Friday, February 11, 2011

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Arkham Asylum’s principle accomplishment is the one thing I was sure it would fail at: the player really feels like Batman, and, when I say Batman, I don’t mean your average guy wearing tights, but rather the semi-invincible master-at-everything who can take the matchup Batman v. Anything and Everything and win every time.

A big part of that is the fighting system. One man is never a problem in a hand to hand fight with Batman, so the game becomes more about crowd control, combos, and flow than the specific trading of blows. The sheer power that is impossible to not feel as you twist through the air from one end of the room to the other (landing to savagely smash a criminal down with a beautifully rendered spin kick, and then leaping off again to drive your fist into the skull of another foe on the other side of the room) is immense, but what makes the experience is the feeling of dancing on the tip of a needle. You’re invincible unless you fuck up, but a single misstep yanks back into normal time, where everything runs like sludge and it feels like everyone in the room is about to break every not-so-fragile bat-bone in your body.

Unfortunately, that feeling is an illusion. Batman has a prodigious amount of health, and anyone with a rudimentary understanding of the combo system should never have any trouble with the campaign’s fights. Later on, the game tries to remedy this by the inclusion of knife and baton armed thugs, but both only succeed to badly break your flow for the first two appearances and then simply become targets to take out as soon as possible, before you resume your general rampage. To make matters worse, the Challenge maps offer exactly what the campaign fights needed: huge swarms of enemies, a leap so obvious that I’m unsure how whoever did the details of the campaign maps never thought of it. Unfortunately, you’re likely to discover the Challenges after doing a quarter at best of the main game, and once you play those adrenaline-infused fights for long enough to start getting thirty hit combos with ease, the toughest encounter in the campaign begins to seem like a laughable tutorial.

The other half of the Batman feel is the stealth aspect, though the developers have stated that they prefer the term Predator to Stealth; while that sounds like a meaningless distinction, it pretty much sums up those parts of the game. The first few times the player meets enemies armed with guns, they freak the hell out. Suddenly, there’s a foe that’s so much stronger than Batman that the difference between the two is almost comical. And yet, after an encounter or two, the player is ready to strike from the shadows, orchestrating traps and pulling off hit and run tactics. It’s true that the stealth, like the combat, never really evolves from what it starts out as, but that’s far from a deal breaker, because it’s awesome to begin with. The Predator missions are, without a doubt, the highlights of the game, and I soon found myself playing far longer than I intended to because I knew there had to be a stealth section coming up, and I simply had to experience it.

Finally, exploration is quite fun. This aspect of the game is hampered by the general lack of respawning enemies when you respawn an area later, eventually making it so that exploration's more footwork than adventure. Still, the grappling hook is extremely well done, and flying down from some high perch is great fun (and is even better when there's some squishy inmate/mortal down there to land on). The game's collectibles are generally fairly well placed to be a bit of a challenge but not impossible, and most of the important ones (IE, the ones that unlock challenge maps) are easy to get without too much trouble, even if the occasional one will have you scratching your head with three different guides and two maps spread across your desk.

As for the game's story, it's about what you'd expect. It primarily serves to get all the villains roped in so that Batman can beat them up, and the ways in which that's done do occasionally seem contrived, but there're no obvious false notes, and the Joker is amusing enough to gloss over any weaknesses.

Every once in a while, events come to a head and the game throws a gigantic set piece at you. Now, this is a Batman game. The Batman universe is filled with fun villains. By all rights, the boss fights here should be awesome. They are not. They are terrible. The vast, vast majority of boss encounters go exactly like this: 1. Huge Enemy 2. Huge Enemy Runs at You 3. Throw Batarang and Dive Away 4. Huge Enemy Hits a Wall 5. Every Few Times Huge Enemy Hits a Wall, jump on its back and hang out for a little while.

Now, the initial Huge Enemy (Bane) fight wasn’t too bad. Generic, but entertaining. The fights with the other, more colorful villains were bad. Poison Ivy is defeated by throwing batarangs for about five minutes, dodging every once in a while. Croc is defeated by walking…really…slowly…for…a…really…long…time… and then hitting him in the face with a batarang. The first is banal, the second tedious. But those are nothing to the Huge Enemy/Bane-clone fights that are repeated again and again and again and again and again.

The absolute pinnacle of those occurs between two thirds and three quarters through the game. It’s two Huge Enemies v. One Batman.  Every thirty or forty seconds, one of them charges. You hit them with a batarang, and, when they hit the wall, they are stunned for something approaching thirty seconds or more. It’s absurd. The two almost never attack together. You’ll wait two or three minutes before charges, at times while they stomp around and occasionally chuck some slowing moving crud at you. Then, when you finally take away one of the three health bars that each of them have, you have to jump on that one’s back. If you don’t, it gets the health back…somehow. When you jump on its back, you simply ride it around for an ungodly long time with absolutely nothing to do. The fight took over half an hour (without dying), and it occurred to me near the end that, if I died, there was no way in hell I was ever playing that fight again. Thankfully I didn’t die, but I can safely say that that one boss battle was the absolute least fun I’ve ever had playing anything that dared to call itself a game.  

In the end, Arkham Asylum is a fun game. It’s got some good atmosphere, and I usually consider that the most important thing, but that same atmosphere stays exactly the same for the vast majority of the game. There’s a difference between being powerful and being immortal, and combat here often feels more like the latter, compromising the feel of the world while you sip your coffee in between attacks. Of course, those are the good parts, because when Arkham Asylum tries to break out of its own mold, it falls on its face so hard that you can hear the bones break. If you’re interested in Batman, or want to play a game with a great stealth concept, or just want some fun, you won’t be disappointed in this. Just don’t expect anything too great. 

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