The Games Of Christmas: December 6th

By RPS on December 6th, 2009 at 10:44 am.

A sudden gloom strikes the shiny doors of our incredible seasonal advent calendar… What are these signs of trouble on the horizon? Could be a journey into madness? We fear for what might lay ahead. What terrible secrets lie behind the fourth door of Christmas? Fear not, take heart, and trust in the hand of the one true leader of the Autobots as we discover…

Batman: Arkham Asylum!

Kieron: Batman always wins.

So goes a bit of comic-book fan wisdom. A particularly annoying one, for the record, but seems true in this case. There was a lot of cynicism when I came back from first seeing this, claiming that – y’know – it may actually end up a bit nifty. Oddly, I was as wrong as the eye-rollers. It wasn’t a bit nifty. It was a lot nifty. In fact, for a good chunk of people, this may end up being their game of the year. It was a game which knew exactly what it wanted to do, and did it expertly. Like Batman facing off against a roomful of thugs, he sees the optimum targets – the second guy’s left eye, that dangling pony-tail, that groin – and applies his force there.

That’s the thing – in a big budget way, this is actually an interesting sister-game to Zeno Clash. Rocksteady isn’t as small a studio as ACE games, of course – but they’re not a 100+ behemoth. Right now, the site claims over 70 people, but I’ve been told it was about 50 on Arkham. So when friends turn to me and say things like “This is what Assassin’s Creed should have been”, that’s a testament to their laser focus. Because, in a real way, this is a much smaller game than the first Creed. This is a Bioshock-influenced level-based game which is only a little more than straight linear. It just feels bigger, and hits its targets straight on. What my friends are talking about is how right it feels.

It is, to quote Quinns, TIGHT.

It doesn’t just do great combat and splendid stealth – it does great combat and splendid stealth which feels like Batman. It’s a fantastic piece of entryist design in that despite the combat being overwhelmingly weighted towards Batman winning, it keeps challenge in that the point isn’t just to scramble through… but to perform brilliantly. It’s not enough to win a fight. It’s only enough if you are Batman.

Batman always wins. And, with Arkham Asylum, gamers do too.

Jim: I was incredibly cynical towards Batman as it approached. Even some over-the-shoulder watching of the game when Tom from PC Gamer was playing preview code had me shaking my head. I guess it seemed too old school to be good. It was going to be linear and predictable, and I would have frustration-barrier breaking bits that would kill my interest… right? As it happens, it seems like this did to third person action what successive generations of linear FPS games have done: exploded my expectations, and therefore my scepticism. A good development company can always raise the bar with smarter design, slicker presentation, and unforeseen challenges. I’m glad Batman trashed my cynical take on things, and I’m glad it was good enough that my friends insist I played it, because the fight is BIFF!

Alec: This is, as Kieron alludes to, a peculiarly small game. It’s rammed full of wierdo villains and gothic architecture and sprawling cave systems, but your/Batman’s interactions with the Asylum’s expansive island are exceptionally limited. Punching and stealthing: that’s basically it. And that’s why it works so very well. Throw in a puzzly bit and a Batmobile bit and a Batwing bit and a rooftop chase and it would be confused, diluted. Instead, it’s dissected Batman, identified the major organs that make him him, and thrown the rest away. The other stuff can come another time.

This game aims only to realise the inherent contradiction of the man of bats: the silent tank. The hulking brute who can move like the wind and blend with the shadows – it doesn’t quite fit with the stereotypes of game action heroes we’re accustomed to, and that’s why it felt so right. We’re not used to be being given both power and stealth, so Arkham Asylum feels liberated and generous. It’s why we’re seeing the likes of Assassin’s Creed II and Splinter Cell Conviction abandoning their preconcieved notions of protagonist fragility: it’s harder and harder to justify stealth characters being abject weaklings in the face of Batman’s pantherlike grace and ruggedness.

Hell, it even manages to reinstate that idea that a guy with funny plastic ears on top of his head could consistently and thoroughly scare the life out of cracked-headed thugs. Even the Christopher Nolan films couldn’t quite keep that essential silliness at bay.

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58 Comments »

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  1. nabeel says:

    I really enjoyed Arkham Asylum, it’s certainly my game of the year. It’s going to be a long painful wait for the sequel. Batman: Wayne Manor? Gotham City?

