Batman: Arkham Asylum was much lauded upon release by game pundits and players alike, and reported pretty much universally as a firm indication of the imminent second coming of our lord and saviour – J. Holy-Christ O.B.E, until the mania died down, people got bored, and everyone moved on to the next effusion of orgasmic halleluiahs, which seem to currently being ejaculated for Uncharted 2, with Brutal Legend surprisingly and sadly being cast down into the pits of gaming Hades where, ironically, it’s probably most comfortable, and is even now rocking out with the Lord of Hellfire; although, if a game that revels in the satanic imagery of the heavy metal scene is sent to Hell, does it really go to the fiery pits of the Inferno, or is it perhaps forced to reside in a quiet country field full of sheep and bunnies and forced to play Singstar: Annoying Whiney Girl Band Edition for all eternity? Regardless, the crowd of gourd worshippers have rushed off after a new messiah, and so I decided to pick through the debris of their wake and see what all the fuss was about.
The introductory sequence instantly lets us know that this game is aiming more at Dark Knight than the television show of the sixties, or even the much acclaimed slightly more serious-but-still-aimed-at-kids animated show of recent years, despite many of the actors from that show being employed to work their vocal voodoo on this game. Indeed, Mark Hamill’s Joker is a masterful work, and had it not been for one Heath Ledger, would probably be considered the definitive acted interpretation of the master villain. The other insight that the introductory sequence gives us is that the game is running on Epic Games’ Unreal Perspiration Engine, a curious piece of technology which can render landscape environments in stunning and immaculate detail but always manages to make skin look overly shiny as though it’s covered with a sheen of sweat. Maybe it’s a deliberate commentary on the future side effects of global warming, or perhaps a reflection on the greater existential problem of mankind’s permeability of thought, that our motives and desires inevitably leak through to the facade that we present to the world, and the people we interact with can see themselves reflected in the sweat-like sheen of this psychic projection. Either that or someone left the PHONG_SHADE_ALL_SKIN_TEXTURES flag set to TRUE again.
If you want a dry but detailed account of the game I would recommend the Wikipedia article. The game has a story typical of the genre, it’s a suitable vehicle to allow Batman to go forth and verily punch punks in the teeth with wild abandon, but it’s hardly going to win any awards for originality. It’s a super hero comic book adaptation, and as such it follows the trend of Big Bad Boss quite astonishingly escaping from a maximum security facility – for the third time this week – and contriving a huge and convoluted plot to destroy the hero’s City of Protective Choice whilst giving our hero every opportunity to stop him under the pretence of needing to toy with the hero first. The Joker is one of the few villains where a writer can get away with this script over and over again, because it’s basically the Joker’s modus operandi – he has to pick at the bat-shaped scab that scars his mind – but even so, if you couldn’t see the whole plot laid out before you from the very beginning of the game – like the walls of the Matrix in that scene where Keanu Reeves finally, oh thank the lord FINALLY, realises that he is Of Course THE ONE, You Plank – then you probably don’t read comics much. The important thing with the story in Batman: Arkham Asylum is that it doesn’t get in the way of running around and giving generic goons a darn good kicking, this is more important than one might think, and I’ll come back to why in a moment.
Giving generic goons a good old fashion knuckle sandwich is what super hero comic book games are all about, because it’s what super hero comics are all about. You can pretend that super hero comics aspire to a higher art status, that they reflect the nature of society’s doubts and tackle the difficult issues of the time, but in the end they resolve those issues by finding someone that they classify as naughty and punching them hard in the teeth. Watchmen – resolved by punching people in the teeth. V for Vendetta – teeth punching. Grandville – there might have been some animals in there who don’t have teeth, but whatever tooth-like substitute they have, you can be sure that they were punched in them. The combat in the game is beautifully realised, it’s not just the simplicity of the Rock-Band-like rhythm system that it uses, where timing your punches to the beat of the fight awards you with a linked combination of moves that cause greater damage, but the fact that these moves flow seamlessly together and look totally natural. If someone attacks from behind and you counter the move, Batman doesn’t just turn mechanically and punch the assailant, but grabs the kicking leg and snaps it with an elbow drop, or back-fists them in the face. There are a huge variety of moves, such that, even if you aim at an enemy who is across the room from you, Batman will move to attack them in a way that couldn’t have been choreographed any better: back-flipping across the room and kicking the goon while Batman flips himself onto his feet being just one example. It’s another nod to the ‘less is more’ style of game design, you essentially mash just one button to attack, use the directional stick to aim at the enemy you want that attack to land on, and the game does the rest. The subtlety is in the timing, in using the counter attack button judiciously, and in working your way around the room of enemies in a systematic fashion such that none of them even get a chance to retaliate. Because the combat is simplistic yet nuanced, and because the player is not having to constantly remember five or six different button actions along with the thousands of additional combinations of those buttons in order to progress, the combat is utterly immersive, you come out of the other end of a fight with Batman standing over a pile of incapacitated felons, adjusting his Batsuit cuffs in the nonchalant manner of one who has just single handedly pummelled an entire steroidally overdosed American Football team armed with baseball bats into submission (they tried fighting with the implements of their chosen profession, but hitting someone with an American football just doesn’t have the same impact), and you think “Wow, look at what Batman did!” and then you check yourself and think “No, wait, look at what I did as Batman!”.
