Wot I Think: Batman - Arkham Asylum
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.