torstai 19. elokuuta 2010

REVIEW - Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009)

Genre(s): Action
Released: 2009
Available on: PC, PS3, X360
Developer(s): Rocksteady Studios
Publisher(s): Eidos Interactive, Warner Bros. Interactive, Square Enix
Players: 1

Batman is a continously popular media franchise, but it has had some clear increases and decreases in its popularity. The Dark Knight of Gotham City and his legacy have seen many forms of which some have been just repulsive, completely needless reboots of the media, such as The Batman and Batman Beyond, and the spin-off TV series Birds of Prey - which, however, is based on a moderately good comic book. I think it was after the really, really bad movie Batman & Robin, that Batman started to fade, but movie director Christopher Nolan saved us die-hard Batman fans from forgetting about what used to be great about the character with his masterpiece Batman Begins in 2005, and followed up with the even better The Dark Knight three years later. Batman was hot again. The Dark Knight, however, missed something: a video game counterpart. Looking at the history of Batman as a video game franchise doesn’t bring up a whole lot of warm memories except for 1989’s NES game simply titled Batman and based on Tim Burton’s first movie, and especially 1993’s simple SNES beat ‘em up Batman Returns, based on Burton’s second one. In 2009, perhaps partly due to the ultimate dismissal of the Dark Knight game project, inexperienced British game studio Rocksteady gave us Batman: Arkham Asylum, meant to be the most authentic, blooming and dynamic Batman video game experience ever. And they abso-fuckin’-lutely nailed it.

Welcome to the madhouse

Kevin Conroy : Batman / Thomas Wayne
Mark Hamill : The Joker
Arleen Sorkin : Harley Quinn
Tom Kane : James Gordon / Quincy Sharp / Amadeus Arkham / Louie Green
Steven Blum : Killer Croc / Masked Guard #2 / Ian Kennedy / Jordan Fraser
Danny Jacobs : Victor Zsasz / Frank Boles / Robert Stirling / Masked Guard #1
Dino Andrade : The Scarecrow / Lunatic #1
Tasia Valenza : Poison Ivy / Martha Wayne
Fred Tatasciore : Bane / Henchman #2 / Carl Todd
Wally Wingert : The Riddler / Bob Johnson / Henchman #8 / Dr. Adrian Chen / Luke Curtis / Gotham Cop / Masked Guard

This joke never gets old.
The Joker escapes from Arkham Asylum, but is soon once again returned to incarceration by Batman. However, Batman knows his nemesis better than anyone else and suspects him to have some sort of plan, since capturing him was effortless. As always, Batman’s exactly right, but still walks straight into the Joker’s trap. The clown prince of crime takes control of Arkham Asylum with the help of Harley Quinn and traps Batman inside the madhouse, as living prey to several insane supercriminals who’ve all got a bone or two to pick with the Dark Knight. As Batman deduces and soon finds to be true, killing him is only the beginning for the Joker, who is planning to swarm Gotham City with an army of Bane-like supersoldiers in his service. It’s going to be a long night.

The game isn’t necessarily the prettiest one of the current generation, but it is definitely impressive when it comes to visual effects and to the attempt to create an authentic Batman experience. Character design is on the forefront, and the characters do look amazing for the most part. The Joker has a bit of that Jack Nicholson look in him, I personally like this little subtlety a lot, Poison Ivy is insanely hot and Batman with his dynamic movement and of course, the cape, looks just simply awesome – the effect of his attire tearing up little by little during the course of the game and his beard growing, I dig it like a motherfucker. It really adds to the feel of being in the game and feeling the effects of the long night inside the confines of an asylum run by inmates. You’re probably going to play about 80% of the game on Detective Mode (more about that when I get to gameplay), and the monotony of it makes the game look a bit rougher than it actually is.

The game also isn’t as dark as it has been claimed to be – if you’re familiar with really, really mature, grim and gritty comic books such as Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke (my favourite Batman book of all time), which more or less is the Joker’s show, the KG Beast sidestory from the 80’s, Shadow of the Bat or The Dark Knight Returns, you’ll see that the game has nothing on them. Instead, it mixes in influences and themes from several different sources in the Batman media franchise, becoming a moderately dark game, yes, but still suitable for young fans. So, no stripped Commissioner Gordon sitting on a ghost train, getting poked by midgets while watching horrifying images of his naked daughter Barbara squirming in pain induced by a gunshot wound and sexually molested by the Joker. No mention of it whatsoever from Gordon himself or anyone else; Barbara’s in-game fact file however confirms she was shot through the spine by the crazy-ass clown, and The Killing Joke’s storyline is referenced a couple of times. The most mature thing about the game is Harley’s impressive cleavage. Actually, Poison Ivy’s attire is even better. And the fact that if you look really, really hard, you can see her nipples. Just kidding, pervs... or am I?