  2. CaseytheBrash says:

    I like this brutal version of Batman, he’s like old school Conan with tights. And by old school I do mean R.E. Howard.

    • BigJonno says:

      Reading this did make me think “Hmm, we need a Conan game along these lines.”

  3. Funky Badger says:

    Best fighting since Renegade.

    (Target Renegade jumped teh shark, innit)

  4. Funky Badger says:

    Actually, there were a couple of moments that bugged me – well, one moment repeated twice. On the first big reveal of Arkham, when you come out of the tunnels into the “open world” the game takes over and cuts to a cut-scene, rather than leaving the reveal in my hands… that was the only thing, everything else was great.

    • sbs says:

      Yeah I hated that. I acually yelled at the game(was at a friends house playing it on ps3) “LET ME LOOK AT IT! YOU SUCK”

  5. Lars Westergren says:

    Agreed, this was one of my favourite games of the year. I’m normally not a big fan of action titles, but this one was spectacular. In fact, I immediately started a new playthrough once I finished the first one – that almost never happens these days, too often the last levels of games lack polish and are artificial playtime lengthening grind so once I’m finished I feel sick of them.

    I played on hard the first time so for the first couple of hours every single fight against more than 1-2 enemies was a challenge if I wasn’t careful. You also had to figure out new strategies and combos to survive certain fights (not just bossfights), it really rewarded player skill and quick thinking. That was fun.

    For a game that has a lot of console “feel” to it for some reason, for once I didn’t mind that as it was also a fantastic conversion. Excellent graphics, smooth, didn’t crash on me once, and played fine on mouse+keyboard (though I’ve heard it is even better if you plug in a 360 gamepad). Only gripes I have with it is
    1) that the Games for Windows fucking Live integration sometimes got in the way, like the first time you play after installing and try to register. The menus are frustrating to navigate and if the connection fails you have to start over. Downloading and patching is also much better done from outside the game.
    2) The very last fight there were a few control glitches – maybe because the camera was pulled out so far it was difficult to judge angles and distances, but many times when I pressed right mouse button to counter an attack Batman instead pulled out the grappling hook or batarang and stood holding it up like an idiot while he got a pipe whacked through his head repeatedly.

    I am holding my thumbs and wishing they do a followup, but I hope they do it outside the Asylum though with new villains. Even though the setting was spectacular we know it inside out now and a followup in the same environment would probably feel derivative (hello Bioshock 2).

    (An aside – how many films and games do we have to sit through the origins of Batman? The killing of his parents be a mythology more known than the crucifixion of Jesus among geeks these days.)

    • Premium User Badge

      luminosity says:

      Yes. the control glitches were pants. I get the feeling they wanted to simplify the control scheme just a bit too much, so you end up with 4 different actions overloaded to the same button, and every so often it picks the wrong one… and it’s infuriating! Nothing like trying to do an instant takedown, or counter and have batman target the empty air with the batclaw instead. Grr.

      Oh, also, tiny tiny arena fights with charging bosses you need to dodge, and then regular guys, and then when you attack the regular guys, you lose the camera on the boss and can’t dodge in time?

      Still, the core of the game, especially the stealth sections were fantastic, so here’s hoping they can improve on those niggling annoyances in a sequel.

  6. Inigo says:

    It’s a good thing we’ve got Arkham, ‘cos he really drives us bats.
    And dammit that’s going to be stuck in my head all day now.

  7. Dominic White says:

    I still haven’t played this – apparently it’s coming to Metaboli as part of their christmas lineup, so that saves me a good £25-35 for my patience, though. I’ll almost certainly be marathoning the whole thing once it lands, though, because it looks *so good*.

    Ah well, aformentioned service also just gave me King’s Bounty: Armored Princess last week, which I’ve still barely played any of. Can’t say I’m short of games to play this year.

  8. monkehhh says:

    It is just so.. tight.

    I particularly like how Batman is bone-crushingly tough, but everyone is just unconscious when you’re finished with them – presumably for many years, considering how hard you just smacked them in the head.

    • Allandaros says:

      “You put him in a coma for six years!”
      “Is he dead?”
      “…no, but…”
      Then stop wasting my time.

