Thursday, July 28, 2011

Xbox 360 review: Batman: Arkham Asylum

The story of Arkham Asylum begins with Batman having captured the Joker once again. After arriving back at Arkham, Batman informs the guards that he is suspicious of the whole scenario, since Joker didn't put up much of a fight. Not long after, it is revealed that Harley Quinn has infiltrated Arkham under the guise of a newly-employed nurse, and she releases the asylum's many inmates while the Joker runs off. Though Batman is quick to take out the weaker thugs he first encounters, he realizes he will have his work cut out for him rounding up the more powerful, iconic villains, as well as getting to the bottom of Joker's plans.

The layout of the game is a combination of linear scripted events and the free-roam environments of the Asylum grounds and buildings. While the transition to different areas can seem a bit choppy at times, serving to the convenience of squeezing in most of the major villains from the Batman universe, the story prevents this from weighing the experience down and things keep chugging along smoothly enough. The more wide-open expanses of the island, as well as many of the corridors of each building, are host to a number of collectibles and Riddler challenges, which can unlock character bios and trophies.

Batman's close-quarters combat is fairly simplistic in design, utilizing three buttons to attack, counter, and stun, and allowing combo moves to automatically play out after these are chained together without Batman taking too many hits. Batman can also knock out thugs who are temporarily stunned, though this will leave him vulnerable for a few seconds to other nearby inmates. Glide kicks, silent takedowns (where Batman sneaks up behind one thug without alerting others), and inverted takedowns (where Batman hangs from a Gargoyle mounted on the wall and strings up a thug and leaves him hanging) are available for segments that require a more stealthy approach. There's also a small arsenal of gadgets at Batman's disposal, including the batarang, batclaw, explosive gel, grappling hook, zipline launcher, and code sequencer, each of which is used fairly often and complement the more action-heavy sequences quite nicely.

While Batman encounters a slew of big name villains, he doesn't encounter all of them in traditional boss fights. Some, such as Bane, are tackled in a more straightforward boss fight, while Scarecrow challenges Batman to some Metal Gear-style sneaking in a nightmare realm (courtesy of his fear gas), and Killer Croc jumps out sporadically as Batman scours Arkham's sewers in search of a plant to counteract Joker's chemicals. The final boss fight is, admittedly, a bit disappointing when compared to all of the fantastic encounters Batman has prior to the game's conclusion. The voice acting is top-notch all around, though Mark Hamill really steals the show as The Joker. The dialogue is very well-scripted, and can be genuinely hilarious at times. With regards to immersing players in the experience, this combination works wonderfully, as every one of the villains is a great reflection of how they appear in the comics. And though not every one of Batman's foes receives a starring role in the game, a few easter eggs give nods to the likes of Mr. Freeze, Calendar Man, and Clayface.

The art style has some obvious influences from its comic book roots, as well as from the 1990s cartoon. Character models are pretty evenly divided between those two source materials, while the setting and story both aim for dark and eerie. There is some stylization with the game's graphical direction, though it's not host to any vibtantly cel-shaded characters like those present in Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Arkham Asylum is a very colorful game, however, with nicely detailed environments. A few textures here and there leave something to be desired, but overall the game does a great job of maintaining its roots while building its own identity as a narrative in the Batman universe.

The game does hit a few snags along the way. This is most notable in a handful of scripted events that require players to perform a certain task or attack, without giving them a good grasp on what it is they are supposed to do. This will ultimately lead players through a trial-and-error process, which lasts longer than it needs to.

On the flipside, there are times where game goes out of its way to stun players with some of its mechanics. The Riddler challenges, though simple enough in concept, provide some fun sleuthing while testing player's knowledge of Batman and co. Segments where Scarecrow's gas affects Batman distort the camera angle and - on one most notable occasion - throws the game on its head to mess with both the Dark Knight and the player.

The game will last around twelve hours for a single playthrough. Upon completing the main storyline, players can still solve the Riddler challenges, though they will need to start the story mode over again if they wish to revisit any of the boss fights. Challenge mode will allow players to take on the Joker's thugs in various areas around Arkham, and are divided into two styles of play. Combat challenges pit Batman against hordes of thugs that increase in both numbers and difficulty as waves progress. Predator challenges, on the other hand, require Batman to take out armed thugs without being detected. While these challenges provide a snapshot of the game as a whole, the entertainment factor only lasts so long.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is a rare gem among licensed games. It has its deepest roots in the comic book storyline, but doesn't hesitate to explore familiar characters in new ways. The gameplay is solid, the boss segments brilliantly planned, and the game is - simply put - a ton of fun to play. It might not be a perfect game, but with everything that Arkham Asylum has done right, it's a fantastic start to a new franchise.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

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