Tuesday, May 7, 2013

One Hour Playthrough: Batman Arkham Asylum

I'm playing through my vast game collection one game at a time, one hour at a time.

Game: Batman Arkham Asylum
Developer: Rocksteady
Publisher: Warner Brothers
Published in: 2009
Genre: Action
Rating: T

To anyone who knows me, this does not come as a big surprise, but I LOVE Batman. I have loved Batman ever since I first saw the 60's TV show in reruns in 1969 and have followed his comic adventures since before I could read. I have at least two shelves of just books (not comics, but books) about Batman and own every comic the character has headlined as well as his appearance in another character's comic since Batman's "new look" debuted in 1964.

You should see my Batman bathroom. Then again, the less said about that the better

I've played every Batman video game made - from the cruddy PC title to pretty good Super Nintendo Adventures of Batman and Robin to Lego Batman - only to be (mostly) disappointed with the results. However, what was missing was a truly great Batman game that was based on the comic book - one that featured all his classic villains, gadgets and made the player feel like Batman. (sadly, I didn't feel like Batman when I was made of Lego) It was a tall order that no developer seemed capable of achieving. Then came Batman Arkham Asylum. Now, I realize having already played this game will make my review a teensy bit skewed, but I will endevour to remain neutral. It's been years since I played Batman Arkham Asylum to completion so it's time to put back on the cowl of the Dark Knight and see how Batman Arkham Asylum (selected by YOUR request!) holds up - at least for the first hour. Let's game up!

The cover is pretty simple. Batman (Albeit a more armored Batman than we're used to seeing in the comics, ...but not in the movies) stares out at us, Arkham Asylum looms in the background. I don't know if this is the regular version of the game because I went ahead and bought this version when it first came out instead:

I told you, I love Batman. Plus that Batarang is pretty sweet

There is no manual but there is an art book and a batarang! Since we don't read the manual during One Hour Playthroughs we won't read the art book either! Let's just start playing! The game starts the way any good Batman game should - with Bats standing on a gargoyle, overlooking Gotham. From this screen, we see that developer Rocksteady is treating Batman with great restraint and respect. No Pow! Zap! or Bam! here.... not that there's anything wrong with that. :)

Simple and yet so Batman

I press start and hooray! I don't have to overwrite my old game! Four beautiful slots to save in. I create a new game file and then I am asked to adjust the brightness; after all, there must be shadows for Batman to lurk in. A note about transitions in Batman Arkham Asylum. Every screen transition is accompanied with a flurry of bats. It's a great transition trick that doesn't drop the player out of the game. I'm given my choice of difficulty (I choose normal) and a cut scene starts.

Walking is not gameplay... unless you are teaching the player how to walk, use the camera and telling story all at the same time

Batman has once again captured the Joker and is bringing him back to Arkham. The game seamlessly transitions into a "playable" sequence where Batman accompanies the trussed-up Joker into the heart of the asylum. The player can walk and move the camera around. Guards talk to Batman as he passes by. It's a nice narrative trick that keeps the player engaged while learning the basics of movement and camera controls. As we make our way further into the asylum, we see other familiar Batman characters like Arkham guard Aaron Cash - who was a relatively recent character in the comics at the time of the game's release. We also get our first look at Killer Croc. These nods to the comic universe are extremely satisfying to us hardcore Batman fans.

Tell me you don't hear Mark Hamill's Joker right now

But fan service is another reason why Batman Arkham Asylum works so well. Rocksteady wisely cast the talent from exceptional Batman the Animated Series. Series scribe Paul Dini wrote the script. Kevin Conroy is still the best Batman ever and I can't read a Batman comic anymore without hearing Mark Hamill's Joker in my head.

Button prompts don't annoy me as much as they could

Of course, all of this has been a set-up by the Joker who takes over the asylum. Combat training starts for the player as Batman is attacked by several goons. Even the most flagrant button-masher can feel like the bad-ass that is Batman with this extremely fluid combat system of attacks and counters. It's no wonder why every action game has tried to replicate it or at least come up with their own version of it. Dispatching the last thug in a group ends in a beauty-shot of Batman administering the coup de grace - an elegant solution to letting the player know the fight is over and enjoy Batman doing what he does best.

Time to knock some teeth out

After defeating the bad guys, I explore a little. Tearing a grate off a wall reveals the first Riddler trophy and a room full of Joker teeth gives me a first taste of using the batarang. A long corridor allows me a chance to run without feeling like I need to stop every foot to search for hidden items. Batman Arkham Asylum does what most superhero game forget to do - provide the illusion of a full-functional character while still letting the player level-up. Batman has all his gear and abilities, he just doesn't use them until he needs them. It's a lesson I hope the creators of whatever Superman game is next learns.

Sadly, I could tell you all this from memory

Just as I polish off another group of thugs, Oracle contacts me. This allows for the introduction of character bios. As I open up the bio screen, I see there are several already waiting for me: Batman, Joker, Warden Sharp... every character I've interacted with so far. These bios feature some nice comic artwork and the bios act like the recorders in Bioshock - providing background at the player's pace. A less subtle game would have forced the player to read them the moment they were collected.

It's a bit too Mad World for my taste

As I stop my game at the hour mark and hit pause, I notice one more thing that bears comment. Whenever the player pauses, the options are displayed over a black and white captured image of whatever's going on in the game. While I'm not a huge fan of the look, it's a detail that some games neglect. Many developers treat the pause screen as not being as important to the developers as the main game - but the truth is, it's ALL important. They call it gestalt - which means everything is designed together - and it can turn your game from a collection of pages, screens and ideas to a fully-formed piece of art.

So, do I send Batman Arkham Asylum back to its cell or do I keep plunging forward into the madhouse?

What I would do differently? There's a lot of story in the first hour of Batman Arkham Asylum, but unlike many other games it felt necessary and certainly kept me entertained. The black and white pause screens seem a little off-brand for Batman (I guess they're going after the starkness of a black and white comic page? But control-wise, story-telling wise, visually and gameplay-wise Batman Arkham Asylum plays like a dream.

Will I keep playing? Absolutely - which is a bit baffling since I'm finishing up playing the sequel Batman Arkham City. I'm finding myself drawn to replaying Batman Arkham Asylum. It's a tighter experience, a little more compact and a little more manageable than it's big city cousin. All I know is, it was the game I had been waiting a long time for.

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