A Serious Contender for Game of the Year
I grew up a huge fan of Batman: The Animated Series, which features the voices of Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy. To this day, I love that entire series with all my heart. Hell, one of the animated flicks, ‘Mask of the Phantasm’, used to give me nightmares as a kid (not anymore, I swear!). So it was with GREAT enthusiasm that I unwrapped my pristine copy of Batman: Arkham Asylum, from developer Rocksteady. With excellent voice-work, near perfect pacing, and an amazing setting, Arkham Asylum has successfully set itself apart from all but a handful of stand-out titles this year.
Coming in, it is crucial for Batman fans in particular to know that this game has very little to do with the graphic novel of the same name, other than the setting. This is not some dark and twisted look at Bruce Wayne and his alter ego’s psyche. Rather, this is a prime look at an area many don’t know much about. The psychiatric and prison facility monolith that is Arkham Asylum. It’s tough to argue that there has been a better setting for a Batman game. The halls are cramped, the atmosphere is decidedly creepy. There’s a near endless supply of enemies, and most of the crucial nemesis from the comics are present. All of this adds up to one hell of a time in the madhouse.
Let’s start with the obvious. Graphically, Batman: Arkham Asylum is stunning. Revealing a ton, and I mean a TON of detail, this is definitely a highlight of the generation, and hopefully developers will take a cue and start shooting this high. The detail in the Joker’s face, in particular, was unnerving to me at first, and the dark, dingy, and maniacal atmosphere of the asylum is rendered to perfection. There is a moment, when you emerge from a cave overlooking the main mansion of the asylum, that I literally put my controller down and stared for a moment. I realized that the world of Batman had finally been done justice visually, and future titles would be sure to impress. Yeah, that’s the comic book nerd in me acting up, and so what? This is a game for people who love Batman; who love comics. Just look at the pause menu, which freezes the image on screen in a comic book panel-like vinette. Or the wonderfully informative backstory revealed for each character as they appear, which you can expand upon with collectables found throughout the game.
Moving on to the audio in the game, we can yet again see the truly staggering production values amassed in this title. Hamill and Conroy return to their respective characters, to deliver two of the most entertaining performances in a game since Nolan North as Nathan Drake in ‘Uncharted: Drakes Fortune’. Hamill in particular shines here, and if ever a performance for a game needed to be recognized, this is it. In terms of atmosphere and feel, the game nails everything pretty much spot on. The asylum is creepy as hell (one encounter with Scarecrow will have everyone who plays it freaking out), the soundtrack is movie caliber, and the audio diaries found throughout the asylum offer some very entertaining looks at the colorful cast of characters that populate the world. The audio is overall silky smooth, an adjective that could easily describe the combat as well.
Let me go on record as saying that Batman: Arkham Asylum features perhaps some of the best free-flow combat I have ever seen in a video game. As surprisingly addicting as the most recent Prince of Persia, the combat requires some serious knowledge of distance and combo’s. Learning to counter becomes an absolute must. Later levels have henchmen upgrading their weaponry, and adapting to your fighting style. As such, you must adapt as well, or risk getting pummeled over and over again. No doubt, this is a game of trial and error, and insuring that you survive is paramount. Luckily, Batman isn’t caught unprepared. Along with such staples as the Batarang or the grapple, we are also given Explosive gel, various types and variations on the Batarang, and an extremely cool upgrade system that can add to your move set and combo capabilities. All in all, the gameplay certainly offers players a reason to complete the game multiple times through, on all difficulties.
Also adding some longevity to the game are the Riddler challenges. Every so often, the Riddler will flash a riddle across your screen, hinting at the location of another collectible. This quickly becomes an obsession, and most people will find themselves wanting to finish what they started, as the game tracks these stats for you with an overall “completed” percentage. Even more interesting are the challenge rooms. In each challenge room, you are tasked with completing each objective as specified. Whether it be neutralizing a certain amount of guards in the fastest time, or moving through a room undetected, these challenges add even more content to an already great experience. You’re certainly getting a lot of bang for your buck (Though it should be noted that the PS3 version of the game features an exclusive “Joker Challenge Room”, which allows you to play as the Joker. This adds a whole new layer of depth to the gameplay, and is wonderfully thought out).
When all is said and done, it would be almost criminal not to throw Arkham Asylum in to the “Game of the Year” discussion. Looking at Rocksteady’s track record, it’s amazing to see how far they’ve come, and how utterly and completely they have redeemed themselves of any sub-par release in the past. We now have a new standard by which we can judge a Batman game. Just like the “Dark Knight” film set the standard by which every superhero movie will now be judged, “Batman: Arkham Asylum” does the same for superhero video games. In fact, the game has already earned itself a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, as the “Most Critically Acclaimed Superhero Game”. Specific, yes, but completely true. Trust me, this is one game you HAVE to buy this year. And it comes before the tidal wave of games that will hit late this year and early next year. Do yourself a favor, and check yourself in to Arkham Asylum. The madhouse has never been this fun.