Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Batman: Arkham Asylum

While I haven't finished the game (yes, it's not a comic book, but read on even if you're not a hardcore gamer) as yet, I've played a fair deal of it and these are my impressions of it thus far. To put it in a nutshell, Batman: Arkham Asylum is not a great action game, great platformer or great adventure game; what it does however is to borrow enough good elements from all of these genres to make a great Batman game. As the title suggests, the setting is Arkham asylum where Batman's most memorable enemies (perhaps all of them, even) end up. The story begins with Batman wheeling the Joker in for an extended stay; only there's something fishy about the homicidal prankster's easy surrender. It's not long before Batman realizes it's a setup. Joker and his muscle-bound goons take over the asylum, and ol' Bats must catch the clown prince of evil before he unleashes his dastardly scheme find out, suffice to say it involves a few other Batman villains.

The best thing about BAA is how accessible it is to the non-hardcore player. Considering the sort of acrobatic moves people would expect Batman to perform, this could have well been one of those keyboard murdering nightmares only staunch fighting game fans would go for. As it turns out, the makers at Rocksteady studios have designed the Batman character to perform his trademark ownage maneuvers with very simple inputs from the player. It's a game for Batman fans, not just gamers that happen to like Batman. The scraps with Joker's henchmen at the beginning of the game can be won by mere random button-mashing (what I did), and the game is very ready with hints and suggestions if you're downed in a fight.

It's later on when you go up against a dozen or more thugs at a time that you begin to appreciate the range of Batman's acrobatic moves and apply them to your advantage in combat. But even in these cases you never have to press any impossible combination of keys, it's more about getting into the flow of the combat. Again the game is very helpful, with onscreen displays of which attacker is likely to strike and which keys to press for instant takedowns. In a laudatory move, the game is also very forgiving in the platforming aspect. A single key-press has Batman sending out a grappling hook and swinging himself on top of an edifice, and so long as there's ground beneath you, the game never causes you to die of even huge drops. Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia fans may scoff at all this hand-holding but better this than have Batman fans fear to undertake the very moves they see their hero performing.

There are several memorable setpieces in the game: Batman's refusal to pick up a gun is a design conceit that works brilliantly in the game's context making every encounter with machine-gun toting goons a delightful cat-and-mouse experience. The intelligence level of Batman's enemies is low but that works fine here too, because it means you can predict how the poltroons are going to react to whatever cockamamie scheme you're planning to take them down. Setting up a non-lethal explosive gel trap and luring enemies to it using one of their downed colleagues or a sonic batarang is a gas. One of my favorite set-pieces is when Batman faces off against a small battalion of electric prod-wielding thugs on a series of platforms which are randomly electrified by Harley Quinn  - leaping from platform to platform to avoid getting shocked, all the while laying down barrels of trademark Bat-whoop-ass upon the bad guys was a thrill I thoroughly relished.

BAA also incorporates some light detective work for the Darknight Detective with a player-activated objective mode in which Batman tracks down clues like cigar ash or fingerprints or even DNA traces (no deduction here, it's a follow the arrow mechanic). Objective mode also improbably allows Batman to have X-ray vision in which he can see enemies through walls and gauge how many are carrying firearms. It's a nice addition, but my only gripe is that it should come with some penalty on Batman's reflexes to restrict the player being permanently in X-ray vision mode. As of now the eye-strain of this mode is the only deterrent from keeping it always on. Apart from the aforementioned grappling hook, Batman gets a score of other useful devices including the trusty batarang, explosive gel aerosol, electronic lock decrypter etc.

The plotline isn't all that (Joker's scheme, at least so far as I have got, is disappointingly mundane), but the writing by Bruce Timm (who helmed the much-loved animated series) superbly evokes the Batman comics I loved as a kid (late 70's stuff) - y'know, serious but not mopey/psychotic. Even the obligatory “Batman relives the episode where his parents got killed” bit is handled with finesse. Throw in voice acting from series regulars Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker and you have major league goodness happening.

BAA also succeeds in being restrained in the use of Batman villains. The Scarecrow I have so far encountered only in dream levels where the game beautifully transforms itself into a side-scrolling stealth platformer where Batman must make his way over an obstacle course, avoiding the gaze of a giant Scarecrow till he reaches and manipulates the Bat-signal to dissolve the fearful phantasm. The Riddler from what I know is not actually seen in the game but his presence is conveyed in the form of riddles and collectible artifacts spread throughout the Arkham premises. Solving these little puzzles gives Batman experience points which he can use to upgrade his abilities or gadgets None of this is ground-breaking, but the implementation is impeccable and adds greatly to the fun of the game.

So if you're a Batman fan and own a reasonably recent computer with a decent video card you owe it to yourself to try this game out. The sequel Arkham City has already been announced and features Hugo Strange (mmmmm...). My wishlist for the sequel would include a little time for Bruce Wayne. Wayne himself was a bit of a badass as written in the Julius Schwartz era and the limitation of not being able to use all of Batman's tricks would add some spice. And yeah, tone down X-ray mode a bit.

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