Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Batman: Arkham Asylum (PC)

Today I'm taking a look at Batman: Arkham Asylum, a third person action game about an eccentric billionaire who habitually dresses up each evening as a bat to violently assault people in the street, and how this inevitably results in him being locked up in a mental hospital.

Except he doesn't really dress as a bat though does he? Unless there's a species of flying mammal out there known for wearing a cape, spiky metal gauntlets and underwear over their pants. That gear he's wearing is basically a custom Solid Snake style sneaking suit with a really hot and uncomfortable looking armoured cowl in the place of Snake's stylish bandana. Sure it has thin pointy ears sticking out the top of it, but bats don't even have thin pointy ears so...

And as far as the whole 'violent vigilante' thing goes, well if I was skilled enough to effortlessly take out a whole room full of evil ninjas with both my arms tied behind my back while simultaneously disarming a nuke using only my mouth and a half a toothpick, I'd probably go fight crime too. If only because I didn't want to get drowned/poisoned/frozen etc. every week by a supervillain's nefarious scheme while Gotham's finest were busy tripping over each other.

(Click the pics to expand them into semi-glorious 1280x800 res images.)

The game begins with a video of Batman personally driving celebrity psychopath The Joker to Arkham Asylum after a bit of a incident at City Hall. Apparently they've done this enough times now that they've started to skip the tedious trial/psychological assessment etc. part of the process and just throw him straight back into his cell.

The video clip is all made up to look like real time in-game graphics, but I'm on to them (the widescreen bars and blurriness was my biggest clue). Oh, plus the fact that there's no way a game from 2009 is going to look this good in-game on my ancient rig.

Holy shit it looks this good in-game! Maybe I've just been stuck in 20th century with my retro games for too long, but those character models look absolutely incredible to me. They're like living action figures.

Anyway the game has decided to do the old Half-Life trick of forcing me to sit through a long unskippable intro sequence where I'm basically being taken along for a non-interactive ride through a huge underground high security facility to establish the setting and the set up. It lasts about the same time too I believe: seven whole minutes of the Joker taking the piss out of every guard he meets along the way, while taunting Batman on not having figured out his scheme yet. And yet somehow this isn't getting old.

It doesn't hurt that it's got Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reading dialogue scripted by Paul Dini: the same team who gifted humanity with the legendary Batman: The Animated Series cartoon during the 90s. Basically this couldn't be more of an authentic Batman story if they'd gotten the Nolan brothers and Christian Bale working on it.


Oh no The Joker escaped! Who could've seen that one coming? Worse, he's managed to smuggle a small army in here to back him up. It's a shame no one caught on to his ingenious scheme to get his gang temporarily incarcerated here by arranging to have their prison catch on fire, as it does seem like the kind of thing that would set off warning bells. Anyway, now I've got to take on a room full of hardened psychopaths simultaneously before I'll be free to give chase.

Fortunately Batman's got a little voice in his head that tells him what the controls are and even highlights enemies that are about to strike him. When the blue lightning bolts appear above someone's head all I have to do is hit the counter button and...

... Batman automatically spins around and blocks the attack. Then while I'm beating the crap out of this guy someone else will sneak up behind me and then I have to block or dodge them as well, and so on.

Unfortunately Batman's near-superhuman awareness of his surroundings does seem to have limits, as he appears to have just stomped on that poor unconscious guard's head. 

This is actually one of the slickest and most intuitive combat systems I've ever seen in a game. There's no messing around to get myself in the exact right position or to target the correct enemy, and there's no need to remember combos. I just hit my attack button at the right moment and Batman sorts out the rest.

Not that I can breeze through it without paying attention, Batman is very capable of getting punched in the face I fail to counter at the right moment, and I do like to flip over people's heads to get into a better location.

Let's see you try laughing at my funny pointy ears with a cracked ribcage, criminal scum!

Well I sure beat the shit out of those tutorial enemies and I did so with an excessive amount of grace and finesse. Not that there's any other way to fight in this game.

By the way Batman isn't actually killing any of these people. He's had ninja training, he knows how to apply foot to face without causing permanent damage. Because it's fiction, and concussion isn't a thing in fiction.

With my enemies (temporarily) crippled I'm free to move on, and the Joker seems suspiciously keen for me to do just that, seeing as he's found a way to get his face onto the big screen TV just to taunt me into chasing him. Well I might as well, as it's not like I have anywhere else to go. There's only one way out of this room and it ain't the way I came in.

