Wot I Think: Batman – Arkham Asylum

By Alec Meer on September 15th, 2009 at 1:55 pm.



Rocksteady’s slightly delayed PC version of their rather well-received man-thumper/ledge-grappler goes on sale this week. I’ve been playing it. I’ve also written some words detailing how I feel about it. But I’m not just going to give them to you, oh no. If you can solve my cunning riddle, you can work out how to read them. Riddle me this!

Solid: that’s the word I’ve most often heard used to describe Arkham Asylum. It’s odd, the way a single word can come to encapsulate a game so – much the same happened with STALKER and ‘atmospheric.’ These are words that say everything and nothing, but do accurately reflect the sensation the games in question most pervade. Arkham Asylum is indeed solid, and that’s because it’s a game that’s based in part about a really strong guy repeatedly punching slightly less strong guys. But it’s not that simple.

It’s solid because of how it shows the thumping. It’s in the camera angles, the generous handful of varying animations, the sound effects, the breathless cross-screen flow from punch-to-punch and the judicious use of slow motion (this latter infinitely more graceful than Fallout 3′s stodgy, puerile slo-mo deathcam). Yep, that’s a guy thumping another guy alright. But it’s also solid because of how punchy-guy (that’ll be Batman) is presented. Arkham Asylum’s Batman universe is halfway between the comic incarnation and Christopher Nolan’s silver screen take – a hyper-trained secret agent-type using brain, brawns and bleeding-edge technology to take down exaggerated mutants and psychopaths. He’s a big bugger, he’s wearing armour rather than spandex, and he can shrug off just enough thumps to the jaw and bullets to the chest to evoke someone that’s simultaneously more than yet undeniably mortal.

His massiveness doesn’t deny him grace – when the level structure allows it (and it often doesn’t), he can grapple from ledge to roof to air duct to gargoyle (Arkham Asylum has an awful lot of huge, indoor gargoyles, conveniently) like an overweight but still capable Spider-Man. He can remove a heavy metal grating near-silently if he’s trying to remain undetected. He can disappear into ceiling shadows if someone dangerous is on his tail. Y’know, he’s bloody Batman.

In fact, Arkham’s greatest feat is establishing exactly what makes Batman Batman, distilling them down into a few core features, then presenting them with oodles of flair. He’s not a jack-of-all-trades hero, his Batrope isn’t magically able to attach to anything, he isn’t invincible, and he can’t duff up 38 guys a minute. He just does a few things very, very well, and these few things are presented excitingly enough to rarely become boring. They do at times, sadly – there’s a bit too much reliance on find the door/switch/vent to progress, which can ruin the sense of Batmanniess – this isn’t a character you expect to see wandering around desperately looking for a door or wilding firing his Batrope at anything in sight.

Underneath all the surface flair, the game is a succession of looped sequences – melee brawl, a spot of grappling and vent-opening, a Splinter Cell-lite stealth-kill room, a fight against a vaguely irritating boss with convenient weak spots and attack cycles, and repeat it. It’s really a simple affair, based around classic console action game values. But because it’s overlaid with the impressive might of the Unreal 3 engine at its best, in-game architecture gone gothic-wild, some absolutely corking voice-work and a (faintly illogical, given this is an asylum) wide variety of environments, it successfully masks the simplicity at its core. Bar some annoyingly gamey setpiece fights, it feels like not like a mere beat ‘em up but a bona fide adventure – as a superhero game should.

It’s, without a doubt, one of the best superhero games ever made – though, perversely, much of that is because how cleverly it emphasises that Batman is just a clever, athletic dude in a suit, not SuperWonderSpiderUltraman.

A quick note on controls here… After some moral delibration, I opted to use a 360 controller plugged into my PC. The game just doesn’t feel right on keyboard and mouse – it’s positively built for analogue movement, triggers to fire ropes and Batarangs, and even for pad vibration. It looks great on PC, the characters especially looking incredibly detailed if you can pump the settings high enough, but it does feel like a console game rather than what we’ve come to think of as PCy. There’s no shame in that – all you need to do is allow yourself to play it like a console game.

