Thursday, September 3, 2009

Review: "Batman: Arkham Asylum"

And finally it is here.

Following up its demo review, the game "Batman: Arkham Asylum" truly does not disappoint. The primary concern that most people have about Batman:AA being a repetitive game, like Assassin's Creed, was removed. Batman:AA drives the player throughout the game with its cinematic gameplay, and immersive storytelling. And there isn't one point when I felt bored.

Detective Mode tracking

We all read from the demo review about the detective mode. On detective mode, Batman will gain X-ray vision, detected armed/unarmed targets and heartbeats of a target. The complete game shows its additional feature: Tracking. The detective mode seemed to be able to track almost everything that the average person thought impossible: alcohol fumes, DNA, fingerprints, tobacco traces, etc. From a programmer point of view, it is actually the same code with different skin. However, it really adds to the immersion, allowing the player to feel that he really is Batman.

If you have played the demo, you will notice that whenever Batman completes a task, or defeat an opponent in combat, he will gain experience points. Experience points in Batman:AA can be used to buy skills at "WayneTech". This ranges from skills that enhances his melee combat skills, to upgrading his armor to improving his gadgets. Melee combat upgrades allows Batman to perform a grapple or a takedown after a certain combo count is met. Sadly, the skill list seems to be lacking and most of them are boring.

Dealing with foes come in two-fold: Stealth and Straight-up Melee. In a straight up fight, Batman is able to change target anytime by just changing the direction of the analog stick. In Easy and Normal modes, an extremely bright logo (I'm exaggerating, but it's very noticeable) will appear on an opponent's head if they are about to strike. Pressing the Counter button will cancel its animation and force Batman to counter him immediately (talk about cheap, Batman can control your animation frames!). Also, double tapping the dodge button + direction of the opponent will cause Batman to flip over your target, rendering him helpless. It does not screw up your combo counter. There are many other stuffs to do, but elaborating them here will take a whole page.

Stealth is usually used when too many targets are armed. Batman is still human after all, and can only take so many shots. In this case, you are required to take down every target with as little attention to you as possible. For early stages, you can deal with two side-by-side targets by throwing a Bat-a-rang at one and glide kicking another (where Batman swoops down, in bullet time, to kick a target). As you get more upgrades, handling more complex situations become easier, although with patience, you don't really need to use the upgrades. In fact you can just do silent behind-the-back takedowns if you are good enough.

Also, again if you have played the demo, you have seen those Joker Teeth clattering noisily at random places. You can throw your bat-a-rang to destroy them and yield experience points. The point of them? Riddler.

Riddler hacks into your communications at a early part of the game. He supposedly has riddles, trophies, and challenges for Batman in every zone. Completing riddles is part of the game completion percentage indicated at your save file, and some of them unlocks stuff such as character biographics and challenge maps. The most innovative thing they have in Riddler's Challenges are the riddles themselves. You are required to find the answers to the riddles and scan them at the correct angle and magnification by holding the L2 button (or the detective mode button).

One of the items I find interesting to collect (as part of Riddler's Riddles) are the interview tapes. The interview tapes are sure to ignite the fanboy within every fan. Every villain involved in the game has 5 interview tapes to the found and each interview tape tells us more about the villain as well as the interesting conversations they have with their psychiatrist-in-charge. You can spoil yourself by search for them at YouTube.

Puzzle progression is very straightforward. In fact, sometimes I wonder if there are even 'puzzles' at all. If there aren't supposed to be puzzles, then the upgrades Batman receives over the course of the story is just to unlock places he couldn't access. Sometimes you wondering why don't he just bring everything but hey, that will totally ruin the game wouldn't it? A gadget that stands out is the Sequencer. Batman uses it to tune to a sensitive frequency that would override (ie break) a control box (usually used to control an electric gate). Using both analog sticks, you will try to move them until you get a green frequency. It's really quite intuitive.

Cryptographic Sequencer

Finally, boss fights. Boss fights in Batman:AA are rather easy as long as you know the trick. Once you are able to juggle bosses and minions together, there shouldn't be a problem fighting them. Due to the technical direction the game takes (ie being very cinematic) however, boss fights, though boring and easy, seemed pretty epic at times. The camera effects manages to capture key moments and close shaves very well.

Oh speaking of boss fights, I almost forgot about the Scarecrow scenes. Midway through the game, Batman will suddenly start having visions and your surroundings will slowly become more and more surreal. He will start hearing voices of his past and will start seeing stuffs that are kinda scary at times. That is when Scarecrow's fear gas manages to affect Batman. Crazy things will start happening around Batman like raining indoors, tables flying, entering the same place using the exit...Scarecrow's nightmare scene is truly a masterpiece in special effects. It also shows alot for the storyboarding of the game, that the story does not only take place within the boundaries of realism. What really impressed me is actually the developer's ability to smoothly transit from reality to surreal.

Overall, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a dark and gloomy game, probably inspired from the latest Batman movies (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight). The story is a little short, but seeing how polished the gameplay is, I couldn't really complain. One thing I wished for is to meet more villains. In person I mean, not just the mere mention of them.

Villains directly involved in this game includes:
- Joker, the main villain of the game. Uses joker toxins and circus-themed deadly traps
- Riddler, the sidequest provider of the game. Leaves trails of deadly riddles for Batman to solve, although they are not so deadly in this game.
- Harlequin, Joker's 'girlfriend'.
- Poison Ivy, Mutated-Botanist-turned-evil. She believes humans are the root of all evil as far as preserving nature is concerned.
- Zsazz (sp?), An unpredictable serial killer/sociopath.
- Bane, the villain the key storyline item is based on (wow that's some big clue there). He's not a dumbass as everyone thinks he is so stop staying he's dumb.
- Killer Croc, Some bloodthirsty human mutated to a crocodile
- Scarecrow, aka Dr Crane, an ex-psychiatrist that experiments on humans using his fear gas.

Long story short:
- Intriguing storyline
- Great art direction and graphics
- Freestyle combat system (explained in demo review)
- A pretty cool mini-game gadget: The Sequencer
- Challenge Maps.
- Great technical directions (for special effects)
- Rewards for Riddler Challenge that players will actually care about
- Scarecrow scenes

- Too short
- Crappy skill list overall
- Too short (did I mention that already?)

NeetGeek gives "Batman: Arkham Asylum": 9/10

PS: This might be a Game-of-the-year contender imho.

BONUS: As some might already know, PS3 owners are able to download Joker challenge maps for free using the Playstation Store. Remember that you must have a US account to get the Joker maps (Singapore uses HongKong/Japanese store).

Using Joker in combat is not so much difference as compared to Batman, although he has different move animations, he is pretty much the same as Batman without the bat-a-rang. However he is quite different in stealth sequences as he had completely different equipments. For one, he does not have a grappling hook for quick escape purposes, and secondly, he's "Detective Mode" can only be used stationary. He also have a remote control bomb and a single-bullet gun. Because of such limitations, Joker is actually quite hard to use in stealth compared to Batman. Quite fun to use all in all though.

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