BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM (2009) – ROCKSTEADY STUDIOS
Let’s face it – Batman is cool. A billionaire playboy by day, and an ass kicking superhero with a million gadgets by night – quite simply, what’s not to like? There’s a good reason why the comics and the more recent films about the Dark Knight have done as well as they have; people have found the story of Bruce Wayne and his brooding alter ego to be fascinating over the years. It seems logical then that some intrepid developer would pick up on this success and produce games about Batman right? Well, over time they have, and there’s one small problem…
For the most part, the games have been utterly dire.
With the release of Tim Burton’s film in 1989, there came with it a plethora of cheap cash-ins for the likes of the SNES and the Mega Drive. From the mid 90’s onwards, the mere mention of ‘Batman’ and ‘video game’ in the same sentence was a death sentence, and lead to such garbage as Gotham City Racers. Up to 2009, it would be a fair argument to say that the best Batman game was Lego Batman; and as awesome as Lego may be, it doesn’t exactly capture the dark mood that Batman has established over the years. It looked as if we would forever be denied the opportunity to play a half decent Batman game. Enter Rocksteady Studios, a British company who only formed in 2004 and had only produced one game prior to 2009 (the underlooked Urban Chaos: Riot Response), who decided to make a game that would be worthy of being called a great Batman game. The result, Batman: Arkham Asylum, was not only by far the best Batman game ever created – it’s arguably the greatest superhero game ever created.
Part of the game’s strength lies in its source material – rather than base the game around the events of a film, Rocksteady sensibly decided that the story should draw from the extensive comic book lore, and hired veteran writer Paul Dini to craft a thrilling story. The game opens with Batman taking the recently caught Joker to Arkham Asylum. Upon reaching their destination however, the Joker breaks free and reveals that the whole plan was a trap for Batman, and he is now surrounded by some of his most famous adversaries, including Bane, The Scarecrow, Posion Ivy and of course the Clown Prince Of Crime himself. Taking the role of the Dark Knight, it is up to you to put the inmates back in their place via sweet badass justice and stop the Joker before his plan to create an army of Titans, humans injected with formulas giving them supermutant strength, threatens to ruin Gotham City. It might sound a bit over the top, but the story is delivered at a good pace and never comes off as being ridiculous, keeping you guessing at every turn.
The absolute best thing about Arkham Asylum however is the gameplay, because for the first time you actually feel like you are Batman. The game takes place from an over the shoulder third person perspective, and features one of the most diverse fighting systems I have come across in an adventure game. Utilising a system known as Freeflow, if Batman gets caught up by a group of thugs, he can attack using the X button, stun enemies with his cape by using B and perform a counter using the Y button when prompted on screen. It’s a very simple system to get to grips with, and the engine used in game can produce some almost ballet-esque fighting at times, as Batman leaps around beating goons (if you time your button presses well, a combo meter will appear which will allow you to deal more damage and react quicker). At some points in the game, you will be forced to adopt a more stealthy approach, and arguably it’s even more fun than the flat out melees. Batman can use various vantage points to swoop down on unsuspecting enemies, and he can also creep around and administer silent takedowns. There are ever present prompts to help you work out the best plan of attack, which is handy later on as the guards start packing guns and stun rods, requiring a bit more strategy to take down. Happily, you also have a range of gadgets that you can employ in combat, such as the famous Batarangs, a Batclaw to pull people towards you, and even explosive gel which you can place on surfaces to stun enemies as they walk by.
My personal favourite part of the game however is that you have the opportunity to take the role of the world’s greatest detective. With a simple press of the LB button, Batman can activate ‘Detective Mode’, which highlights enemies and their current state of mind, vantage points that can be grappled to and air vents that can be climbed into, breakable walls, the solution of puzzles etc. The mode is also used at various points in the story to track down enemies – one particularly inspired sequence has you following traces of alcohol vapour – and helps to pace the game from just being a button mashing affair. Detective Mode is also nigh on essential to collect all the Riddler Trophies, collectibles strewn across the island that will require your highest levels of cunning and skill to collect; some of the riddles in particular had me in a right old muddle. Collecting trophies has more benefits than just simple achievements however, as by collecting enough of them you can unlock character files and secret asylum recordings (allowing several characters not in the game to have some exposure), and unlock bonus combat and Predator maps to play through from the main menu, which add to the longevity of the game.
On the whole however, the gameplay doesn’t quite do enough to keep you fully interested for the length of the story. Sure, initially its bloody cool to deliver ass-kickings to goons and pretend you are Solid Snake, but the process soon becomes rather repetitive, and really rather frustrating as you get to the latter parts of the game where even the tiniest mistake can lead to your death. The process isn’t aided by the boss fights, which are relatively disappointing and rely on a formulaic approach; beat some bad guys, dodge, hammer away at the bosses while they are weakened, repeat x 3. You will also find yourself getting disorientated by constant backtracking through environments as events unfold in the Asylum; granted, some of the storyline events are genuinely excellent (in particular anything to do with the Scarecrow), but going back for obscure Riddler trophies can be a maddening process. In the end, ironically one of the games best traits, being a taut well paced affair, ultimately comes back to haunt it.
Rocksteady also worked hard to make sure that the atmosphere of Arkham Asylum felt pitch perfect, and they did a superb job in that respect. The world of Arkham is a cocktail of the gothic structures of Burton’s Batman, combined with the more modern elements of Nolan’s reboot films. The asylum feels…out of control – it’s a dark, gritty island, eternally bathed in moonlight, and the inmates all look suitably deranged. It’s the small touches that work the best to create the foreboding atmosphere; such as the pieces of paper strewn around of the floor, the cracked walls, the flickering lights overhead, all of which are presented with stellar visuals. Combat in particular in a satisfying experience to watch, as the camera will slow down and focus on the final blow that Batman delivers to his opponents. In addition to this graphical quality is a thoroughly competent audio experience – Rocksteady decided in a stroke of genius to have the actors from the 1992 animated series to come back and reprise their roles, meaning we have the likes of Kevin Conroy voicing Batman, and Mark Hamill delivering a terrific performance as the Joker amongst others. There’s also a Hans Zimmer-inspired ambient soundtrack to glide along to, which is one of those soundtracks that just feels in place rather than being spectacular at any one point.
I like to think that no-one was expecting Rocksteady to deliver a game of such quality when Arkham Asylum was released, and therefore the universal praise it received from the press was all the more heartfelt. To have got the combat and stealth spot on, as well as combining it to an excellent story and a gritty, enveloping atmosphere, is a wonderful achievement on Rocksteady’s behalf. It’s just a shame that some of the combat and boss fights can be a bit repetitive at times, but I think initially at least that it put off by the fact that for the first time since Spiderman 2 in 2004, you actually get a sense that you are the man in the costume. With the sequel having been released last Christmas, copies of Arkham Asylum are dirt cheap; if you want one of the best action adventure experiences of the past few years, you can’t really go wrong with Arkham Asylum