The combat is incredibly simple, barely much more than repeated button pushes – but though some will complain about its lack of complexity, its triumph is how it plays out on screen. Your vaguely rhythmic taps activate an artful death-ballet (yeah, I know Batman technically doesn’t kill anyone, but c’mon – no-one’s really getting up from that kind of a beating) that makes you triumphantly feel like an expert fighter. Again, it fits the nature of Batman, somehow – grounded in reality, but just a little bit silly even at his most grim.

But there’s one big, disappointing way in which the game forgets who Batman is supposed to be. Throughout its duration, there’s a surfeit of hide’n'seek collectables – some hung to blimmin’ Achievements, some for the XP necessary to upgrade Brucie’s powers, and some just to unlock character factfiles and similar gubbins. This is all theoretically optional – it’s not necessary for progression, and the game can be completed without any upgrades. Unfortunately, you’ll want the upgrades because throwing three batarangs at once or vertically dragging people up from the floor while you’re suspended from a gargoyle sounds like a lot of fun. Upon entering any and every area, you’re also bombarded with messages and hints about the collectables, via an infuriatingly omniscient Riddler. The problem isn’t so much that all these collectables (and there really are a lot) are in there, but rather that the game won’t stop reminding you about them.

In other words, collectormania is pervasive and unavoidable. It disrupts the flow of the game, because you’re forever feeling compelled to sniff around for magic floating question marks rather than to save a) your life b) the people of Gotham City’s lives from the manic machinations of the Joker. At least Arkham Asylum attempts a narrative reason for the secrets’ existence, but it’s unclear why Batman would give a flying toss about the Riddler dicking about so, given he doesn’t present any threat.

The implementation of the upgrades is a little on the silly side too – I bought improved armour midway through a boss battle, which magically made me extra-strong and restored all my health on the spot. Oh, for a cutscene that showed Bats cheerily welding armour plates onto his legs in the middle of a fight with a drug-addled uber-mutant.

Arkham suffers from a few rough edges that upset what’s otherwise a masterfully-realised fantasy, then – which I wouldn’t mind so much if they didn’t seem like faddish adherence to Achievement/unlock culture rather than because they add to the game. I can feel a big rant brewing about this kind of thing at some point – Achievements, optional unlocks et al have always been a little silly, but fundamentally fine so long as they’re not altering the experience for those sensible souls who don’t care about them. Here, their presence is actively affecting the entire game. Perhaps it would have felt too slim without this persistent secondary challenge, but I would much rather a game that simply let me get on with being Batman rather than feeling like a child on a birthday treasure hunt.

Nonetheless, if you can either shrug such nonsense off or elect to lap it up, Arkham Asylum is quite the triumph for the most part. It’s Batman. It’s really Batman, dramatically more real than any other game has ever made him, and to the point that he is a component part of why the game’s so great, rather than the game being great but happening to have a Batman skin in it.

And, yes, it’s oh-so-solid.

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148 Comments »

  1. DevildogFF says:

    I’ve been playing on the 360 and it’s definitely the game of the year so far for me. I can’t believe how right everything feels for the most part. I agree with your complaints, but also think that you’re (we’re) a bit nit picky about them. Rocksteady has given me a reason to actually play (and love the crap out of) a superhero game. Now if they could give the same treatment to Spiderman or Superman or the X-Men, I would be ready to but them up for a Nobel Prize.

    Yay Rocksteady!

    • Used copiers toronto says:

      Start>Control Panel > add or remove programs > look for the demo then click uninstall. If that dosent see it go to my computer open up C:// > program files look for it delete it.

  2. Meat Circus says:

    The word is FLOW.

  3. Qjuad says:

    I also endorse this event and/or product.

  4. Nallen says:

    When I listened to Quinns (sp? sorry dude…) saying solid over and over, I kept thinking visceral deserved a mention :) It has that sort of groundedness and directness of input to action.

    This is one of the best games I’ve played in a long time, and as a counter point to you perfectly valid crits about the collectables, I’ve only picked up the ones I wandered in to and I’ve still made a perfectly serviceable amount of of progress on that front.

  5. The Fat DM says:

    I vow to use the word once a day. Also, great that the game sounds great.

