you're a braver man than I am. Seriously though, if you skipped to the end, well, there's only one thing you need to know about this game.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is awesome.
If you want more...well...this is /the/ comic book game we've all been waiting for and the Batman game that the Dark Knight has well and truly deserved for such a long time.
The PS3 has the additional Crime Alley and Joker content, this is well worth the price of admission and playing as the Joker requires a different mindset to Batman in the challenge rooms as the Clown Prince of Crime can't grapple and hide in the shadows; he has to be tricky and troublesome to his enemies instead.
If you haven't gone out and bought this yet, well, you need to.