    • Bhazor says:

      Batman is cheerfully sadistic. When you get down to it Arkham Asylum is about a world leading martial artist in bullet proof armour equipped with multi million dollar tech beating up the mentally ill. Many of whom are in straight jackets.

      Lets not forget hitting Bane with a car, all the bombs and Batman’s megaton punch at the end.

    • Andrew Dunn says:

      That’s a perfect description, Bhazor.

      This was comfortably my game of the year, I think, until Dragon Age came along and made me rethink things slightly. Along with Empire: Total War and Men of War, this is one of the games that defined 2009 for me.

    • sinister agent says:

      I spy a missed opportunity for a subsection of the high scores, there. “Longest coma induced: 34 years.”

  9. The Sombrero Kid says:

    i need caps for this.

    GAME OF THE YEAR!

    i played the leaked copy before this came out and they broke my save which is absolutly criminal but it meant i had to play through it again when my preorder arrived! which was awesome, i’ve played through it 2.5 times now and i loved every minute, quick hint, though make it easy to change a pirated copy into a legit one, break the saves yeah but then unbreak them when they stump up the cash or instead of breaking the game come up with a box to put your credit card number in.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Saul says:

    The core combat and stealth elements were good, but the Riddler collectables got really irritating after a while. They took away from the atmosphere and detracted from the tension.

    • Hermit says:

      I completed all the Riddler stuff, mainly because it was an excuse to make the experience longer. But I agree it felt tacked on. It also cheapened the Riddler’s character to a large degree; He leaves you maps to every one of his hidden things, then seems annoyed that you found his incredibly well hidden trophies?

      “Impossible! Batman can’t possibly read a map! You must be cheating!”

      There wasn’t really much of a pay-off for finishing the whole lot, either. With some proper clever riddles and an actual evil scheme The Riddler wouldn’t make a bad villain for a future Batman game. Here he comes across as little more than Mr. Achievements.

      It’s still a fantastic game though. I’ve been meaning to go and spend some more time with the challenge rooms at some point.

    • Drexer says:

      I did love the detail though of: “You must be cheating! Are you checking it on the internet?!”

      There were some annoyances like GFWL and trying to hear some of the Arkham’s chronicles when the thugs sound files were always cutting them off. But overall it was a good game.

      Except for the ending, that was disappointing.

  11. Bhazor says:

    One point I’ve always wondered about this game is how did Rocksteady get the license and the finances for this? I mean they’re a British company whose only previous game was the semi obscure Urban Chaos. Yet DC presumably set the price low enough for Rocksteady to snatch it up and with enough money left over for the $750,000 Unreal 3 engine and the cast of the Original Animated series. My theory has to do with pirate gold and the largest mirror in the northern hemisphere.

    Rocksteady were given an impressive bit of freedom too, the full rogues gallery, completely redrawn character art and a interesting spot in the Batman cannon. I always assumed DC was pretty protective of the Batman.

    Though they did end up with a crap batman. He didn’t sound like a dark avenger against injustice fanatically pursuing the scum of a neo gothic horror house . He just sounded a bit cross.

    • Dominic White says:

      “He didn’t sound like a dark avenger against injustice fanatically pursuing the scum of a neo gothic horror house . He just sounded a bit cross.”

      To be fair, villains escaping from Arkham must be a fairly regular event, what with the ‘hitchhikers may be escaped inmates’ sign outside. After the first five or six mass-escapes, I’d find it hard to drum up a proper fury too.

    • Funky Badger says:

      I did enjoy the guards bemused, cautious reproach to Bats, “The Joker killed Eddie, someon should sort him out for good” etc.

  12. Martin Coxall says:

    Who would have thought that a licensed property would end up GoTY material?

    It falls short of perfection really only in its slightly cacky boss fights. Everything else is one beatiful, buff package of woo.

    • Dominic White says:

      A lot of the problem is that boss fights are very hard to do right with Batman. Most of his epic showdowns in the comics involve just wading through legions of thugs until he’s finally able to land that one punch that lays out the villain. Other, beefier superheroes get lengthy slugging matches, but Batman has always been more of a one-punch kinda guy.

  13. Radiant says:

    What stopped me really liking Batman Arkham Asylum was how it presented Batman as an unstoppable tank. A black Hulk.

