Monday, 17 January 2011

Dear Lord, Batman: Arkham Asylum is absolutely excellent!

Well, I already knew that Batman: Arkham Asylum was good when it was released and everybody were surprised at how good a Batman video game can actually be. I certainly were surprised, because I remember watching the early demo videos at PwnorDie back when the site was a video host and thinking to myself "that game is NOT going to be a hit". Well, I was wrong.

The game is just about, if not completely flawless in every major way.
The gameplay is mostly beat 'em up and sneaking combined with a bunch of running and platforming around with Bat-gadgets. Batgets? The sneaking is a lot of fun, since with your detective vision, gadgets and ability to enter airducts the size of a man you're basically a predator hunting for prey. Don't take it the wrong way, sneaking around isn't way too easy since guns in this game hurt, at least on Hard difficulty which I played on from the start since I'm so great, but the game gives you the necessary tools to let you be as awesome as Batman himself and take the goons out one by one, and sneaking does get a little bit more challenging later on when the amount of armed thugs increases and Joker takes away your best friends in stealth, the gargoyles that conveniently exist in almost every room in Gotham.
The only problem that I can see with the stealth gameplay is that there's not enough of it and the sneaking sections all seem very "artificial" in the sense that everytime you enter a large room with gargoyles on the walls and six to eight armed guards walking about the place, you know you've entered the game's "sneaking challenge", and once the last terrified guard hits the ground you know the sneaking section has been completed and it's time to drop stealth until you enter another large room with gargoyles everywhere. So basically 95% of the sneaking is just you completing the predator challenges from the game's challenge menu, only you're doing it during the actual game. It's not bad, like I said taking out the henchmen one by one and listening to them getting more and more nervous is a lot fun, but the sneaking sections just clearly stand out as specifically crafted for a short sneaking moment.
Other than the stealth challenge rooms standing out, the game flows onward in a perfect way and at a perfect pace and has nothing too much or too little. There's just enough of walking and running, beating up thugs, saving guards, chatting with the villains and platforming to move the story forward without making the game all about one single element. You do end up having hand to hand fights most of the time, but it's not at all like clearing out one room after another full of thugs, you do enough of all the other things in the game between larger bouts that it wouldn't be accurate to call it a beat 'em up game. I would rather call it an adventure.

It looks boring here, but remember that there's probably
20 guys unconscious outside the borders of this image
Talking about the combat, when Arkham Asylum was released, the freeflow combat was celebrated as innovative by both the developers as well as the critics. Now, from my experience, when a game supposedly innovates it either poorly copies something that is already a common mechanic used in games or is indeed something that hasn't been done before but for a good reason. In beat em up games the most common "innovations" have been the ability to redirect punches in the middle of combos, counter-attacks and using your right stick for attacking in all 360 degrees. I wouldn't dare to call Arkham Asylum's combat innovative myself, because with my luck someone would then point out a game for the PS2 that did the same thing seven years earlier and people will call me an idiot (again), but if someone else does claim it to be innovative then I am not one to call it bull.
The combat in Arkham Asylum is ingenious in it's simplicity. Regular beat em up games that do anything right give you a dodge/block move, a heavy and a quick attacks (or punch and kick) and a grapple, and then you do []+[]+Δ combos to punch punch kick one guy's health meter down and move on to the next. What you'll get here, though, is an attack, a stun, a dodge and a counter button, along with quick batarang and quick batclaw moves that I never found that useful for combos to be honest, and then you apply each move where necessary in order to move from one guy to another seamlessly until you get openings to finish them, with attack for when enemies are idle, counter for when someone tries hitting you, stun for guys with knives and dodge for cattleprod guys as well as for continuing combos. You also have two unlockable unblockable special moves that come available as you reach high enough combos, allowing you to instantly take out any of the more dangerous goons and get through the crowd a little bit faster. Combat in this game is basically like a more evolved quicktime event where you press the right action button at the right moment, but you choose your targets and move around freely, and you don't get icons popping on the screen all the time. I don't know if it sounds that great, but it does work really well in practice.
The way enemies are hurt is relative to how many of them are standing. A group of ten guys take a lot more regular beating before going down, but the last guy standing will go down in one punch no matter how little attention you've paid to him during the fight. I find this quite neat of an idea, and realistic as well. I mean, if you just saw Batman take out nine of your pals in one flawless freeflow combo, wouldn't you hit the ground immediately as well? I'd probably just punch myself out at that point. It's detrimental to morale, you see.
I'm not entirely sure if I make the combat sound exactly like what it is, but trust me, it's fast and great, and it's also challenging to master. Like I said, I played on Hard and got game over five times in a row in the VERY FIRST FIGHT. Alright, I might've sucked some at first, but that changed later on. When you time actions right and start getting those 60 hit freeflow combos and just outright murder those poor thugs (figuratively speaking, as Batman doesn't kill anyone (although it's debatable whether those goons I dropped down the bottomless chasms actually lived)), the combat doesn't just look good, it feels great. Few things are as satisfying as calmly walking straight up to a group of thugs and beating the crap out of them in one flawless series of strikes without giving them a chance to hit back.

