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Over the years the video game portrayal of Batman has been extremely one-dimensional: he's a crime fighter with a cool car who beats people up with his bare hands. There's never been any exploration of the other sides of the character: the detective, the guilt-ridden son, the inventor, the invisible predator. With Batman: Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady Studios has created a game that does justice to decades' worth of comics.
Arkham Asylum is the isolated mental facility where all of Batman's foes are incarcerated. The premise of Arkham is that Joker has taken over the asylum along with the other inmates. Though the game's story shares similarities with the Grant Morrison graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, it was actually written by Batman: The Animated Series producer/scribe Paul Dini and deviates significantly from Morrison's work. It's a great set-up for a game because it provides an easy way for Batman to encounter many of his old enemies at once. The story's executed well, too. The asylum is littered with old interview tapes from the villains' therapy sessions so even a Batman newbie will know who they're up against. Even though you don't have direct contact with the Joker for most of the game, he's a constant presence because of his "Joker TV" broadcasts on the asylum's closed circuit television and intercom system.
There is some platforming in Arkham but it's not like Tomb Raider where you're falling down pits of doom over and over because you didn't make a jump at the right angle. The platform sequences in Arkham are really about figuring where you need to go next and then using the appropriate gadget to get there. The hardest thing you'll do is glide, and that's just a matter of holding down your jump button while you fall and nudging the analog stick back and forth. Your basic means of conveyance is the grappling hook, which pulls you onto a nearby ledge with a press of a button.. A little circle is shown on a ledge if you're in range to hook onto it so you won't just be running around tapping the button at random. If you miss a jump and are about to fall down a chasm, you can grab a ledge by pressing the same button to save yourself. Eventually you'll gain other items like a zip line to allow you to explore previously inaccessible territories, giving the game a bit of a Metroid vibe.
Though Arkham is much more complex than previous Batman beat 'em ups, hand-to-hand combat is still a huge component of the game. Arkham's combat is a bit like Assassin's Creed, in that you'll face large groups of foes at a time and the key is countering their attacks while staying mobile. Once you rack up a streak of hits, you can unleash a finishing move. You'll lose your streak count after a couple seconds without landing a hit so you won't do many finishers until you're trying to get high scores in the combat challenges (more on that later). You can just mash the attack and jump buttons and kick ass for a good portion of the game but eventually enemies will get weapons and you'll need to either stun them or attack them from behind. Even in the earlier, easier portions of the game these fights are extremely compelling because even the base attacks look incredible. There's a wide variety of animations and just watching Batman pummeling a half dozen guys at the same time is entertaining if not always challenging.
Arkham is really one of the best-looking games in memory. By now you've certainly seen pictures of the characters and rest assured those aren't touched up - they really look that good in and out of cut scenes. I'll admit, I got tired of looking at the asylum's hallways and offices after awhile but luckily the game lets you travel around outside as well. You won't spend too much time out there until you're looking for secret items but being able to walk (or glide) amongst the island's gothic architecture, tall cliffsides and overgrown vegetation is a nice respite from all the crawling through air ducts you'll do. The load times between different sections of Arkham are surprisingly short, too.
Rocksteady makes it easy to spot crucial objects/characters amongst the visual smorgasbord by providing Batman with a special sensors. Tap a button and you'll go into "Detective Mode" - the world will take on a bluish tinge while crucial objects and enemies will be highlighted. Detective Mode keeps the game world easy to navigate but truth be told, the actual detective work that Batman does in the game is few and far between. At one point in the game, you'll scan an office to find a trace of some character you want to track. Upon locating his preferred bottle of booze, you're then able to track him based on the alcohol vapors in the air - in other words, you follow a long line of little clouds to get to the character. It's not a terrible way of getting the player to get where you want to go but the game does the exact same thing a few times over. About ten minutes after tracking the boozehound, you track another character based on the trail of tobacco he left. The game doesn't really give you puzzles to solve or clues to piece together - the biggest mysteries you'll solve in the campaign are of the "Where's the ventilation shaft that'll let me bypass this locked door?" variety. I suppose finding the game's hidden extras is kind of like being a detective, though.
One area in which the Detective Mode sensor really shines is during the stealth segments of the game. While you'll generally just run headlong into groups of pipe-wielding goons, you'll need to use more finesse when you encounter henchmen with firearms. They can take you out fairly quickly if you're spotted so you'll need to use stealth. These foes show up as red (as opposed to light blue for unarmed foes) on your sensors so it's readily apparent when you'll need to exercise caution.
