on 5 January 2010
I haven't read the other reviews of this game yet since I don't want to be biased, but seeing that this game got mostly 5 stars, here's a more critical look.
Arkham Asylum (AA) has an identity crisis: it doesn't know if it's a role-playing game, a fighting game, stealth game, or puzzler. It ends up being none of the above. I was struck by how derivative it is, or more generously you could see it as being like of those films full of nods and references to others. The stealth aspects are a take-off of Splinter Cell; you climb and jump around like in Assassin's Creed; its cut scenes and friendly NPC interactions are just like those in Mass Effect; graphics and scenery design are a confluence of Bioshock and Gears of War; "Missions" have checkpoints and are given names a la Grand Theft Auto IV. I recently got hold of a somewhat ancient game called Dragon's Lair 3D, and I am sure the designers must have played it too, because the similarities are striking: Batman's glide ability, the grid of electrified flooring, the ubiquitous chattering teeth (although they don't try to bite you in this game), the "how do I get up to that ledge?" aspect of the gameplay, and a very similar scene where the camera zooms out and you're being chased by the Dragon (in DL3D) or Killer Croc (this game).
While these are all great games and there's nothing wrong with borrowing a few ideas, in trying to take all of them and squash them into one package, AA loses the subtleties of each. In the stealth sections I miss Sam Fisher's stealth meter, the ability to press myself against a wall, or hide bodies. In fighting episodes I miss the ability to choose my attack move, rather than just mashing the left mouse "attack" button. In the conversation scenes, I miss the dialogue choices. Any being an entirely linear game, I wish I could to choose my next mission as I could in GTA4.
The stealth sub-game is the best: trying to clear a room of armed guards without being caught and shot at is fun. It would have been good to have developed this more so you can just play a bunch of levels (like the additional "VR" levels in Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance for the Xbox), and fiddle with difficulty settings etc. The Challenge mode *sort of* does this, but you have to unlock the levels. Having completed the single player game and only unlocked one of these, I only have one playable stealth challenge level, which gets repetitive.
Fighting is technically very impressive in terms of graphics and animation, but a bit simple. There are only four moves: attack, cape stun, counter, and jump away. It looks good but it's repetitive and not actually that much fun. In Mass Effect the battles are the highlight of the game, because the combat is varied and exciting. In AA, when I came across yet another group of identical thugs to fight, it was a chore to clear them so I could get on with the rest of the game. The boss battles are a bit more interesting, but are essentially the same every time.
There are some "puzzle" aspects, for instance where you have to clear a room of poisonous gas to save the occupants, (by throwing batarangs at the extractor fan switches), or another place where you have to take down multiple enemies at the same time (by putting explosives on two walls and detonating both at the same time), or working how to take down a villain weilding a cattle prod. These are great, and I love trying to solve puzzles like this. The big spoiler here, however, is that when you die, there's a screen displayed that tells you exactly how to solve the puzzle you're working on! I mean, come on! It's like your annoying little brother just came in and told you the ending of the film you're watching. The assumption seems to be that gamers only have an attention span of about 2 seconds and would get bored if they get stuck, but in reality the fun is in working it out for yourself. Well, maybe the real problem is that the game is so linear. If it weren't, you could go and work on another problem and come back to the one you're stuck on later.
The other "puzzles" are things like how to progress into the next section. The trouble again is that it's too easy and laid out for you. There's only one solution, and it's usually something like a very obvious ventilation cover that you need to remove, or you need to grapple up and over a wall, which is marked by a box that pops up on the screen telling you to press the F key when you look in the right direction. The box should have a health warning: NO INGENUITY REQUIRED. The much-touted "riddles" are crap, and basicially just descriptions of an object that you need to find and scan in a location. But you don't for the most part even need to remeber what you're looking for - just find the only unusual object in a location and scan that, because that will be the answer. Or better still don't bother, because they don't affect gameplay at all.
One thing I did really like were the scenes with the Scarecrow, which are amazingly trippy and well done. It's a simple platform game where you have to hide behind objects to avoid Scarecrow's deadly gaze, but the presentation is so good you'll want to get your friends to come round just to see it.
... which brings me onto the graphics, which are excellent: better than any I've seen on the Xbox 360, and better lighting effects, smoother frame rates, and more detailed models than Crysis. Animation is brilliant, with lots of variation in the fight scenes, and you don't see bodies lying halfway through a wall as you do in most games. When you use your grapple gun, I really like the way the camera changes and you see Batman flying towards you. The slight downside is that with such detailed animation, the variety of NPCs is limited, and scenery isn't very interactive. The sound and voice acting of the main characters are great.
So Batman Arkham Asylum is a very visually impressive game, nicely polished, unlike too many PC games you get these days where they release an unfinished version and patch it later via the internet. But ultimately, I felt, it was an unsatisfying and short-lived mish-mash of genres, a jack of all trades that won't be remembered for anything in particular. I don't see any real replay value. Although it was enjoyable enough while it lasted (took maybe 10 hours or thereabouts to complete), I have no motivation to play it through again, unlike something like Mass Effect, which I played through 3 times. There's no multiplayer and after the campaign, the other gameplay modes have little depth, so if I were replacing my hard drive I would not re-install it.