You get to glide down to kick people upside the head
I think I'm starting to lose steam here, but I'll try to just list what else the game does right, which is just about everything.
The level designs are great. The areas look good and have a very dark atmosphere, like an asylum currently under the control of Joker located in Gotham should be. The obstacles in your way to the objectives are well thought out and I may have found it a bit too exhilirating whenever I was able to easily maneuver around a roadblock with the help of batgets and batskills.
Another great thing about the areas is that they're (almost) seamlessly connected, the game doesn't have loading screens other than when you die and restart from a checkpoint or when you play the challenges, and even then they're quite short. The game loads in the background, or during a quick animation of Batman going through a door (I really don't know when the game loads, I'm just guessing), and getting from, say, the botanical garden in East Arkham to the medical facility in West Arkham doesn't take long at all, which  I noticed when I started hunting for the last of Riddler's riddles. Well, admittedly sometimes when you travel a long distance off the main story path, the game does have the audacity to load for up to a whopping three seconds between locations. Can you believe this bullshit? Three seconds! That's long enough for me to take a bite out of a sandwhich if I have one prepared. How on Earth do those bastards dare to waste my precious time once every 8 hours like that? Yep, it doesn't really load for that 3 seconds very often.

The transitions between the real world to Scarecrow's fear gas induced nightmares are very nicely done, I must say. The first nightmare may take you a minute or two before you realize it's not real, and the third one's transition is pretty funny if you don't know it's coming. I had a vague memory of it from when I watched a complete walkthrough of the game a long while back AND I knew it was coming at that moment, yet I STILL went "WTF?!" for a brief second. And the actual nightmares are quite well done, although I think the platforming in the nightmare levels could've been a tad more exciting.
The sound work is pretty great. I haven't watched Batman TAS in several years now, quite frankly I think I was about eight years old when I last saw it, but I did still recognise the main voices, and hearing Mark Hamill's Joker making announcements throughout the game and hearing his henchmen mutter something in reply was just too entertaining for me to really get into Batman's state of mind in the sense that he'd probably not like hearing Joker joke. The music did it's job, and the sound effects were fine. Only problem I have with the sounds is the rumble that the breakable walls make when you use the upgraded Batclaw on them, it's far louder than any other bit of sound in the game and always makes me jump.
I like how the game's character designs for the villains aren't just direct copies from any pre-existing Batman designs (as far as I can tell), but they look perfect for the job anyway. So the villains are recognisable but in a way also original, setting the game as a stand-alone story better.

