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.