    I said this before, I think, but where Nolan’s film and this game errs is that they shine a light directly onto Batman.

    Here’s Batman running up the path to the front door.
    Here’s Batman standing in a well lit room talking to a guard face to face.
    Heeeere’s a man dressed in a suit made to look like a bat.

    For me this is counter to what Batman is.

    It’s only the big bads that know for sure that Batman is a man.
    To everyone else Batman is essentially what Manbat is.
    A monster surrounded in gossip and myth and rumour.

    Batman uses this to his advantage to gain the upper hand. The fear, the power and the darkness.
    He’s a detective boogy man.
    That’s how he wins.

    Anyone who has ever picked up Year One can understand that.

  14. mcw says:

    I recently completed a few of the predator challenge maps and there’s a few things in there that the game never tells you about. Stuff like corner takedown, ledge takedown, ziplining through glass, sonic batarang and others. There’s nothing like using the Ultra-Batclaw to rip three guys of a high ledge at once and take them down in the process.

    • Drexer says:

      The only thing I didn’t discovered through the game of all those was the corner takedown. But I took the trouble to get all the riddler trophies and upgrades, so I had plenty time to try. :P

  15. Simon Jones says:

    My game of the year as well.

    As Alec points out, now that they’ve got this so right there’s limitless potential of where to take the franchise. I really hope they don’t just do a rinse-and-repeat.

    I’d love to see it spread out into Gotham itself, perhaps even with daytime elements in which you play as Bruce Wayne, sans suit, doing his own brand of sleuthy investigating. Batmobile to move around the streets – not in a totally open world, dull GTA way, but in a focused, purposeful Mafia kind of way.

    So much potential, it makes me shiver.

    Also, Mark Hamill as Joker: best voice performance in a game ever?

  16. Lucas says:

    I fear that proper stealth games may disappear as a genre if weak stealth elements become very common in other games (as vehicle-centric action/sim games largely have, being subsumed by vehicles in shooters). I passed on AA and AC2 because of what I read about the stealth and combat balance, as they both just sound too easy. I still have my fingers crossed for The Saboteur having good stealth play to go along with its Mercs style vehicles and explosionography.

  17. Premium User Badge

    RLacey says:

    It’s kind of rare for me to buy a game and then do nothing but play it solidly. This was one such game.

    Very, very fun.

  18. Kadayi says:

    An exceptionally polished game and a very tight playing experience, yet somehow I can’t quite bring myself to throw Game of the Year plaudits at it simply because, although it is a well honed machine I didn’t find myself hanking to play it like I have with DA:O or RF:G. It’s certainly a game I’ve recommended to people, but what excites me about it isn’t the title itself, but what the developers will come up with as a sequel given the larger arena of Gotham City (one hopes).

  19. Ravenger says:

    I loved this game up until the moment I found I couldn’t transfer my save when I installed Windows 7.

    For some reason GFWL locks the saves to the machine as well as your gamertag.

    Great game, but really let down by the terrible GFWL save system.

    • phuzz says:

      Yeah, I ended up playing the first 15 minutes about 4 times because that bloody horrible GfWL save system didn’t want to save my game.
      When game uses GfWL (or SteamWorks or whatever) for multiplayer, I can at least see why the devs did it. When it uses an external system for something as simple as saving the game, you have to wonder how much extra effort it was for the developers for something which added nothing but frustration to the game.

      The game it’s self was some great BIFF THUD entertainment though :)

  20. Will Tomas says:

    Nuh na nuh na nuh na nuh na, nuh na nuh na nuh na nuh na – BATMAN!

  21. malkav11 says:

    I would argue that Batman as stealth protagonist -is- incredibly fragile. The game isn’t power and stealth at the same time, it’s power or stealth depending on the room. You can occasionally sneak up on and disable a single unarmed foe, but generally speaking the unarmed thug encounters have enough guys all bunched up that you have to get into fisticuffs. And in melee, Batman is basically unstoppable, or at least is once you get the hang of the combat system. It’s only once you hit a room with guys with guns (always conveniently large, full of nooks and crannies, high ceilinged, and laden with gargoyles to perch on) that the game’s stealth mechanics take on central importance. And if you fuck up your stealth, Batman’s health will drop like a stone under the slightest gunfire.