She may excrete deadly toxins from her skin, but that's what
the film The Naked Gun invented full-body condoms for
The detective mode is quite useful, in fact a bit too useful as I ended up spending about half of the game with it on, and it does give you the good feeling of having the upperhand when you can see enemies through walls and ruin whatever surprise those poor disguised or hiding goons think they have for you. While jumping into Batman's shoes and getting to actually experience the job of world's greatest detective is fun, it is, however, also a bit disappointing how simple all the detective work really is. All you do is turn the detective vision on, spot the clue and follow the trail, with the mode doing all the work for you, sniffing the whiff of alcohol in the air and scanning fingerprints from a mile away and even recognising the DNA of blood stains. I would've liked slightly more challenge in that department.
But it's only the main story "detective work" that I would've liked to be more challenging. The Riddler riddles were just perfectly easy for a video game collectible objective. The riddles, Riddler trophies, all of the Joker teeth and majority of the Arkham spirit slabs are just easy enough for anyone to find on their own without help if you just pay attention to the surroundings in each area and keep an eye out for any weak walls and grates, and even if you do start getting frustrated with trying to find the last trophy, the Riddler maps make that problem disappear. It's just great extra fun looking for them and hearing the Riddler get more and more pissed off, and I laughed at the final call. I certainly wouldn't want the next game in this (hopefully long) series to have collectibles as braindamagedly awful as finding and shooting 200 pigeons in a place the size of Liberty City. How the hell could anyone possibly be so insane as to try and find all of them without any help from the Internet when it took me like 5-6 hours even with maps and images at hand? Rockstar may churn out stellar games but some of the smaller tasks they put in those games just suck rectum, like the Auf Wiedersehen Petrovic trophy. They definitely overestimated the appeal of GTA's online mode there, aye? A hundred billboards to photograph around the city instead of the pigeons would've been much more... not poo-ey, and just nix all online trophies from now on, ok? Safer that way.

Anyway, back to Arkham... Well, I forgot what else I meant to say about the game when I got this sudden but familiar urge to stab a Rockstar developer in the eye with a pencil. Rockstar, not Rocksteady. I have nothing against Rocksteady, those guys know how to make a great, FUN, not-at-all-frustrating, enjoyable game.
Oh, right, Arkham Asylum's cinematic gameplay experience demands praise. You know how some video games do the cinematic experience thing so well that it basically hurts the actual gameplay in a way? Batman: Arkham Asylum is a perfect, and I repeat that, that, combination of gameplay and cinematic moments. Really, it's astounding how well the gameplay and cutscenes work together. I mean it, it's great. Just having the credits roll during the walk inside the asylum at the beginning is great.
What also demands a mention, I guess, is the single worst element in the game as a whole: the boss fights.
Spoiler: this is the only real boss fight!
Neal already mentioned in one of the comments a while back that the boss fights are, and I quote, "horrible pieces of moldy ass waste with putrid skunk cunt on top". Well, I took the liberty of slightly misquoting him to get his ass brutally beaten if anyone ever sees him on the streets and his original comment might not be quite as colourful, but let's nevermind it.
I have noticed that an increasing amount of people seem to have problems with many of today's games' boss fights. I have never read a single positive comment regarding the boss fights in games like Arkham Asylum,  MGS4, Turok, Stranglehold, Dead Rising 2, Bionic Commando, Overlord, Prince of Persia, Borderlands or Resident Evil 5, only to name the few games I have actually personally kept a close eye on. All I ever hear about boss fights in games these days is that they suck, and in RE5 and MGS4's case them having "the worst boss fights in the entire series". I don't have that big of a problem with the boss fights in any of those games and although I have grown to absolutely loathe MGS4 I still think the Laughing Octopus, Metal Gear and Raging Raven bosses were quite exciting even compared to the earlier, better games in that series.
Arkham Asylum's boss fights aren't complete shit, but they are largely... nonexistant or just lacking in ways. The only real boss fight you ever have in the game is the Poison Ivy fight. The Joker fight is mainly about beating the regular goons, Bane is like any ordinary titan fight, Scarecrow fights are actually platforming sections with a bit of fighting against goons, you never really fight Killer Croc and you never fight Harley Quinn. I don't really think the game is lacking something with it's unremarkable boss fights, in fact if my opinion is worth anything I think the game might actually work better as it is now than if it had more classic boss fights as storyline milestones, but still, I am able to understand that if you go into it waiting for big brawls against the villains then you'll be disappointed, and in that regard the game would be missing something big.
Lastly, the challenge mode is suprisingly fun for such a simple feature. At first I thought the challenges would be annoying to complete for the trophies and that I'd just end up breaking another controller in the process, but no. I spent two hours straight trying to get gold in the final combat challenge and never even thought about there being a small chance for the possibility of perhaps pondering about maybe losing my temper by accident, and now I've got the platinum trophy. Only thing the game could use would be some sort of a survival challenge mode where an unlimited amount of thugs appear until your health is completely drained, although that would mean the mode would definitely eventually end with Batman losing, which would not feel right at all.
Just to clarify, though, the challenges, while fun, aren't really as engaging or long-lasting as Mercenaries mode from RE4 and RE5 (although I personally never cared much about Mercs). I have also not downloaded the Joker challenge maps yet, but I suppose they're fun. You beat guards as the Joker with his unique moves and strut around arrogantly in the "sneaking" challenges, what's not to like?