There's just no way around it. Poison Ivy has
got to be the hottest hippie ever.
The sound in this game... mad as the Joker. First of all, there are some original compositions by Ron Fish, which totally capture the essence of what Batmusic should sound like. The epic pieces borrowed from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight pop out at the perfect moments, creating even more atmosphere to the stealth action spelunker. Rocksteady Studios figured they can’t make a Batman game without Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker, and man, were they right or what? The two men that have voiced many incarnations of their respective characters over the years, ever since Batman: The Animated Series premiered in 1992, make an effort that is nearly impossible to describe. Almost two decades of experience downright guarantees one hell of a show from these Batman stalwarts. Hamill’s one-liners and that incredible laugh he personally created for the Joker all those years back steal the show. Batman just basks on how great he is, all the time. He’s really not too loveable in the game. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that his alter ego Bruce Wayne or Alfred are never seen during the course of the game – we never get to see or hear him normally interacting with anyone. Technically, Conroy does an excellent job. Arleen Sorkin returns as Harley Quinn... I think she overdid it a bit, Harley was never THIS annoying in the animated series. Tom Kane’s always great, and he has been cast in a few smaller roles in addition to his job as Gordon, inherited from Bob Hastings. The rest of the cast comprises of voiceover veterans such as Steve Blum (Killer Croc), Danny Jacobs who is mainly known for his really annoying voice (Zsasz), Dino Andrade (The Scarecrow), the sultry Tasia Valenza (Poison Ivy), Fred Tatasciore who I like to call this generation’s Frank Welker (Bane), Wally Wingert (The Riddler), Kimberly Brooks (Oracle) and lots more. Horror veteran Adrienne Barbeau, who voiced Catwoman in the animated series, does cameos as the Arkham computer voice and Dr. Whistler. I’m not sure if her appearance is homage to her role in the series or her history in horror films, since there are quite a bit of survival horror elements in the game, thanks to the Scarecrow’s well utilized presence.

The game can be divided into three different parts: 1. searching for essential items and collectables around Arkham Island in the genuine Metroid style, upgrading your equipment and then seeing what you can do with your new toys to find new areas. 2. beating the shit out of henchmen. This is where the Batman game franchise has failed up until now: Batman no longer kills anyone unlike in many other games, instead he’s just like in the original comics and movies, he completely refrains from inflicting death. He just literally beats the shit out of people without killing them. At one point near the beginning of the game, you even have the chance to save a thug facing certain death, and this principle of Batman’s is often vocally mocked by the Joker. 3. stealth action. It starts off easy, you just hide from henchmen and pick them off one by one in the many methods available to you in the beginning and via upgrades. Later, the going gets a lot tougher with smarter henchmen, collars that sound an alarm once they’re unconscious, and different stipulations such as bombs planted in the structures Batman so loves to use for hanging, hiding and prowling.

Bats hangs a guy upside down from a
gargoyle in Detective Mode.
What you’ll absolutely need in the first two parts (in the order I mentioned them) is the game’s most criticized, and at the same time, praised feature called Detective Mode. It’s kind of like nightvision and x-ray combined. In Detective Mode, Batman is able to spot abnormalities in the structures, such as breakable walls and thermal/electric currents. He is also able to tell how many people are in a room with him, how many of them are armed and run a thermal scan of their exact location at all times. Very useful indeed, but this means you’ll be playing most of the game on Detective Mode, and watching the game in blue and yellow, with skeletons running around, doesn’t really spell out fun.

Part 1: exploring. As you progress in the story, you’ll gain access to a variety of different Batgadgets. The standard grappling hook (which cannot be upgraded) and the standard Batarang are there from the beginning. Those who have read my earlier reviews of Batman games know that the grappling hook in this game franchise spells out eternal torment for me. Well, in this game it works automatically once you find the correct spot to attach the hook, so it’s quite OK. Finding the exact spots, however, is sometimes really tedious. Anyway, the gadgets, in addition to being used to progress even further, are used to reveal new secrets. For example, you can’t explode a fractured wall if you’re not able to stand next to it, so you can’t do squat to those up higher before getting a three-way Bathook to pull them down, and you don’t get the gadget before nearing the end of the game – you bump into the first walls of this kind, however, about ten minutes into the game. Genuine Metroid there. Upgrades are made available by leveling up, and the best way to level up is to find the Riddler’s secrets, scattered across the island. They also give you access to cool character bios from the Batman universe, and 3D models of the in-game characters. These secrets consist of psychiatric interview tapes of Arkham’s most famous patients (and just by coincidence the ones you actually come across in the game), Riddler trophies (kind of like the hidden packages in the GTA games), weird stone slabs with equally weird writing known as the Chronicles of Arkham, and actual riddles – there’s one in almost every room and exterior area, sometimes even two or three of them. A few of these riddles consist of searching for a question mark in the room using Detective Mode and then the mark’s dot, which is in another location, but must be aligned with the rest of the mark, then scanned using the Batanalysis. Harder than it sounds like – the camera’s your enemy with these. There’s still more: Riddler’s keeping count of the several Joker teeth clamping along all around the island; destroy them all and you’ve cracked yet another challenge.

