September 9, 2009

I'm the Goddamn Batman

Yes, the quote is overdone, but man is it hilarious. Anyway, I picked up Batman: Arkham Asylum last week, after reading rave reviews and thoroughly enjoying the demo. Mostly, I'm going to focus on what could have been, so let me get this out of the way- it is an excellent game. If it had been a bit longer, and hadn't puttered out at the end like it did, it would be one of my game of the year contenders. Actually, if some of our end of the year titles disappoint, it may be yet. It's action-packed, fun, beautiful, well-designed, and wonderfully acted. This is one of those rare cases where the American voice acting is an absolute treat. It does a lot of things very well. But... I would probably give it an 8.5 were I the sort to give scores, maybe a little higher. Scores, all too often, seem arbitrary, though, so don't take that as my set opinion. Just take it as a guideline to how I feel, which I will explore in more depth here.

Okay, first off... the story. Batman captures the Joker after an astonishing simple fight, and cautiously takes him back to Arkham Asylum. He knows that something isn't right, but he's not sure what... and indeed, the moment he's seperated from the Joker, the madman escapes his guards, and manages to take over the Asylum, releasing thugs, crazies, and supervillains... and the Dark Knight is trapped with them. It's a simple, but thoroughly enjoyable setup- it feels very Joker, very true to the character and his style of plotting, and the real meat of the characters come from their interactions- everyone involved knows Batman, and most of them are trying to kill him... but the way they do it, the way they talk with him, and the minions (or lack thereof) they command give them all a very definitely flavor. I would say the only overlap that bothered me was how overly similar they made Killer Croc and Bane... and frankly, that's more a problem of their origins and abilties than of the writing of the game.

The story does really come apart at the end, though... it all comes down to a super-soldier serum, Joker wants it to make an army, Batman needs to stop him. Seriously. The first time comics used this, it was a boring plotline, and it's been used so many goddamn times. I don't care. It's a mega yawnfest at the end, and the focus brings down an otherwise stellar story. To put it another way... the story is minimalist, the focus is on the characters, and those characters are excellent. But in the end, the game shifts to focus on the story... and since the plot was designed as background, it really doesn't do well in the spotlight.

Side note here... the game was short, and you could say, "Well Six, how could they have made it longer in a natural manner?" The answer is pretty simple- more villains, and don't kill off Killer Croc without even a real fight. I know he's a moron, and I appreciate Batman casually besting him with a trap, but it made for a pretty dull level. Draw that out a little more, and having a boss fight where you had to dodge around while setting up a series of traps would have been excellent. And as for more villains? Heck, you even get bios for most of them as rewards in-game! Prometheus, Deadshot, Ra's al Ghul, and Two-Face all would have made for excellent fights and levels, Ra's al Ghul especially, though he would have little reason to be in Arkham.

Let's talk about gameplay. Arkham Asylum is a blast to play, in just about every element. It has the classic brawling segments so prevalent in superhero games, but a simple yet competent counter system, combined with the need to takedown an enemy (that is, actually knock them unconscious, not just knock them down) and a wonderful emphasis on the flow and momentum of combat makes these fights a simple joy. As Batman, a master of unarmed combat, fighting multiple enemies becomes preferred to fighting one-on-one. When surrounding, Batman can spin and flip, punch and kick, and interrupt any of these moves with a seamless, contextually appropriate counterattack. If this was the entirity of the gameplay, it would lack a little depth, but would suffice. But it isn't. We have the investigation mechanic, which is well done... and the predator gameplay.

You know that bit, in Batman Begins, where Batman's fighting some thugs at the docks, and he's isolating them, taking them out one by one as their buddies panic, and finally one of them screams in frustration and terror "Where are you?!" And then he bursts out of the shadows, declares "here", and then takes him out. That's how Batman does business... and that's how the predator action works. You hide in the shadows, scaring and tricking thugs into splitting up, and then oneshot them, and use that to further terrify your enemies into making more mistakes. Does it work well in gameplay? It is the most fun I have had all year. It is amazing. The game gives you plenty of tools, batarangs, explosives, grabbling hooks and such, and they work spectacularly, allowing you to perform all sorts of delicious takedowns.

There are three problems with it, though. One is that though it gives you the tools... it doesn't give you a lot of ways to apply them. You can use your cable launcher to pull people off cliffs, but not, oddly, to lift them off the ground. You can use your explosive gel to drop ceilings on baddies, or straight-up concussively blast them in the face, but you can't use the detonations to scare enemies away from an area. Really, they're not unreasonable limitations, but when you start capitalizing on the psychological aspect of combat, every missed mindgame begins to stand out. For all I could do, the functions of the tools suggested so much more. And I'm sorry... if I can lift up the entrance to a ventilation duct, and jump in or out in a mere moment... why, why, why would you deny me the chance to play shark, popping out just long enough to seize someone and pull them under with me?

The second problem is the escape mechanic- Arkham Asylum, like most things in Gotham City, is styled with gothic architecture, and there are gargoyles up in the ceiling for you to hide in, unseen. This gives you a great vantage point, both for scouting and for striking... but to put it bluntly, it makes things a little too simple. Sit up there, wait for someone to wander off, pounce, head back to gargoyle, repeat. The game does mix it up near the end- there is one room where the gargoyles have proximity explosives on them (the Joker's figured out your game), and you must therefore fight on foot. This part works tremendously well, and when the game then just goes right back to regular gargoyles again, it's a disappointment. I liked the idea that this sort of easy mode was gone, that I was expected to play better and smarter now. But alas, not a chance. It seems like the refrain of Batman: Arkham Asylum... every element of the game is awesome, but underexplored.

And the third problem is quite simple... the game is too short, and thus the predator segments too few. Far, far too often, you'll notice a pack of enemies, and get excited about the thought of a predator section... only to realize that they are just going to stand there until you get close enough to trigger a brawling segment. It's a disappointment and a missed opportunity, to be sure, even with as good as the brawling is.

Those are pretty much my only complaints with the game. I have finished it, yes, and I would like to play back through it again some time... but I would also greatly, greatly look forward to a more realized sequel using the same engine and mechanics. Fifty points if you let me do a flying kick with my portable zipline this time.

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