Even if I could climb back out through that broken window up there that Commissioner Gordon's currently peering out of, there's nothing back there but a locked door anyway. So we're both trapped unless I get the security lockdown sorted out, and that means playing right into the Joker's hands.

Just when I thought the game was going to be a straight brawler, it's thrown a new gameplay mechanic at me. I can use my grappling gun here to leap from gargoyle to gargoyle around the ceiling, and spy on the people below from the shadows using my Detective Mode augmented reality lenses. That blue skeleton down there has taken a guard hostage so I'm about to glide down and apply some justice to the side of his head.

Uh, one small problem with that though: I'm using a controller, but the prompts have all switched to keyboard and mouse controls because I keep hitting a key to take my screenshots, so... I don't actually know what button activates my glide kick. Oh well, I guess I'll just drop down, walk over and punch him.

Incidentally, mouse and keyboard controls actually work just fine for the game in my opinion. It's not a game that requires a controller, though there's no advantage to having precision mouse aiming either.


Uh, this dodge move looks a lot more graceful in motion.

Well this is great: I finally managed to catch up to the Joker, and he goes and sends a boss out to distract me! I don't recognise this guy from any of the Batman stories I know, but I've seen him in a hundred other video games. He's that guy who you likes to charge at you from across the room, so you dodge out of the way and let him knock himself senseless on the wall behind you, then kick him in the ass when he's struggling to recover.

Personally I could've done without this kind of thing in the game at all, but it's nice to know I'm getting it out of the way early.

Surviving the boss fight got me an upgrade! Also an upgrade menu option; this entire page has only just appeared on my menu. A lot of the options are locked right now, but there's still a good amount of choice here: combat upgrades, batarang upgrades, new moves... it's all very appealing. But I'm going to go with the extra health, because I know me and I know that I'll need it.

But alas, while I was screwing around chasing the Joker down the corridors of Arkham's high security wing, he had ordered one of his goons to capture Commissioner Gordon behind my back! So that's my new main priority here: rescue my bro.

I like how it adds fact sheets for each of the characters as I meet them, if only because it lets me know if they really are from the comics, or if they were just made up for the game. So far they've all been existing characters, which is interesting considering I haven't even heard of half of them. Not knowing the backstory hasn't mattered one bit for me though so far, as the game's been very good at providing the necessary info as the story's progressed.

Alright, I have no idea where Gordon is, but I know where he was and that's a good place to start. Back to the room with the broken window then I guess. Also look, they've given me a map and I'm able to wander around freely through the places I've already been through!

It actually reminds me of Metal Gear Solid a little in its structure and its approach to narrative. I even make codec calls to a tech expert on the outside, though they take place while I'm wandering around instead of a separate screen. Incidentally there's no dialogue choices in this either, I just enter into a conversation and then sit through it until it's over. Personally I think this is a missed opportunity, as I think it would've added a little more depth and replay value if players had the freedom to reply with "I am the Bat" in each and every conversation.

Okay, I made it back to the room Gordon was standing in earlier and used Detective Mode to pick up a trail, which basically just involved looking around the room with x-ray vision until I found myself staring at the correct object. So now I'm taking a break from brawling, stalking and boss fights to run around following a trail of orange dots in purple mode.

Well, I guess variety is good.


And it turns out that the lifts are out, which isn't ideal seeing as I'm currently trapped deep underground in a high security dungeon and Gordon is current not. Fortunately my grappling gun is good for more than just gargoyles, so I can make my ascent via alternative means. There no jump button, but Batman can automatically leap small chasms when he runs off a ledge, like Link in Ocarina of Time (and possibly other Zelda games too!)

So it seems that I've gone from brawling, stalking, boss fighting, and dot following, to an obstacle course.


I realise that this place is supposed to be an ultra-high security containment area for criminally insane supervillains, but would it have killed them to add a staircase? Note to Batman: fit a longer rope on the grappling gun next time.

Still, it's not all been pain and no gain, I found a weird stone tablet with a weird diary entry encoded onto it in weird cryptic symbols, written by the spirit of Amadeus Arkham himself apparently. Fortunately my batsuit can replay the written message as a System Shock 2/Doom 3/Bioshock etc. style audio diary, so I can listen to his ramblings as I go.

