Games I Should Have Played – Batman: Arkham Asylum

March 2, 2011 // Published by Matthew Blackwell

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to be looking at games I've had sitting on my shelf, silently mocking me for having not played them yet. Some are undoubtedly classics; some are probably just steaming shitpiles. But I'm going to find that out for myself, and hopefully have some fun in the process.

Looking back on my various reviews of HD games since I first purchased an XBox last year, I've found that I'm really, really hard on HD games. I know the reason why – good game design has, in my view, often been tossed out the window in favour of panache and "world-building" and "serious intentions." The solution for too many developers has been to throw money at a problem (even if that "problem" isn't necessarily problematic) and hope that the marketing teams and easily-awed reviewers will back up their decisions. There's a real loss of thoughtfulness in this generation, and it often leaves me disappointed. It's like buying an amazing looking cake only to find it tastes like complete shit.

It was to my surprise, then, to find that I enjoyed Batman: Arkham Asylum for many of the same reasons that I would have enjoyed a PS2 or Gamecube game, and not because of any of the pretensions so inherent in the HD generation – a real surprise considering how often Arkham Asylum is held up as a paragon of HD development. This is a game that is meant to be enjoyed as a game, and it remembers what matters and ignores what doesn't.

There are many factors to consider when it comes to this game. The first is as a licensed property which, outside of perhaps the incredible Disney-sanctioned NES games made by Capcom, or Goldeneye, or Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Arkham Asylum essentially obliterates in the quality department. Part of this is because Arkham Asylum isn't tied to a specific property outside of "the entire Batman mythos," which is a pretty rich source to work from.

Let's get the bad out of the way, though. Arkham Asylum is certainly in the upper echelon of Batman-related properties, but it's nowhere near the quality that fans of the Dark Knight have become accustomed to in recent years. Christopher Nolan's take on the character and the proceedings has become so total, so engrossing, that to return to a more overtly "comic-y" take is a little strange. That's a personal assessment, though, and done right, a comic book-based depiction of the character and the world wouldn't automatically be a bad thing.

The other problem, then, is that as a comic book narrative, it's also merely good as opposed to reaching the brilliance of Batman: Year One or the recently-released Joker. The writing is handled by Paul Dini, a veteran of the comic series as well as the animated series, but Arkham Asylum feels more like a collection of elements ("Batman throws all of the series' villains in a prison and the Joker has an elaborate plan to bust them all out and wreak psychological terror" is really designed to show off as many villains as possible) rather than developing a propulsive narrative. Don't get me wrong: the atmosphere is spot-on and as fan service it's often enthralling, but it's not overly concerned with actual characters as much as it is with caricatures. This isn't inherently different from most comic books, though, which leads me back to my assertion that in the pantheon of Batman literature, Arkham Asylum certainly isn't bad; it's just not as mindblowing as I have become accustomed to.

Thankfully, Rocksteady and Eidos made some really great choices in terms of voice actor casting. I'm saying this not because I really care that Arleen Sorkin did the voice of Harley Quinn or whoever that other dude is who does Batman's voice for the animated series, but because of Mark Hamill. I've been following his post-Star Wars career for some time, and if he's not the most accomplished voice actor living today, then I don't know who is. He's excellent in Arkham Asylum, bringing an absolutely perfect performance to a more "traditional" Joker. They couldn't have done a better job of getting him in the game, and his performance makes me more excited for Arkham City than almost anything else I've seen about the game.

I'm going to rip on one more element of the game, and then it's positive from here on out, I promise! Basically, the game is as much a mixed bag of aesthetics as the Joel Schumacher Batman movies, and that's obviously not a compliment. The atmosphere I mentioned earlier is often present in the visuals, but the character design is absolutely atrocious (Batman really does, as John Cameron once told me, look like "a sack full of dodgeballs") and the game has no idea what it wants to look like outside of "HD game." Any decision would have been better (if executed properly, of course) – either a dark and gritty version that maybe recalled the Nolan films or some of the darker graphic novels, or maybe a cell-shaded approach that would actually be pretty in-line with the tone of the game. But beyond some relatively impressive locales, too often this is a game satisfied with just having stock, pretty, Unreal Engine-powered graphics, and the Batman legacy really deserves more than that .

What the game nails, and ultimately what is so invigorating about Arkham Asylum, is its blend of gameplay structures. Sure, the game might recall Half-Life here, or include a Metal Gear Solid-style sneaking section there, but it's all pulled off to such an enjoyable degree that, yes, you will feel like "the goddamned Batman." Combat is fluid and engaging (and as a real bonus to me personally, I loved that the game avoids having Batman kill anyone – it opens up exciting gameplay opportunities rather than simply encouraging button mashing or indiscriminate killing), and never gets too repetitious. Exploration is handled relatively well – it's standard "open-world lite" design but it's not too overwhelming and relies on Batman's detective skills. Powerups and gadgets are handled almost in a Super Metroid manner, with different batgadgets opening up different areas of the Asylum.

Perhaps the greatest aspect is that aforementioned stealth aspect, which is so rewarding and pulled off so well that it could be an entire game made up of these moments and would still be just as good. The guards are really quite dumb, but the game manages to make these moments tense and engaging all the while. Besides, it cements the emphasis on Batman's actual persona, which is to strike from the shadows and retreat just as quickly – he is a trained ninja, after all. And Rocksteady nails it perfectly by including these segments at just the right time to break up the flow of the game, allowing you to feel like a supreme badass in a natural way. It's actually kind of incredible that no Batman game – heck, almost no superhero game – has been able to nail the feeling of being a superhero to the degree that Arkham Asylum does, especially considering that almost every other game out there succeeds at making you feel like a superhero even when they're not supposed to.

That's perhaps what makes Arkham Asylum so brilliant to play: that it manages to do what it wants to do and do it well. Sure, this game isn't really innovating – it's simply synthesizing the best parts of every other third-person action game out there – but that synthesis is done with a verve and commitment to detail often missing from even the games it steals from. Arkham Asylum absolutely deserves the accolades it has received. It's tempting to hate on all shiny, big-budget, blockbuster action games, but you can't really argue with a game hewing close to genre conventions when it's also simultaneously delivering in all the right ways.