  6. The Fat DM says:

    I vow to use the word Batmanniess once a day. Also, great that the game sounds great.

    • herme bags says:

      Probably the biggest trend is that it getting more and more difficult to break through the clutter and get the attention of the advertisment viewer.

  7. Ian says:

    Have this pre-ordered which surprises me in as much that for months I was convinced it was going to be an abject disappointment. Almost everything I’ve read says the same as Alec did, that the game works because you feel like Batman. Actually playing like you’d expect the title character to is what made Spider-Man 2 really good, same with Hulk: Ultimate Destruction (to a lesser extent) so I now have fairly high hopes for this.

  8. fishmitten says:

    Is this out on Steam now then? It’s been taunting me with its “Not yet released” status in my games list for weeks now.

  9. Jim Rossignol says:

    I was a sceptic about this too. Seems Rocksteady done good solid.

  10. Demiath says:

    Hmm…as much as I dislike Achievements in general, while playing through the game on a console (PS3) I didn’t feel that Arkham Asylum’s collectibles disrupted the natural flow of the game. Granted, there were definitely moments in which I stopped and for whatever reason felt compelled to clear out a large area of hidden items, but my motivation for this was just the regular OCD ticks and never a pressing need for additional XP (finished the game with roughly 80% of the ability upgrades). Also, the vast majority of regular question mark trophies were comparatively easy to find and could thus be quickly grabbed by only taking a very slight detour from the straight path towards the next mission objective.

  11. Meat Circus says:

    See also: close, compact, compacted, concentrated, concrete, consolidated, dense, firm, fixed, heavy, hefty, hulk, hunk, husky, massed, material, physical, rock, rocklike, rooted, secure, set, sound, stable, strong, sturdy, substantial, thick, tight, unshakable

  12. feitclub says:

    Funny, I thought integrating the collectibles into the game via the XP system was brilliant because it gave the search for hidden items and puzzles some weight. Too many games just throw in scattered knick-knacks and say “Find them all if you want a trophy.” In Batman, finding that stuff makes Batman stronger. I like that.

  13. Tei says:

    The way you describe it, sounds like Bioshock with a grapple hock, playing with a joystick.

    A “rent” game.

  14. abhishek says:

    Very excited for this game. Loved the demo, can’t wait to buy it. Hopefully it will release quickly in my country…

  15. Lu-Tze says:

    The unlocks are, undoubtedly, more than a little immersion breaking and it’s a shame given the relative narrative inclusion of the other upgrades. Perhaps if the Bat-cave had been more of a hub area, and you had to go there to get the optional equipment? Besides, the fact he suddenly learns a new combo is a bit… bizarre.

    As for the Riddler’s stuff, there was the good and the bad. I liked finding the actual Riddles. Some were painfully easy, some required a little more thinking (and the line up the Riddler marks ones were quite cool). But the why does the Riddler reward you for finding a few Interview tapes lying around the place? Or for finding some hidden History about Arkham itself? Barring the ridiculous collect em all trophies which need to be removed, everything else fits and is nicely presented, giving you a broad background of some of Batman’s best villains, with some excellent voice work on the interview tapes.

    It’s like Flags vs Templars in Assassin’s Creed. The Templars make sense, they are a badass enemy, a little mini-assassination target. And you can tell where they were by the lonely chest should you revisit the spot. It all fits. Then there’s the flags, which magically disappear when you touch them and have no narrative reason or way of tracking progress.

    Collectormania CAN be integrated well into games, but even games that get it right seem to then suddenly go mad and decide to include the wrong way as well.

  16. Vandelay says:

    Quick question on the controls: If I remember correctly, the demo only supported a 360 pad. Does the full game still require a 360 pad if you want to use a controller? I have no problem with playing games with a pad when the game is obviously meant to be played with one, but only supporting a single make goes against everything that makes the PC great.

    It really does sound like a “solid” game. It seems to know what it wants to be and does that very well. Probably not revolutionary in anyway and could be a bit simplistic in some areas (the “detective” bits sound a bit lightweight, whilst the fighting seems to be fairly button mashing orientated,) but you know that you will have a good time whilst playing.

