Batman: Arkham Asylum
Play begins as Batman escorts the bound Joker into the depths of Arkham Asylum's Intensive Treatment ward
- Art direction, variety of stealth tactics, spectacular moments, addictive challenge maps, accessible controls, collectible riddles
- Rote melee combat, dull stock opponents, recycled bosses, some throwaway upgrades, precious few super-villains.
Finally, a Batman game worthy of the taking on the mantle. It's been a long time coming but they really hit one out of the park here. Stylish and wonderfully executed, Arkham Asylum is a visual marvel.
Price$ 119.00 (AUD)
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As the hours pass, though, it seems more and more like Batman: Arkham Asylum is being pulled in opposing directions. The caped crusader's cowl is a vital piece of equipment you'll use more often than your unenhanced eyesight, since it takes a bright highlighter to the ventilation grates, destructible walls, security boxes, and simple forensic trails, but it also flattens the gritty high contrast world into a far less appealing film of blues and yellows. Similarly, you can earn buckets of experience by lining up pieces of question marks or snapping shots of solutions to the Riddler's puzzles, but not all of the 20 upgrades are useful in practice. I loved the idea of the remote control Batarang, for instance, but never did find a moment when it was preferable to a straight toss.
Luckily, the better gadgets, like the Batclaw, open up cool strategic possibilities, and thus prove much more gratifying to use. One of my favourite tricks when facing heavily armed goons was to silently drop a thug from behind, leave some explosive gel near his carcass, hide on a nearby ledge, and then wait for his buddies to come running for a face full of kaboom. Batman sometimes seems to take his sweet time climbing over obstacles or grappling out of the line of fire, and its tempting to simply abuse the gargoyles that hang high for no apparent reason in most large rooms, but the context-sensitive controls are responsive enough to allow you to craft some impressive ambush sequences that provide many of the game's most enjoyable moments.
It's a shame that some of Batman's coolest gear and tactics are only accessible late in the game, no matter how quickly you earn your levels. But there's a bigger problem, and it's one that consistently holds back the joy of playing from start to finish: most of the unarmed enemies you face and the moves you use against them just aren't terribly interesting. Timing your attacks, dodges, and takedowns to form combinations is certainly fun in a mechanical sort of way that beat-'em-up fans will surely enjoy, but when you've only got one attack button, there's little room for any personal style. What's more, one would think an asylum with Arkham's reputation for lunacy would have more than just thug, thug-with-a-knife, and thug-with-a-cattle-prod archetypes to throw in front of your punches, the occasional sniper or back-biter notwithstanding.
And where are the marquee villains? Why is almost every boss battle virtually identical? When I first met up with Bane, the ensuing clash was thrilling. When I later had to fight what is essentially the exact same creature with a different skin, my excitement took a gut punch. By the third, fourth, and fifth times, I had my attack pattern down to a science, and my expectations had taken a dive. There are two memorable confrontations against famous foes towards the end, but they can't entirely make up for the tedious repetition that precedes them.
There are two important mitigating factors that keep Batman: Arkham Asylum's flaws from crippling the entertainment value of the whole. The first is a truly fantastic collection of cinematic sequences that depict Scarecrow's attempts to break Batman's psyche over his knee. The actual gameplay involved in these brilliant interludes is a shade minimalist, but the spectacle nevertheless inspires the sort of wide-eyed wonder that rarely survives the journey from comic book to video game.
The other saving grace is the collection of unlockable challenge maps. Stalking the island for the remaining riddles when no danger remains quickly becomes tiresome, but you'll persevere just so you can sink your teeth into all sixteen increasingly tough tests of your skill. Brawling in this context suddenly feels like a performance worth practising for the sake of leaderboard bragging rights, and stealthy set pieces reward you most for taking out goons in ever more challenging and elaborately stylish ways. (PlayStation 3 owners will even get to play as the Joker in free and exclusive downloadable levels that'll be available on release day.)
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Batman: Arkham Asylum doesn't quite deliver on all of its big ideas, and thus dodges the highest of accolades, but its rousing peaks make its low points more than bearable. Its best moments of dazzling showmanship easily qualify as must-see entertainment, even if they're not sufficient to make the game as a whole a must-play.
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