A typical stealth sequence will have Batman in a room with a half-dozen or so henchmen and you'll have to take all of them out to proceed. You can crouch behind obstacles and perform silent takedowns once you're behind an enemy but there's many more options. There are a bunch of contextual takedowns to allow you to take advantage of the environment - for example, if you're standing on a glass ceiling with the enemy below you, you can smash through it and land on him. The rooms of Arkham typically have giant gargoyles up near the ceiling that you can travel between with your grappling hook. You can use the gargoyles to swoop down onto unsuspecting enemies or to grab a foe passing underneath and string him up by his ankle. When you're seen by enemies, you'll disappear from view by zipping up to a gargoyle, then quickly traveling between other gargoyles until the henchman lose track of you.
Bouncing between the gargoyles to escape enemies' notice feels very artificial and can make things a bit too easy once you get the hang of it. Still, the game throws some interesting wrinkles at you to make the stealth a little more interesting. For example, in the latter half of the game, the henchmen start wearing tracking collars so that they know immediately where and when a colleague is knocked out. They're pretty clever anonymous thugs, as well. As their friends start getting picked off, they'll become jittery and keep looking behind themselves (making it harder to sneak up on them). They'll also pair off with other goons and start walking around back to back while they search the room. You'll have some gadgets to allow you to set traps (such as explosive gel you can use to blow up walls and bury them in rubble) but for the most part, you'll need to get up close and personal to put enemies down for the count. You can't just sit up in the rafters and snipe people to death with Batarangs. Hitting someone with a Batarang might knock them out a couple seconds but you'll need to hop down and slam his face into the ground, putting yourself at risk to be discovered by his friends.
Stealth is really the highlight of the game for me because it lets you actually feel like Batman. This is who he is - an invisible hunter who makes criminals crap their pants. Looking at your prey in Detective Mode lets you see their pulse, which gradually climbs as you take out their friends. They'll shoot at an old boiler that starts and talk to themselves in scared tones. There's plenty of stealth action games out there but Arkham's one of the few that lets you feel like you've got the upper hand on the people you're trying to remain hidden from.
You'll face a number of big villains from the comics in Arkham but, oddly enough, these fights are generally less fun than battling random henchmen. In some cases the encounter just needed to be fleshed out a bit more. I don't want to give away too much regarding which bosses you'll encounter so I'll stick to one example: Killer Croc. You're in his sewer trying to find an item and must slowly walk along planks floating on the water so he can't detect where you are. There's even a little sound meter on your UI for this segment to show how much noise your footsteps are making. If you're too loud, he'll pop out of the water and you'll knock him down with a Batarang before he snags you. The only thing really being tested here is whether you have a pulse - you've got basically seven or eight seconds to toss off a Batarang at the guy and that action only takes a quick double-tap of a shoulder button. It's a very long boss fight without enough depth to really sustain it. There's an intriguing hallucinatory encounter with another supervillain that explores Batman's past but other than that, most of the boss fights are short on interesting mechanics. It's a shame because these fights had so much narrative build-up and could have been an effective cap on an otherwise solid game.
Once you've completed the 10-12 hour campaign, there's still a lot of game left. There are 240 hidden extras to find throughout Arkham island: the interview tapes mentioned earlier, Chronicles of Arkham (hidden recordings by Amadeus Arkham, founder of the asylum), Riddler trophies (standard collectibles), and the items that correspond to the Riddler's riddles. You can keep exploring the island after you beat the game so you don't need to hold off on finishing the campaign just so you can find all the hidden goodies. These extras give you additional background information about the Batman universe and also unlock Challenges. Challenges are standalone stealth or combat encounters which you strive to complete as quickly or efficiently as possible. With the combat Challenges, you'll gain more points than normal by racking up long combo streaks and using finishers. Each Challenge has its own online leaderboard so you can see how your scores stack up against other players. What's nice about these Challenges is that they allow you to play the "meat" of the game (the fights and stealth) at any time you want. You'd need to replay the campaign to do the boss fights over but as I said, they're really not all that great so it's no loss.
While there were definitely missed opportunities with the boss battles and investigative aspects of Arkham, it's hard not to appreciate the polished, innovative package that Rocksteady has delivered gamers. There's still four months to go in 2009 and there's going to be plenty of big games during that time so this might seem like a hollow statement but I'll say it anyway: this is the front-runner for Game of the Year. Even if you hate Batman, you'll still find reasons to like Arkham.
Players: 1 Player
Platform(s): Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Eidos Interactive