    Probably will be a purchase when I get round to it.

  17. Tei says:

    what else is overrated? , the comic “Batman The Killing Joke” :-/

    http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batman:_The_Killing_Joke

  18. Ocho says:

    Great game, and a solid review, sir.

    Though I’ve got to agree with Nallen up there, I only really picked up the convenient collectables on my initial run and did just fine. I actually really enjoyed going back to find them after that, it gave me a chance to wander around and really observe the unbelievable set design of the island. Just gorgeous.

    And how about some love for those surreal Scarecrow sequences?

  19. Meat Circus says:

    I also enjoyed .

  20. Guernican says:

    “The way you describe it, sounds like Bioshock with a grapple hock, playing with a joystick.”

    Because Bioshock’s balletic hand-to-hand combat was so memorable?

  21. Dracko says:

    Still a rental at best. The game design, whether the stealth or the fighting, really shows its limitations once it asks you to deal with more than half a dozen thugs.

    And the plot is still garbage.

    Ocho: There was very little genuinely surreal or exciting, let alone destabilising, about the Scarecrow sequence. Oh, sure, you have a Kojima style winking cutscene, but it still ends up being a bloody platformer. Overall, the boss fights are some of the most traditional and dull parts of the game. Hell, ironically, the most intriguing yet the most underutilised, was Killer Croc.

    Tei: Actually, yeah, The Killing Joke is pretty damn ridiculous and I can see why Alan Moore dislikes it so much.

    That and it somehow opens with an asylum room with sharply edged furniture and solid flooring and walls, and I really can’t get past such an oversight.

    Gamestation have a good offer if you trade Arkham Asylum in for ODST when you toss in a fiver. As that’s definitely going to be higher value than what you’d get for it reselling, I’m going to get rid of some clutter.

  22. KikiJiki says:

    My main complaint with the game (finished it on 360 a while back) was that the scarecrow parts detracted from the core gameplay (trying not to spoil for those that haven’t played the game, they are quite different in feel to the regular sections).

    Aside from that it’s a brilliantly crafted piece of entertainment, with top notch voice acting to boot.

  23. Willy359 says:

    I rented the 360 version and, like others here, only picked up the question marks I happened to stumble across. However, after I finished the main game I still had a couple of days before the game had to go back, so I busted out a walkthrough and went chasing challenges. It made the game into Tomb Raider; just me, wandering around a completely emply asylum, trying to figure out how to get to a tricky spot. Kind of fun.

  24. prowlinger says:

    Simple put… Game of the Year… Why?

    This game has made me like playing as a comic book hero….
    I do not like comics, I do not like super heroes or all that…
    But this is the one game that changed that…. This is a rock solid game, pure fun , it provides as much action as stealth as clue solving (finding hidden items)…

    It would be amazing to keep this engine to do a next super hero game which I definitely would buy from Rocksteady!

    Seriously… how do you top this title?

  25. Clovus says:

    I don’t usually pay attention to achievments much, but I think they may be corrupting the youth. I convinced my brother (14) to get L4D on his XBOX 360. He spent quite awhile playing the game with friends, but almost always on easy to farm achievements. I think he then got bored with it. I told him he was doing it wrong, but he complained that the other settings were “too hard”. But dying is the fun part, right?

    I bet if he got this game he would spend 30 minutes on YouTube before doing each level to make sure that he got every achievement. The gamerpoints he can easily add to his profile is a major factor in buying/renting a game. Ugh… kids these days.

    This game sounds great, BTW, and I will buy on sale on Steam. I have way too many games right now that I’ve already paid for. Of course, I’m spending most of my time on the free Spelunky. I’m almost at 300 deaths!

  26. Igor Hardy says:

    I only played a bit of the demo and have already enough. Such a disappointment. Boring gameplay, insipid writing and an overweight Batman. And they ruined the uber-cool Mr Zsasz character.

  27. Pags says:

    Not enough can be said about the voice work; as far as I can tell, they’ve gotten everyone from the excellent Batman animated series to reprise their roles (including Mark Hamill’s Joker which is still better than Heath Ledger’s); they’re all accustomed to standing in a booth lending their voices to something they can’t yet see and thus are actually able to deliver their lines believably.