I found another stalking challenge at the top of the elevator shaft, but this time I'm being hunted by enemies with assault rifles and sadly my suit is only very slightly bulletproof. Fortunately the asylum's architects have provided me with an abundance of high ceilings and gargoyles to perch on in this room, as studies have shown that mentally disturbed patients recover faster when grotesque monsters glare at them from the shadows above.

Speaking of spying on the mentally disturbed from the shadows, look what I've found! It's one of Joker's henchmen who's strayed too far from his friends. Attacking a group would be suicide, but if I can knock this guy out before his friends catch sight of me, I should be able to make my escape safely back to the ceiling.

I've finally pulled off a glide kick! Now I just need to do a ground takedown to finish him off and then scurry back out of sight before his friends realise something's up and shoot me. By the way, I love his cape in this; it billows in the air, it trails across the ground properly, it fans out when I spin around, it's fantastic.

Sure his friends will soon find the body and realise I'm here, but I'm counting on it. This isn't about getting through a room without leaving a trace, it's about scaring the shit out of people and preying on them when they panic and make a mistake.

Well I managed to take down all the guards without being shot dead and was awarded with a health refill for my trouble (no regenerating health or medikit pickups in this), but the trail of orange dots ends here. Gordon's kidnapper is dead and there's no sign of the Commissioner. Still, there's only one possible way out so it's not like I'll have any trouble figuring out my next move.

It seems that another nutcase criminal, the Riddler, is also out and about in the facility and he's issued a challenge to me via my suit's codec thing. His riddle is so painfully easy to solve that it seems to actually be hurting him that I haven't figured it out yet. I mean sure a 'Sharply observed portrait' clearly refers to a portrait of Warden Sharp, I get that, but first I have to find the thing.

I have to wonder if the developers deliberately made this painting take a few seconds to find, as Riddler seems pretty quick to freak out over my stupidity and basically yell out the answer at me. Then again this is only a tutorial riddle to introduce the concept and I need solve it to progress in the game, so it makes sense they wouldn't want to hold players up for long.

There's a lot of other riddles and hidden objects around though that are totally optional, like little wind-up chattering joker teeth that are scattered around everywhere and need to be smacked with a well aimed batarang to shatter. Some of these objectives even have a reward attached, so there is some incentive to come back to areas I've already played through...

...especially when those areas have rooms that are sealed off until I acquire some new gadget. Still, I'm definitely glad they went with Metroid's power-up based approach to unlocking rooms rather than the Metal Gear keycard route. The Riddler trophy will just have to wait until I find a way to blow open walls.

On the plus side, I'm going to eventually find an item that blows open walls!

Batman at Arkham East, looking out at Arkham Mansion
Oh wow, it seems I've left the linear hallways behind for a while. This area looks bloody huge.

That moon looks bloody huge too now that I think about it, though it definitely adds to the eerie ambience. Plus I'm sure there's a perfectly good reason why Batman's back is lit up by moonlight despite the fact he's facing towards the moon. Probably because it looks cool.

Like Psychonauts, the game has an overworld broken up into a few different hub areas, connected by gates. Though unlike Psychonauts, in this I have a Batmobile parked outside and some assholes are apparently on their way to smash it to pieces.

Forget saving my friend Gordon, I have to protect my ride!

Fortunately getting around's pretty easy with my grappling gun and cape. I can cover a lot of distance with this thing once I get up somewhere high and it's absolutely effortless to activate and steer.

Oh those bastards, those total bastards. I don't mind them trying to hit me (as they'll fail), but if they've so much as scratched the paint on my car I will end their criminal career permanently by crushing every bone in their arms into a fine powder. It's okay, the game makes it very clear that all the goons I'm pummelling are genuine assholes, Joker's men, not mentally ill asylum inmates.

Actually I'm just going to press X a bunch of times until they fall down, but I'm going to do with a scowl on my face. Actually, where's a guard tower at? I want to shower them with batarangs from on high, then glide kick one in the face as he's looking up.

To be honest this isn't my favourite Batmobile design ever, but it's pretty good. It's like a cross between the Michael Keaton movie car, the Val Kilmer movie car, and a hot-rod. I guess my problem with it is that everything is exaggerated and oversized, like it's designed to be seen from a distance, like a unit in a DC Universe RTS. Examined from up close like this it looks a bit ridiculous.