As good a game as it is, I think that immersion is the real triumph of Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Coming back to the fact that the story doesn’t get in the way of the game, this also helps with the immersion. The cut scenes are kept to a minimum, as such you don’t have your immersion broken by suddenly becoming a passenger in a scene that you were moments ago in control of. These cut scenes often change the camera angle so that you view your character in a way that can only be seen as you peering in from the outside, they eject you from the world you were living in and make you watch, helpless, as the entity that was you a moment before is now under the control of Mr Story-Teller. Honestly, I think that Rocksteady Studios could have removed the cut-scenes altogether and had the player play through them in an interactive way, but since they are kept to a minimum they provide, if nothing else, a suitable reminder that it might be time for a quick cup of tea, or to evacuate the previous five cups of tea.
The attention to detail magnifies the level of immersion. Batman’s costume gets ripped on several occasions, and that battle damage stays with you throughout the rest of the game. Therefore, when you come back to the game you are instantly reminded as to what Batman has been through up to this point in the game and you are reminded of your previous battles, as such you are able to settle back into the game that much quicker, even having been away from the game for some time. Batman’s outfit tells ‘the story so far’ and you get your reminder almost subliminally.
Adding further to the feeling that you are Batman is the fact that the game embraces the way Batman generally operates: he piles into groups of enemies and martial arts them into submission, or he sneaks around and uses fear and the shadows as his weapons, picking off heavily armed opponents one at a time. With the former method the game positively encourages you to wade into groups of enemies and revel in fighting against overwhelming odds and winning through, although you quickly come to realise that you are the Goddamn Batman and that unless there are twenty or more of them facing off against you, the odds are not going to be in their favour. The latter method is equally well handled, with Batman quickly being able to learn the inverted takedown manoeuvre from the obligatory character progression mechanic (often incorrectly using the appropriated term RPG, it seems). With the inverted takedown available, Batman is able to hang from the rafters unseen until an unsuspecting enemy walks underneath, at which point you drop down on a line, grab the enemy and whip back up into the shadows, stringing him up for his friends to find. The AI is well programmed, such that the remaining felons come running to their compatriot’s aid, and finding him all Bat Bondaged, exclaim in terror to the room in general “Who are you?!” and other such phrases, and then stick together more often, reflecting their increased fear. This all serves to make the player feel utterly powerful as they sit in the shadows of the ceiling and gloat. The game goes to great lengths to make sure the player always feels like Batman, and feeling like Batman means feeling in control. There’s this dark brooding menace and arrogance of self belief that serves Batman well in the comics, and the player is never thinking “how am I going to overcome this challenge” when it comes to combat, they’re simply thinking “what’s going to be the most entertaining way to overcome this challenge”. It’s never a matter of ‘if I overcome this’, it’s merely a matter of ‘when I’ve overcome this’. There are a couple of disappointments with respect to the immersion in this case: the stealth aspect of the game relies on Batman strategically using oh so conveniently placed gargoyle statues around the ceiling of the rooms in order to execute his divide and conquer strategy; it may just be that the architect of Arkham Asylum was as insane as its inmates, and this manifested itself in stuffing gargoyle heads at random into rooms that were clearly otherwise not designed for them, but in all honesty it just screams game mechanic, which is all the more stark when compared to the cleverly hidden mechanics in the rest of the game. It’s perplexing when considering that the mechanic for the Bat Grapple when used to move around the rest of the game world is, like most elements of the game interface, simple and enjoyable to use. Another immersion breaker is that the stealth sections are clearly defined, you can’t use the inverted takedown in the outside areas, despite there being many walkways and guard towers that would make perfect ambush spots. Apparently it only works from gargoyles. These are minor niggles though, and quickly forgotten when you realise that no matter the environment, there are punks who need to be taught a lesson, and you’re the one who is ideally suited to give it.
So the combat is delicious, and this being a super hero comic game that makes it ninety percent perfect straight out of the gate. There are a few other things worth mentioning though. For example, this being a super hero comic game, all of the female characters (barring Token Dowdy Doctor Lady) are over-sexualised to the point of driving all the way past the suburbs of Parody and heading deep into downtown Juvenile Masturbation Fantasy. For good or for bad, foxy females are a staple of super hero comic books, but in recent years it seems to have devolved from the innocence of pubescent infatuation into a more demeaning, derogatory and dark place better suited to seedy Soho stores. It’s a shame to see the game follow this trend, because although the Dark Knight had an adult audience as its intended focus, it refrained from such cheap thrills.
The Sandman levels are also worth a mention, making excellent use of the villain’s hallucinogenic devices to twist the game on its head and provide a nice change of pace to the ‘explore and conquer’ mode of the main game. Think American McGee meets Mario and you won’t be far wrong.
And finally two design decisions which show the curious nature of game development, where on the one hand the old tropes of past games are ignored, and yet another is included for no added benefit. Throughout the game there are numerous ventilation grates which Batman can yank off in order to sneak around obstacles and enemies, but to do this you have to go up to the vent, press the A button to start the process and then repeatedly mash the A button in order to pull the vent from its housing. Why? It seems utterly pointless, there’s no game to it, you either press A enough or you don’t, there’s no timing or rhythm mini-game, the amount of noise you make isn’t affected by the speed of your button presses, it’s just utterly pointless, and I’m totally curious as to why it’s in there. On the other hand, Rocksteady Studios completely resisted any urge to add a token and utterly inane driving section to the game. Possibly a first in any Batman game to date, and something that they should be congratulated on. When the Batmobile blows up somewhere near the start of the game, I couldn’t have cheered more.
There’s no doubt that Batman: Arkham Asylum is an accomplished game; whether it’s actually worthy of the Second Coming praise that has been showered upon it, or whether that was just a product of a games journalism industry floored out of left field by a competent and compelling super hero game, I think it must be for the individual player to decide, but if you love the idea of the being the one, the only, the true “Goddamn Batman”, then welcome to Judgement Day.