  28. KngShango says:

    only disappointment for me were a) too short b) i missed several other evildudes (twoface, penguin, catwoman *Rrrawr* and maybe the odd Mr Freeze or ManBat *lawl*)

  29. tapanister says:

    Come on, half-way through the demo I was like “what the fuck are all these gargoyles doing above the airducts etc”. Completely killed my suspension of disbelief with how conviniently they’re placed.

    I love the goddamn batman, but no thanks. I’d rather play something that’s a real game and not some console-y beat em up in “solid” tights..

  30. Ginger Yellow says:

    The thing that really bugged me about tying the collectibles to the upgrades was that it really incentivised you to spend the whole time wandering round in detective mode, so you couldn’t really appreciate the environments properly. I had to really discipline myself to keep it off (besides a quick enemy check) until I’d fully entered a new area and seen what there was to see.

  31. Ginger Yellow says:

    Come on, half-way through the demo I was like “what the fuck are all these gargoyles doing above the airducts etc”. Completely killed my suspension of disbelief with how conviniently they’re placed.

    To be fair, as you go further into the game there aren’t that many of them and they become much less useful for reasons I shouldn’t go into without spoiler tags.

  32. Kieron Gillen says:

    Just as a thought – and tapanister’s phrasing has sort of solidified this in me – the people who have problem with Batman aren’t because it’s not a game – it’s because it’s not a simulation, and makes no pretense towards vessimitude. One reason, I suspect, it feels so solid is because it’s absolutely a core-mechanic game and has worked on that, rather than working on the mechanics after the fact (as you suspect – say – the designers of STALKER do).

    KG

  33. Andy says:

    Don’t rely on the demo for a real opinion of this game. The demo was light on content and the feel this game provides. It’s gloriously entertaining.
    In fairness, probably one I won’t play through more than a couple of times but still brilliant.
    It’s almost worth buying just to hear Luke Skywalker as the Joker. Check out Mark Hamill doing the voice work for ‘The Darksiders’ too. Impressive stuff.

  34. Jim Rossignol says:

    Hmm, I’m not seeing enough “BIFF!” or “ZoKK!”

  35. Meat Circus says:

    I’m a lapper rather than a shrugger.

    Alec needs to embrace his inner obsessive. It is, after all, a game. And therefore it’s odd to take offence that bits of it feel gamey.

  36. Alec Meer says:

    IT’S A GAME? Why did no-one tell me?

  37. Meat Circus says:

    @Alec

    Perhaps I’m not being clear. The question is, what is about the pervasive rise of metagaming you hate? Is it that metagaming is too gamey, or that it’s too meta?

    It can’t be the latter. If you didn’t like meta you would have throttled Mr Gillen years ago.

  38. Alec Meer says:

    As I say in the last couple of paragraphs, it’s only when the metagamey stuff disrupts what’s otherwise a tight, atmospheric in-universe experience with something that’s so overtly outside of the narrative/experience that I think it’s gone wrong.

  39. tapanister says:

    @Kieron:

    Google gave me nothing on “vessimitude” but I think I get what you’re saying. Still, from what I saw the game was just split up too much in set pieces of core mechanics.

    First you brawl, then you go all “detective mode” then rinse and repeat. To be fair, I did love GoW which was in a very similar fashion based on a single core-mechanic, with even less story. But at least Gears made even less pretense towards this vessimitude that you speak off.

    But you know, the real problem with this game is this: when I think of Batman, I don’t think of a guy who’s getting by thanks to conviently placed gargoyles. If the Gargoyles aren’t there, you can’t progress in more than half the demo.

    Now, I’m not asking for “Deus Ex: The Dark Knight”, but still. I just feel I’m too old at 25 to be still playing platform games.

    /essay

  40. Ian says:

    Sorry Jim.

    “Biff!”

    “Pow!”

    “Lurpak!”

  41. The_B says:

    This game needs more Shark Repellent Spray.

  42. Kieron Gillen says:

    Tap: I meant “verisimilitude”.