Scarecrow's cool. I sort of hope he makes a return in the sequel
In the end,  Batman: Arkham Asylum is easily summarised: it's just downright fucking awesome, period. It's greatest strength is that everything from the freeflow combat to silently gliding behind enemies and knocking them out to using gadgets and solving the many problems in Arkham indeed makes you feel like YOU are the goddamn Batman! Every critic I know has said that and I hereby join the choir. The style and mood is all correct and there's no way any person in the development team was thinking about just cashing in with the title, and the most annoying thing about the entire game is that it doesn't last longer, although as it is now it's of acceptable length and never starts dragging. If there was still a website a man could safely upload walkthroughs to for everyone to see, Batman: Arkham Asylum would be one of those  games I would've started recording immediately upon completing it the first time. I could even imagine making it an exception for my no walkingthrough rule and upload it anyway for the fun of it if my computer wasn't so full of clown-on-cow porn.
The game and it's character bios of Batman villains managed to raise my interest enough that I may think about trying to start reading (older) Batman comics, and the game definitely sold me the upcoming sequel. If Batman: Arkham City is indeed five times larger and does indeed add things like interrogating criminals (and hopefully other detective stuff as well) but still retains the overall quality of the first game, then it could, in my opinion that few agree with, be the best game this year (or next if it gets pushed). Only announced upcoming new title I think could possibly rival it is L.A. Noire.

I were going to say that Arkham Asylum might be in the top three best games I've played this year until I realised that it's already 2011 and it's only the second game I have played this year, making it THE Best Game I Have Played This Year So Far, but if we count 2010 in as well to make it fair, then... shit, I played the entire Hitman series, Fallout 1 and 2, Red Dead Redemption as well as Conker's Bad Fur Day (emulated) in 2010, so the competition would be rather rough. Horrible, it's only been one year since I played many of those awesome awesome awesome games for the first time. I suck.
And yes, Batman: Arkham Asylum easily beats Fallout: New Vegas, even if it is much less time consuming in the end. It's actually very odd what happened when I started pondering which one I liked the best. I can not, for the life of me, remember that much about New Vegas anymore. It's been only four days since I ended my THIRTEEN DAY long playthrough and it's like someone has surgically removed all memories of it. I only recall vague images of sniping Deathclaws, the roulette wheel of that damned loading screen spinning and a frozen screen of the Hoover Damn battle only minutes before the game would end. I suppose New Vegas was a bit more meh than I thought, although looking at how little I could say about the game in the three blog posts do make me wonder how much I really ever had to say about it in the first place. That's why I specifically chose the words "time consuming" above instead of "longer", because I can't be sure I enjoyed Fallout: New Vegas. I thought I did...

Thank goodness that Batman was here to save me!

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