Part 2: fighting. There’s actually not that much straightforward beat ‘em up action in the game, that’s saved for the Freeflow Challenges. The story mode works like a loose rehearsal of sorts. Fighting in the game is superfun! You basically use just one button (Square), to beat up henchmen in several cool ways and combinations which look simply awesome, but at some point, you must find a more tactical way to dispose of the bad guys. There are high security guys with knives that won’t go down unless you use Circle to stun them, guys with electric rods that you need to jump over to distract them before punching their lights out, lunatics that just won’t stop before you knock them out completely using a takedown manouver, and finally, Joker’s experimental Titans, whom you can beat in several different ways when they’re alone, but beating a pair of them or just one in a room already full of people is something else entirely. Find your own strategy, fun is still guaranteed.

Of course I have to mention the boss fights at this opportune gap. Each one differs from the other (a couple of them are not really fights, they’re more based on the stealthier side of the gameplay) and to go over them all is just a spoiling trip. Let’s just say you’re in for a lot of surprises – I’ll tell you this much: since this is an authentic Batman game as can be, Batman’s origins are once again explained, and exploited, in several nightmarish, playable sequences which could be straight out of a Silent Hill game, conducted by the Scarecrow, of course. Some might say: yeah yeah, Batman’s parents were shot by a mugger, yada yada yada. They told this in Burton’s Batman (in which the mugger was in fact the Joker as a young man), then Batman Forever, then Batman Begins and so on and so on. Bruce Wayne’s tragic story is excellent and it never gets old. Remember, this is the first time we experience it in a video game... what an experience it is. You’ll just have to see how this one plays out. It’s incredible.

It's fun to explore the surprisingly vast grounds
of the asylum.
Part 3: stealth action. Influenced by – what else? – Metal Gear Solid, but since it’s only a part of the game’s three-way method instead of the base of everything, it’s not quite as varied. The Detective Mode works better than Snake’s goggles, since you can see through walls using the mode, and Batman’s moves are a bit more limited. Still, you can have a lot of fun with this. You can knock out the unsuspecting henchmen in various ways, starting from hanging them upside down from gargoyles, smashing through glass ceilings on top of them (perhaps homage to the famous scene in Burton’s film where the Joker and Batman first meet face to face after J’s transformation), knocking them out with Batarangs, gliding towards them and kicking their teeth out, and whatnot. These sort of sequences, each one more challenging than the last, make up the Predator Challenges in Challenge Mode.

So to make it clear, once you’re done with the game, you might want to try it on Hard to gain some new trophies, but the thing you really want to do is try out the challenges, which add to the total percent count of the game. If I remember correctly, doing everything in the main campaign only makes up for about 84%.

The main game really isn’t that hard, and every secret is pretty easily found if you are enough of an explorer – in that case, you’ll probably find the Riddler maps too, which show all of the secret locations on the map. They make it even easier to crack the “E Nigma”. Checkpoints are a-plenty, even in the middle of some boss fights. Kudos for that! However, it’s very difficult to get 100% since you need to at least pass every challenge. At least you don’t have to get all the medals that come with them to reach maximum completion, but just passing some of the last ones, be they Freeflow or Predator Challenges, is quite damn difficult. You’ll be taken to the limits, regardless of whether you beat the game on Hard or not.

It is done, Batman: Arkham Asylum takes the No. 1 spot from the SNES version of Batman Returns as the best Batman video game of all time, and for the record, it simply is one of the most enjoyable and addictive action games on the current generation of consoles. It’s incredible how a small studio can cook up something this magnificent and moreover, authentic, from a comic book license, and to think that this is the second game they ever made. If you want to find a complete opposite for Arkham Asylum, check out Sunsoft’s Return of the Joker on the NES... on second thought, just forget it. Forget I even mentioned it.

Graphics : 8.6
Sound : 9.7
Playability : 9.1
Challenge : 8.8
Overall : 9.0


GameRankings: 92.29% (PC), 91.67% (PS3), 91.95% (X360)

Noted by Guinness World Records as the "Most Critically Acclaimed Superhero Game of All Time".

Several characters make their debut in the Batman franchise, but the three major ones who have their own fact file, also die or disappear during the course of the game.

The Riddler is officially a villain in the game, but we never see him in person.

There’s a plothole. Victor Zsasz’s interview tapes are found among the rest throughout the course of the game, and the last one contains a strong suggestion of him killing Dr. Sarah Cassidy in her own apartment. However, Cassidy is one of the doctors you must find at one point in the game’s storyline, and she appears to be quite alive and well.

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