  22. Vinraith says:

    Wow, I am really out of synch with RPS this year it seems. Of 6 games so far I only owned one (Zeno Clash), I bought that one because it was on amazingly deep discount and packaged with games I cared more about, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Of last year’s 12 I owned and enjoyed all but a couple(*cough Sins *cough), this year I’m already down a solid 25%. Huh. It’s particularly odd since I’ve bought more games this year than in any year previous that I can recall.

  23. ascagnel says:

    One of the August episodes of “In-Game Chat” had Mark Hamill on as a special guest to talk about the game and the series. Probably one of their highlights, and damn interesting to hear about the process to record the voice for the game and the show.

  24. Demon Beaver says:

    Along with Ellen McLain as GLaDOS. Sorry, I just cannot let that pass…

  25. Will Tomas says:

    This is the first year that, because of my PC being too old and outdated, I think I’ve only played one or two of the titles that will come up. I’ve bought a fair few games but almost all old games on discount – for games that came out this year I suspect only really Empire will be one that I own. It’s made things interesting, but a bit frustrating. That said, getting to play back catalogue stuff I never played first time around has been a lot of fun.

  26. EthZee says:

    It needs to be emphasised:

    TIIIIIIIGHT

  27. TCM says:

    Batman reminded me of the reason I like video games in the first place, and almost certainly contributed to my slightly less cynical attitude about upcoming games.

    • TCM says:

      But to ammend my statement, I would have a very hard time justifying it as a game of the year. It is incredibly fun, sure, but I can think of a couple games that were incredibly fun AND incredibly long (Dragon Age is the first to come to mind here).

  28. Ian says:

    Loved this game. Possibly my game of the year. I wonder how they’ll deal with the inevitable sequel?

    AA worked because it was kept tight and pretty linear. I don’t want them to be too tempted to go more open-world with it, but where could they set a second one without it seemed like they’ve just taken all the tropes of Arkham Asylum and putting a new skin over them? Not that that has to be an awful thing I suppose, provided it stays fun.

    But Alec pretty much summed it up. The fact that you don’t get snapped like a twig if found out helps the game a great deal. It’s the same reason, if in a very different way, that Hitman works. With some exceptions, if your plan for a level fell to pieces you could always chin the guy who’s found you out (or for more extreme cirsumstances, just shoot him) and peg it and find another way.

  29. Lilliput King says:

    I got caught up in doing all the Riddler stuff, and hearing the Joker’s lines repeated overandoveragain, however well voiced they may have been, gave me a headache, so I quit out and haven’t loaded it up since.

    I dunno. It’s okay. I guess I just found the environments uninspired, and the ‘stealth’ mechanics contrived. An earlier poster mentioned it isn’t stealth AND combat, it’s stealth OR combat, depending on what the game wants you to do at a given time. The stealthy rooms essentially ask you to bounce from gargoyle to gargoyle and wait for a guard to move into a position where you can take him out using your fists, feet or eplosive spray, then hop back on to your bloody gargoyle again. Just a bit tiresome.

    The biffing though, while devoid of challenge, was /wonderful/.

    The attention to detail in the collectables (character portraits, artwork, background detail, recordings etc) is laudable, too – clearly a lot of care went into them.

    • malkav11 says:

      I would note that there’s actually quite a bit more variety than that in the ways you can approach the stealth sections. It’s just that there’s only one point in the game where you’re -forced- to do something other than pop from gargoyle to gargoyle. And to be honest it’s quite a bit easier to do it the repetitive way than to really work the environment and Batman’s move set to your advantage.

  30. Mik says:

    Eidos

  31. PHeMoX says:

    It’s always a shame when a game does everything right, except for being too short. Perhaps we were spoiled in the old days where a game would easily take up to 25 hours to play through…

    I did find it peculiar to see that certain bosses aren’t actually in there.

  32. Tei says:

    This game make me wish the existence of a H.P. Lovercraft game.

  33. Tei says:

    Never played it.. the review make it look as very good.. You never know with old games, as time may make old games interfaces feel bad today.

  34. DunwichSurprise says:

    @Tei

    Also, in the works: Cyclopean

    If you don’t mind soiling yourself with the taint of consoles, Eternal Darkness for the Gamecube is excellent.