Batman: Arkham Asylum PreviewBy Adam Sessler - Posted Aug 07, 2009
The arrival of a preview build of Batman: Arkham Asylum on my desk brought a sense of elation. Firstly, because I finally had something new to play, albeit truncated. Secondly, in my mind, this game signals the conclusion to yet another long, dry summer of gaming.
Of course for the game to actually herald a sense of reprieve it also needs to overcome a legacy of 15 years worth of appalling interactive adaptations of the Dark Knight. Given the amount of game available on the disk (the first 25% of the game clocking in at around 6-7 hours), I’m confident to say that Arkham Asylum is not only on track to be a solid game but may very well reset the bar on what to expect from a superhero title.
The game starts with Batman hauling in The Joker to Arkham Asylum, already suspicious that something’s amiss. Within moments his suspicious are justified and Joker frees himself and sets up camp inside the hospital to unleash an unknown plan, the least of which involves the inevitable capture of Commissioner Gordon. From that point it’s rather remarkable what is stuffed into the playthrough: the introduction of several marquee villains (including King Croc, Zsasz, Poison Ivy, Bane and Harley Quinn), the acquisition of three gadgets, six upgrades to Batman and the exploration of several of the Map’s areas. What’s more impressive than the amount of content, is how organically it is woven into the game.
Much of this cohesion can be attributed to the story. It actually feels like a proper Batman tale, with a start and finish that seem designed from the beginning and not a series of contrivances that act as excuses for gameplay scenarios. Gordon gets captured, which leads Batman to a Boss Battle, which introduces Joker’s plan which makes Batman search for the others behind it, and so-on. All the gameplay seems lead by the narrative, which keeps the mechanics fresh and engaging as opposed to the pro-forma approach of so many licensed games.
The gameplay itself is comprised of the trifecta that has been well celebrated at many press events: combat, stealth and detective work. What felt missing in those demonstrations, though, was how these elements played in concert with one another. Each time, I left with the feeling that these were discrete elements that played themselves out in an obligatory fashion. From what I have played, I’m happy to be proven wrong. These scenarios don’t come at a predictable rate and don’t play out in a reliable fashion each time. In particular the stealth sequences, which can so easily descend into a slow-moving multiple-choice quiz, can be approached in numerous ways, which only got more engaging the more goodies I acquired.
In fact the upgrading of Batman and how it opens up the game each time he finds a gadget or you purchase upgrades though experience points, makes Arkham Asylum feel reminiscent of the best elements of the Metroid Prime series. There’s a sense of mystery and discovery that drove to me to find hidden areas for extra experience to enhance how I interacted with the game. Once you are allowed access to a new region of the hospital you can go back at any time, and certain secrets can only be accessed later on and I definitely felt the dangerous pull of completism in the limited playtime.
Yes, but can I beat it?
One thing the game thankfully doesn’t borrow from Metroid is the loss of powers at the beginning of the game. Batman begins as the powerful crime-fighter he is and the upgrades only make his abilities more dynamic, you don’t feel limited in your prowess, which is evident from the first time you throw a punch.
The Combat in Arkham Asylum is quite impressive. Using limited buttons, the game seems to be emulating the reactive qualities of Assassin’s Creed’s combat style with a fair amount of attention paid to its limitations. Fluidity is clearly the goal here and at that it definitely succeeds. The animations link perfectly and would appear to have an astonishing variety that truly present a sense of brute physical force, in no small part enhanced by some bone-shattering sound design.
What felt overly simple in the earliest encounters of the game became significantly more challenging as enemies became more numerous and varied. You need to read the situation and make smart decisions quickly. Stringing together combos opens up special moves like throws (assuming they’ve been unlocked) and counters, which are key to survival. This still may aggravate those who want the complexity of a God of War-esque system, but if this is what it takes to make Batman finally play like Batman, I’ll take it.
It’s safe to say that Batman: Arkham Asylum has piqued my interest and definitely more so than in previous encounters. Nonetheless, this was the beginning of the game and the real test is how these strong, well-developed, gameplay devices can be kept fresh throughout. My hopes are up, though, and at the very least, there’s some light at the end of the summer.
Want more Batman: Arkham Asylum? Check out this video of Director Sefton Hill discussing the game at Comic-Con '09!