    KG

  43. Meat Circus says:

    @tapanister

    If you think you may be too old for playing tightly executed, brilliantly designed platformer/brawler/stealthers, perhaps that says more about you than the game?

  44. Okami says:

    I just feel I’m too old at 25 to be still playing platform games.

    Are you sure you aren’t really 16? In my experience the only people who’re really concerned about their age and that they’re too old for something are teenagers…

  45. Qjuad says:

    To be fair, I found the stealth sections quite versatile in the number of methods you could do to both evade and defeat your opponents – its just the gargoyles/glide kick/hang upside down stuff made them all (bar a couple of encounters) very easy. I would argue these stealth bits were probably the most enjoyable mechanic in the game, and I wish they had focused more on these parts.

    The combat itself wasn’t particuarly enjoyable, primarily because of the rather poor boss encounters.

  46. tapanister says:

    @ KG

    Got it, wikipedia was more enlightening this time round.

    @ Meat Circus

    Yeah, it probably says that after 17 years I won’t play something that has you play one part platformer/brawler and one part stealth without very solid intergration of these two features.

    Like I said, -to me- Batman doesn’t feel as if you have a choice between action/stealth. You can’t chose how to resolve a certain situation, you’re given only one choice:
    “Here, you brawl”, “Now, you will go stealth”, “Here you brawl again”.

    This isn’t “tightly executed, brilliantly designed’. It’s just ok. I;m not saying the game is bad, mind you. I’m saying it doesn’t feel interesting to me.

    • Promotional Items says:

      U cant take people opinionr t of ur life. but i honestly say that every single one is good. u should always think first.dont let other tell u what to du. Example: If somebody tell u to fall of a bridge wat would u do.

    • Corporate Gifts says:

      Well if someone asks you to jump off the bridge you do it:-)

  47. toni says:

    i could take on 38 guys head on no problem on Batman in hard mode. also keyboard is superior because of the high turning speed making 38 guys brawl easy.

  48. AndrewC says:

    It’s very much a 13 year old boy’s version of Batman, so it takes itself Very Seriously, which is why we don’t get much Biff and the Pow and a lot of *twisted cartilege* and *snapping femur*, no matter how daft the onscreen action is getting.

    We also get a lot of empowering stuff like feeling uber hard when fighting and uber dangerous when stalking. Which feels awesome, but still.

    We also get a lot of, not quite misogyny, but ‘no sex please, we’re Batman’. Bats has a look of disgusted bemusement when faced with Harley Quinn, especially when he rips the ‘list’ out of her bra. Plus it is Commissioner Gordon that is the damsel Bats keeps having to rescue.

    So yes, no Biff or Pow. But, you know, isn’t demanding Biff and Pow when faced with grimangritty Batman a bit of an old joke now?

  49. Radiant says:

    This game is VERY similar to the old Wolverine game.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=GB&hl=en-GB&v=LXKgsCr5I-k
    Although that was a spin off from the X2 movie it still was a brilliant take on the comic book version of Wolverine and a great game.

    My biggest issue with Batman AA is that, like The Dark Knight version off Batman, Arkham Asylum presents Batman as a tank, feared by crims because he’s invincible.

    There is a scene in The Dark Knight which sums this up well [and is repeated throughout Batman AA]: it’s the scene where Gordon has the Joker in a police interrogation room and is talking to him in near darkness.
    He leaves and suddenly the lights come on and there’s Batman.

    Which…is just wrong, it should be the lights go off and there’s Batman.

    There’s loads off exposition and mission dishing scenes in Batman AA where it’s Batman in open light chilling and talking face to face with guards and police; it’s obvious to all he’s a man in a suit.

    Where Wolverine’s Revenge is better then Batman AA is it’s depiction off the main character.
    It’s flawless, it’s not 6 foot 5 Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine gurning and winking at the camera, it’s a short, burly, animal dude who loves to be a problem, the wolverine you grew up with.

    Batman’s main weapon vs crims shouldn’t be that he’s ostentatiously invincible. Crims fear Batman because they think he’s the devil. They don’t know what he is.

    In rpg terms Batman in AA is a tank but he really should be played as a thief.

  50. Jim Rossignol says:

    The old jokes are the best! Also: oldest.