Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum

I’m so glad to have played this game. I picked it up on launch day like so many others, but I didn’t know then what I was getting into. I was expecting a good game – I’d watched the videos, read some previews – but I certainly wasn’t expecting a potential Game of the Year. The gameplay is solid and engrossing, the art is great, the sound work is perfect, and the atmosphere never ceases to draw you in. There are plenty of reviews on the web for this game already that say exactly this, so I don’t feel the need to write another one here. Rather I want to talk about two things in particular that stood out for me from a professional point of view. Two things that set this game apart from all others I’ve played this year.

1. Where does he get those wonderful toys?

The weapons. These impressed me purely from a design point of view. Rocksteady have done an exceptional job of making each of them feel original. Some of Batman’s items are things that you don’t generally find in other games to start with so it’s no surprise that they feel unique. However even common video game weapon types like the explosive gel and the Line Launcher are presented in ways such that they don’t feel like weapons you’ve played with a hundred times before.

They achieve this in two ways. Firstly aesthetically: the explosive gel and the Batarang are basically just a remote mine and any throwing weapon, but they don’t feel as such. I appreciate the effort to reconceptualise these concepts into something thematically relevant to the Batman universe. And besides, no throwing weapon is as awesome as a Batarang!

The second is mechanically, and the Line Launcher is a perfect example of this. Its basic concept is that of a hookshot/grapple gun, and indeed I’ve read some comments from people wishing you could aim it vertically as well as along the horizontal (or at least downward). However I think this horizontal limitation works in the game’s favour, it stops the tool from simply being a hookshot clone (as well as helps to differentiate it from the already very simular Batclaw) and fundamentally changes the way the tool is used. Rather than just aiming where you want to go and launching yourself along, you have to find your way to a position of equal height before you can use it to reach your destination. This ties its use to the level design without the need for attach points and allows it to become a situational puzzle solving tool more than a use-anywhere mobility device. The end result is a mechanic unlike anything I’ve encountered in a game before.

Implementing an established mechanic may be a safe bet but it also runs the risk of feeling clich├ęd. I appreciate a game that makes the effort to reconceptualise these ideas – whether aesthetically or mechanically – and turn a familiar concept into something refreshing and interesting.

2. It’s time my enemies shared my dread

The second thing I want to talk about is perhaps Arkham Asylum’s greatest achievement: this game makes you feel like Batman. In many games I feel like I’m acting upon the avatar. Directing it and playing with it in the world like you would an action figure in a toy set. Arkham Asylum on the other hand is all about becoming the character, and most importantly it does this not through RPG like elements such as dialogue options or character building, but through the gameplay itself.

Arkham Asylum’s design encourages roleplaying – it expects you to do Batman like things and rewards you for doing so. The stealth gameplay is a perfect example of this. Hiding in the shadows, swinging around the ceiling, and watching as your enemies become increasingly terrified as you pick them off one by one using all manner of cunning takedowns is incredibly delightful. Likewise, watching the Dark Knight move swiftly about the room as you expertly string together combos in combat is like being in a Batman film.

Even when traversing the environment you feel like the Dark Knight: aided by the seamless, inter-connected level design, which helps to sell the idea that you are exploring a single environment; The controls and animation, which make doing Batman like things such zipping up to rooftops and gliding to the ground look and feel incredibly natural; The art and sound, which together create a wonderful atmosphere; And the unintrusive storytelling, which is expressed more so through the environment and the events going on around you than it is in the cut scenes.
In addition to this is the gameplay supporting the detective side of Batman, whether it be scanning the surroundings in Detective Mode, discovering hidden paths, solving the Riddler’s puzzles or delving into patient records.

Finally I have to give special mention to the amazing Scarecrow sequences. Importantly these allow the player to experience firsthand Batman’s own psyche, which further develops your understandings of the Batman character and strengthens your ties to him. Looking back, I consider these sequences to be crucial to the game’s full experience. Without them I may have understood Batman in an action sense – fighting villains and solving puzzles – but these allowed me to understand Batman in a psychological sense. I consider these sequences an insightful contribution to the game.

Arkham Asylum delivered for me an authentic Batman experience. So few games actually make me feel like the character I’m supposed to be playing, and yet this one excels at it. This is Arkham Asylum’s crowning achievement. This alone means it will probably end up being my favourite game of the year, and beyond that it’s a game I will remember for a very long time.

1 comment:

  1. Grats on starting the blog, Ben! Hm, this certainly makes me interested in trying the game.