Batman: Arkham Asylum, a Day in the Life of the Dark Knight.

Last year, whilst not a stellar year for games due to many delayed releases slipping into 2010, still had many great games towards the end of the year. I’ve played my way through most of them and for those who have been following my exploits over the past 6 months or so know the quality has been pretty high. Naturally after playing AAA title after AAA title my expectations for games have been set rather high and lesser games (namely Bayonetta and Supreme Commander 2) have been left sitting on the shelves waiting for their turn. After looking through my Steam list I remembered that I got Batman: Arkham Asylum as part of the Eidos pack when it was a mere $50 and on the advice of many of my friends I decided to give it a go.

Thankfully Arkham Asylum, whilst drawing on the rich background offered by the Batman IP, isn’t based off any of the Batman movies that have been released. This helps it avoid the usual filter the gaming community puts on movie based games (read: utter rubbish) and gave the developers a lot more creative freedom with developing the story and characters. Still every aspect that makes Batman who he is will be shown to the player at some point so that even dedicated Batman fans will find something in the game that appeals to them.

The story begins with Batman bringing in The Joker to Arham Asylum, a super prison dedicated to housing the myriad of Gotham’s super-villains. Whilst it’s somewhat disappointing that you can’t gallivant around Gotham city like the real Batman the game still does its best to make you feel like the caped crusader, a shining beacon of justice in an increasingly dark world.  Whilst I initially felt very detracted from Batman and his supporting characters after the first few hours of gameplay I found myself wanting to know more about all of them, hoping to gain some form of insight into the twisted minds of the characters laid out before me.

My first gripe about the game is that (during the first few hours before I became wholly engrossed in the story) the whole experience feels a little cheap. The graphics for instance aren’t terribly spectacular even when everything is cranked up to the max and the pre-rendered videos were done using the game engine. Whilst I can appreciate that this was done to keep the pace of the game and gloss over loading screens when you have pre-rendered movies and in-game sequences that look the same I start wondering why you bothered pre-rendering them at all. This is probably because the movies were rendered at a much lower screen resolution than my monitor (1680 x 1050), making them appear rather blocky. Additionally the in game dialogue sequences were often rather stilted with the characters barely moving and the faces showing little to no emotion. I know I’ve been spoiled with Mass Effect and Uncharted and it’s probably not fair to compare them, but that still didn’t take away that cheap feeling.

The most enjoyable part of Arkham Asylum is the combat. On first look it appears to be something of a hack ‘n’ slash adventure with a rapid succession of clicks able to take down a group of foes with little trouble. After a while though more and more variables are thrown in that force you to use other moves and combos in order to come out the other end successfully. Just when you think you’re unstoppable the game would throw yet another larger challenge at you, bringing you down a peg. It was this ramping up of the action that hooked me and kept me in my seat for the last 4 hours of the game, giving the bad guys of Arkham a good throttling. The only issue I had was counter moves not working most of the time, but I got around that by throwing Batman wildly all over the place to avoid having to use it.

On the flip side of this rough and tumble action game is a surprisingly well done stealth combat system. So whilst you could happily punch every foe into the ground there are some situations that will be a might be easier if you instead sneak your way around them and take them out quietly. The unlockable upgrades for Batman allow for many interesting ways to take out your opponents quietly, such as hanging upside down from a gargoyle and then swooping down and hanging them upside down by one leg. Since the days of of the Theif games few games have been able to do stealth right but Arkham Asylum gets it just right as it is both enjoyable and as thrilling as punching your way through the game.

Yet another interesting mechanic is that of the good old fashioned platformer. There are several occasions where the camera will become locked and you’re forced into a good old fashioned jump puzzle, with the added complication of avoiding detection by a giant madman with glowing eyes. This psyhcological thriller mini-game was one of my favourite frustrations of Arkham Asylum as it was just so far apart from the regular gameplay in terms of what you do and where you are.

Lastly you’re Batman the crack detective, following evidence and solving various puzzles to move the story along. I’ll admit a few of these had me stumped for a good while, reaching out to the Internet for answers. Still for the vast majority I was able to knock them down without too much hassle, giving me that warm fuzzy feeling that we all get when we conquer something without having to take the easy way out.

Overall Batman: Arkham Asylum was one of those games that was in my to-play list but I’d never really given a second thought to. It’s received wide spread critical acclaim and garnered enough talk amongst my friends to have cemented itself firmly as a must play amongst us all and after playing through it I can see why. It just oozes that classic Batman feel and the little extra bits like the character bios and interview tapes just help to draw you in that much more. The game wraps up beautifully and lends itself to a sequel without leaving too many loose ends, and I for one can’t wait to see what these guys come up with next.

Rating: 8.5/10

Batman: Arkham Asylum is available right now on the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC for $99, $99 and $49.99 respectively. Game was played on the second hardest difficulty setting with around 12 hours of gameplay and 65% completion on one playthrough.

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