Batman: Arkham Asylum for both Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 was released recently to rave reviews and high critical acclaim. It has been called a revolution in superhero games, a genre once thought to be overdone and lackadaisical. Does Batman live up to the hype? After two playthroughs and multiple hours spent in the game, I believe it does.
The first thing you notice about Batman when the opening cutscene begins to play is the quality of the graphics. Both character models and environmental textures make good use of the Unreal 3 engine. The game’s superb graphics and haunting music (with notable influence from both the Batman Animated Series and the new Batman movies by Christopher Nolan) contribute to the immersive dark and eerie feeling of Arkham. It is evident that the game’s designers took careful consideration when working with Unreal 3, as the game’s look is reminiscent of the work done by Unreal themselves – a consideration that many of the other users of Unreal 3 should pay attention to. The only visual element that could be considered lacking is facial animation, which is a common complaint in games running Unreal 3 and is probably more the fault of the mechanics of the engine itself than the game designers. Likewise, sound quality is also excellent; with tense string passages during stealth sequences reminiscent of the score from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and heroic brass during important scenes that harkens back to Batman: The Animated Series and the original movies, the score does well to make Batman fans old and new alike feel right at home.
Gameplay across Arkham Asylum remains engaging from the introductory walk through the Penetentiary to the final fight. The island’s layout is logical and feels neither too cluttered nor too sparse. It’s easy to quickly learn your way around and feel comfortable navigating the island. Each of the separate buildings has its own unique flavor, there is absolutely nothing about the game that feels “samey” in any way. Even when you have to return to buildings you’ve already been, the game’s environment changes enough over the course of the story that you feel like you’re exploring for the first time. Level design is superb, and the many challenges and puzzles you will encounter as you uncover more of Arkham get progressively more difficult, though none are beyond the means of an observant player. As an example, without giving away any story spoilers, there is one point at which you must rescue some hostages from a few of the Joker’s henchmen, however if any of them see you before you reach the main man guarding the hostages, they will be executed. There are at least two completely separate paths you can use or combine to safely reach the hostages, and there may be more that I have not found yet, but this is a sterling example of the game’s well thought out level design. Multiple paths to an objective isn’t a luxury in this game, it is a standard, keeping gameplay fresh for multiple playthroughs as long as the player is observant. With the inclusion of the Riddler’s challenges hidden in every area of the map, Arkham Island offers seemingly no end to creativity and interesting areas to explore.
Enemy AI is also a huge strength for this game. Genuinely intelligent enemies are a rarity in video games, and so AI of the caliber found in Batman is impressive, especially in a stealth game where AI is crucial to gameplay. Enemies react to your actions, each other, and elements of the environment not only based on location, but also based on the enemy’s temperment, which changes as you move about the area taking out henchmen and altering the environment. Each enemy’s behavior is distinctly governed by his state of mind, which varies from calm to terrified with many in-between stages. Enemies which register as “calm” in your detective vision will be at ease, generally unaware of your presence, and unlikely to notice you if you stay quiet and discreet. However, any interaction with the enemies will elevate them to “nervous” at the least, putting them on alert and making them more vigilant of their surroundings. With more interaction on your part, they may be elevated to “panicked” or even “terrified,” each stage marked by different habits of behavior, including jumping at sounds and shadows and sporadic firing of weapons. As you play, you will notice your ability not only to utilize the environment to encourage greater terror in your foes, but also the ability to even use them against each other, using traps and lures to manipulate them to become fearful amongst themselves. Overall, I don’t think I have ever played a game with such solid AI, and the enemies’ ability to adapt to any given situation will ensure that each area of the game will be different every time you play.
There are many other things which could be lauded about this game: the gadgets, the riddles, the boss fights, but all of those are a subtext to the integral gameplay elements which make the game great. Mechanically, the game is ideal in practically every way. When it was over, I was left longing for more, which I take not to mean that the game was too short (I clocked in at about 14 hours), but that the game was superbly well designed in every way. The story was an appropriate length with appropriate pacing, it didn’t get bland at any point. There were no dull or boring moments where the gameplay seemed to get repetative or irritatingly “samey,” and the environments weren’t overused, and the fact that the island dynamically changed with the story kept everything feeling fresh the whole way through. In conclusion, I believe that Batman: Arkham Asylum is very nearly a perfect game, definitely amongst the greatest hits of this generation. With the inclusion of the challenge rooms and the Joker challenges, the game only gets better.