Whether or not you’re a comic book fan, Batman has established himself as everyone’s favorite anti-hero. Is he just as much of a monster as those he hunts? While the The Dark Knight dished out grittiness and realism by the boat loads in theaters, Arkham Asylum was announced as the next big Batman video game title. Skeptical of super hero games, I found myself drawn to the idea of a realistic Batman story incorporating detective and stealth skills; the true centerpiece of his arsenal.
Does the game succeed in its endeavors? The results are promising.
Though video games and comics are two different mediums, the artistic and visual style of both set the stage for the story’s feel. If cartoony graphics set a playful, light-hearted tone, then the beefed up, ultra gritty graphics of Arkham Asylum try desperately to push the game into maturity overdrive. Bruce Wayne, along with every other male in Arkham, has not shaved in weeks. They also haven’t slept, and scowl at anything that makes a sound or looks at them funny. While this look does scream: “this isn’t your friendly neighborhood Batman and Joker fight,” the style borders on too much. The depth of detail in the characters’ faces combined with the obsessive grittiness renders the look completely exaggerated and unrealistic. This disparity is only noticeable during dialogue and cut scenes, but it tends to suck the reality out of the moment.
During combat, with the camera panned out, the look blends well with the surroundings of Arkham. However, along with the grittiness, there’s a tendency to broaden Batman’s shoulders and force the character into a stiff gait. For a character that’s supposed to be quick and stealthy, Batman moves rigidly, turning his body in abrupt ninety degree angles like a foosball figurine navigating an inch-wide rat maze. The good thing about this design is that it does coincide with a slower pace compared to what one would expect for a Batman title. In actuality, Batman is slower than a hero like Spiderman, so hindering his movements to a much slower, deliberate pace makes the fist combat more apropos. And that’s where the game gets fun.
The hand-to-hand combat is rather simple in nature, with square doing most of the work, and quick, slow motion cut scenes engaging every few seconds to round out a cinematic experience. Pulling me into a slower animation at the end of a flurry of punches does look ridiculously cool, and the only thing I hope is that it doesn’t grow tiresome as the game wears on.
The fight scenes still look amazing, however, with Batman taking on a myriad of unarmed foes. He can attack multiple enemies, counter another coming from behind, after which he’s sent into a slow motion event during which he proceeds to incapacitate or deal debilitating blows to all of them. You’ll appreciate this kind of combat for its visual appeal as well as its realistic, brutal feel.
The real gem of the game, however, is the idea that Batman is smart and stealthy. Rarely does he come into a room with “guns blazing,” instead picking off foes one by one, instilling fear in those who can’t see into the shadows. In this game, you’ll finally be able to be that kind of Batman. In “detective” mode, interactive parts of the room are illuminated so that you’re able to grapple to places up in the rafters. You can then monitor and be aware of all the enemies below; their heart rate, and their disposition, as well as waiting for them to stray to a corner by themselves.
The first time I entered a room with armed enemies, I tried to brawl it out and died faster than you could say, “grappling hook.” The next time, I moved up to the rafters, did a silent take down on the first guy, and an inverted take down on the second guy, where Batman comes down from the rafter and quickly lifts the enemy off the ground before dropping him unconscious. I then brawled the third guy. These are the kinds of decisions that will have to be made. Batman can do a glide take down or he can drop silently and use a batarang. But the one thing he can’t do, as in the most realistic of circumstances, is drop into a room full of guns, fists swinging.
With this kind of intricate combat setup, I have high hopes for the rest of the game. The mechanics implemented in the demo alone demonstrate an immense avenue of opportunity for creative situations. How many different ways can you clear a room and can you do it without a gun ever being fired? While these possibilities cause me to salivate, I’m hoping enough variation is allowed. One of the scenarios I ran through simply had me sitting up on gargoyles silently picking people off. While this is interesting and better than brawling it out, in my opinion, I had to wonder how many times I would be forced to simply wait and silently take people down. I could see some of the actions becoming repetitive if the scenarios are not varied enough.
Also, I have to wonder how linear the game will become with only a select few options in where and how you can implement Batman’s abilities. At one point, I couldn’t grapple until I had engaged a cut scene of sorts. I’m hoping this is only a symptom of the beginning of the game, and demo. The demo ends right before a boss fight, so there will be plenty of brawling to break up the more Metal Gear-like combat.
Surprisingly enough, I think they get Batman right. The only thing left to ascertain is the quality of story. Taking a Batman game to Arkham Asylum already speaks wonders about the possible character inclusions as well as the darker side of Batman villainry. Despite an odd artistic style, and some clunky movement, the concepts are worth exploring. I can’t wait to see how they build an entire game around these newer manifestations of Batman’s world. If all that isn’t enough, you should know that Mark Hamill’s Joker voice is worth the cost of the game by itself. Just be sure that, on Aug. 25, 2009, you pack your shark repellant bat spray for Batman: Arkham Asylum.
We’ve been playing many games at E3… stick with Gamer Limit as we let you know what we thought of them all. Register here.