The Good: Just about everything The Bad: Combat for the most part is a little too easy The Ugly: Absolutely nuthin’
I should begin by saying that I’m a huge fan of action/fighting games. Perhaps huge doesn’t even describe it. Mammoth. Colossal. Not so much in the style of Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter, but fighting games with a plotline, and IMO this is one of the few areas where console games are far superior to PC games. Many fighting games never even make it to the PC for whatever reason – what PC gamers get for the most part are poorly executed mac & cheese like Devil May Cry while console gamers dine on the fois gras of God of War. The high point on the PC up until this time was probably the Prince of Persia series. I’m also, I should admit, something of a Batman junky. So as I clutch a copy of Arkham Asylum, a Batman action/fighting game set in the storied and titular Arkham Asylum, hands sweating and shaking so badly from anticipation that I can hardly get the shrink wrap off, my bat-cowl thrown back, my custom-tailored cape draped over my shoulders – well, let’s just say that my hopes were high. And Arkham Asylum did not disappoint. It is, without hyperbole, the greatest fighting game ever on the PC, and I challenge anyone who thinks differently to a duel with batarangs at thirty paces.
From the opening cinematic sequence, superbly timed and beautifully drawn with the intro credits rolling, as Batman goes with the Joker through the inpatient procedure at Arkham, you can see the great care that was taken in every tiny thing. Arkham isn’t just dreary, but classic gothic horror dreary. Batman glides with the ease of an athlete, the cape swaying with his paces, ominous and implacable as the Rock of Gibraltar. The Joker mugs and hams – he seems awfully happy to be back at Arkham. What’s the reason for that?
I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that the Joker has a plan; a plan to bring Batman to Arkham to have him face all the criminals he’s put away there. Yes, the inmates are running the asylum, and Batman aficionados are going to get a full dose of the Jim Gordon, Oracle, The Riddler, Bane, Harley Quinn, Killer Croc, Scarecrow, Victor Zsasz, Poison Ivy, The Joker, and others. Themed similarly to the graphic novel of the same title, it is nonetheless a completely original adventure as Batman fights his way from one side of Arkham Island to the other rescuing Gordon and guards, doctors and nurses and others, while putting a stop to The Joker’s nefarious scheme.
At its root, AA is a third person fighting game. Using combinations of left and right mouse clicks Batman unleashes a flurry of attacks and counters, flinging, punching and kicking his way through packs of nameless convicts. My sole complaint with the game is that fighting these guys is pretty much a picnic. Even later in the game when they introduce thugs with greater fighting skills or weapons, you can easily beat up eight or ten or even twelve guys in a fairly confined space without one even laying a hand on you, like a scene from the Matrix on steroids, just a long string of button-mashing, head-cracking action. And if head cracking was the only thing this game had to offer, it would be pretty thin. Fortunately there’s lots of other stuff to do as well.
Batman has to do some detecting; he’s got to solve riddles, find clues, and investigate strange experiments going on in Arkham. Hitting ‘X’ puts him into Detective Mode, a sort of preternatural sight (he says that uses some kind of enhancement built into his cowl) which allows Batman to see important objects highlighted on the screen, follow trails of chemical vapors or find fingerprints. It also allows him to see thugs through walls like an X-ray, their stance, their facing, and whether or not they are armed. To aid him he also has the typical utility belt gizmos such as batarangs, explosive gel, a grappling hook, and he can do cape glides and cape attacks.
The game looks great, outstanding even. Early in the game when Batman escapes from the asylum and emerges on a peak overlooking Arkham is easily one of the top three OMFG videogame moments (the others, just for your comparison, being your first glimpse of the city of Bioshock from the bathysphere, and when you emerge from the first dungeon in Oblivion. The first view outside the vault in Fallout 3 probably also falls in that group somewhere.). My computer didn’t even meet the recommended system requirements (I have only 1GB of RAM whereas the game recommends 2), but if it caused any hiccups or slowdowns I didn’t notice them. The third person camera works extremely well, deftly avoiding the hang-ups and the ‘why am I looking at a wall’ moments. Batman’s motions are fluid, continuous, and definitely not a set of disconnected moves. He looks like a martial artist, not the sort of jerky puppet that so often happens in these games. Voice work, all of it done by actors from Batman: The Animated Series, is also perfect. Sound effects, music – all no corners cut and no expense spared. Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (The Joker) particularly nail their roles, as they did for the TV series.
This is very nearly the perfect game. I’m leaving myself some ceiling in the game review rating, but that’s just a formality. This game is as close to 100% as I’ve ever seen. If you’ve ever wanted to play Batman, were more than a little disappointed by the previous Batman Vengeance, and still own a pair of Batman Underoos™ even though they’re way too small and were probably the wrong thing to wear on your wedding night, you have to run out and buy a copy of this game. Run over your own mother if you have to. If you don’t have the money, sit on a street corner with a cup and beg to unleash your Caped Crusader within. Sell your blood. Who needs all of it anyway? Or a kidney! Likely an entire generation will go by and never find a better gaming dollar spent. Don’t miss it!