Also hey, the game has an model viewer! I love these things. I haven't unlocked anyone but Batman and his car yet, but that just makes me more motivated to keep making progress. I'm not seeing it as a flaw.

Well they wrecked my damn car, but at least I was able to get the boot open and grab my explosive gel gun. Handy for opening up weak walls to reveal paths and collect secrets (and also to send enemies flying). Hey I can go back for that Riddle trophy behind the wall now! I can only have the gel or my batarangs equipped at once though, so I have to switch though them with the d-pad as necessary. So no explosive batarang combos in this one (not with what I got anyway).

Anyway, that's the car situation resolved, onto the next job. What was I doing again? Oh right, saving one of my few close friends from a psychopath who has every intention of killing him just for laughs. Fortunately Commissioner Gordon's no idiot and has left me a trail of tobacco to follow in Detective Mode (brown vision this time).

The game is afoot!


Well I found him, though just a little bit too late to save his life. Well that's depressing. Now I'm definitely getting Metal Gear Solid deja-vu.

Though there's one thing about this I don't quite get: when did my eyes start glowing? Also when did the walls of reality start to collapse around me to reveal that I'm trapped in a twisted nightmare world?

Oh hey there Giant Floating Scarecrow. Hey, you don't suppose I was exposed to this guy's fear gas at some point? I mean it would explain why Batman's worst fears are coming to life and he's falling into madness. Well it's one theory any way.

Anyway, another surprise genre shift! Now the game's gone side view and I have to make my way around the outside of these floating platforms, darting between gaps in the wall when Scarecrow has his head turned. Reminds me of that Gurlugon Snake Tales level in Metal Gear Solid 2 actually. Apparently I'm fighting a metaphorical battle in Batman's own imagination to help him recover from the toxin. I'm sure completing this stealth action challenge is just the thing he needs to snap him out of it.


I wanna go back into my drug induced nightmare trance!

Guess who's back? Yep it's the boss who likes to run into walls, this time portrayed by Bane. Only this time I have to fight off goons at the same time. I can handle one or the other, but both at once is giving me trouble.

Well I can't say I didn't see that that coming: my first death in the game. Fortunately I just restarted at the beginning of the fight again, no increasingly tedious replay of the last level required, and it even gave me a free hint!

I gotta say that this is the first part of the game I haven't entirely enjoyed, but then it's a boss fight and my brain is hard-wired to hate them for whatever reason, so I'm the worst person to judge if the game's actually doing anything wrong here. But it's not just the repeated spinal trauma that's frustrating me here though, that's for sure.

Alright let's try this again then. I have a theory that there's some indication of when it's safe to come over and hit him without suffering immediate and brutal retaliation, so I'm going to investigate...


I ran the bastard over with my car in the end and that seemed to work. Well okay it happened in a cutscene, but shut up, that's still a win for me! And look, I got Commissioner Gordon out and stuck him safely on a boat, so I've finally got my first total success in the game. I've actually achieved something. So I suppose this would be a good time to turn the game off.

So overall what did I think about the first 10% or so of Batman: Arkham Asylum then? Well at the risk of revealing the dark truth that I'm actually a dumb casual modern gamer, I have to say that I loved the shit out of this game. I found the gameplay to be fantastic, the game looks and sounds like it cost a fortune to make (in the best way), and even the story didn't make me roll my eyes. It stands well above the average franchise tie-in and is almost certainly better than any comic book game that came before it.

It's not flawless though. PC users have to deal with Games for Windows LIVE (update: this has been since been patched out), that hulked up boss enemy gets lets fun every time he appears, and the game doesn't even have one single QTE sequence as far as I can tell! How am I supposed to get invested in the action if I'm not being continually harassed to glance down at my pad and key in the sequence of buttons flashing up on the screen, huh? Oh wait, forget that bullshit, I've thought of another genuine flaw: having to hammer the A button to open vents is kind of annoying. It'd be nice if I never had to do that again.

Other than that, I give it two and half thumbs up. Would recommend. I am the Bat.


Well that's all the words I've got for today, but if you want to say something about Batman: Arkham Asylum or the site in general then be my guest. That's what the comment box is for after all.

1 comment:

  1. This is the famous "best Batman game"!!
    Some say that its the best superhero game too, I wanna play =D
    So Mark Hamill played the Joker in the 90s Animated Series, I loved that cartoon!!!! Every day we learn something new XD


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