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Batman: Arkham Asylum

ReviewEarlier this year, I said inFamous was the best superhero game I had ever played. Well, unfortunately for inFamous, that victory was short lived. Batman: Arkham Asylum not only happens to be one of the best games to be released this year, but also earns a place among some of the best games of all time. The Batman franchise has seen its share of ups and downs when it comes to film and video game adaptations. With the movie franchise in relatively safe hands at the moment, it was only a matter of time until someone made a completely faithful yet fun video game adaptation. A lot of expectations were riding on Eidos and Rocksteady prior to the game’s release. Despite the pre-release hype, controversies and rumours, it’s safe to say that Batman: Arkham Asylum succeeds in all aspects. It’s amazingly faithful to its comic book origins while being an absolute blast to play through.

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If you didn’t already know from the gazillion trailers released for this game, the story begins with Batman bringing a captured Joker to the legendary Arkham Asylum, Gotham City’s institute for the criminally insane. Obviously, it’s all a set up and the Joker has staged his own capture in order to return to Arkham and unleash a diabolical scheme. Batman is now trapped with the rest of the Arkham staff as the Joker and his crew take control of the Asylum while super-villains and inmates now roam free. Batman must now fight his way through the Asylum and bring the chaos under control while trying to uncover the Joker’s plan.

It’s an interesting premise and the plot is structured very much like a short comic book arc. The story develops quite well for the most part, but starts losing steam towards the end, especially once the Joker’s plan is revealed. However, what really makes it stand out from the rest of the superhero game lot is the brilliant voice acting, dialog and presentation across the board.

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For starters, Arkham itself looks and feels very much like its comic book counterpart. True to its history, it’s a dark, depressing and suitably creepy place. Play the game at night and it almost feels like a horror game at times. The setting and atmosphere is quite reminiscent of Grant Morrison’s celebrated Batman graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, while the gothic architecture of the buildings would make Tim Burton proud. The various arched hallways, holding areas, medical bays and even the outlying areas are all chock full of atmosphere.

Adding to that is the brilliant use of sound. Whether it’s the old twisted trees creaking while you’re exploring the deserted grounds outside the Asylum or the cries of some of the more troubled patients in some of the inner holding areas, the game always gets the mood and atmosphere right. Also, despite the Teen rating, the game’s content is pretty mature. While the violence isn’t exactly bloody and in-your-face, much of it is implied. There are a number of dead bodies, grisly crime scenes, colourful language and skimpily-dressed women. This is certainly not a game for kids.

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Batman: Arkham Asylum largely follows a linear narrative, but it still gives you enough freedom to explore. The exploration elements are structured very much like metroidvania-style games like Bioshock or the recent Shadow Complex. While the entire Arkham island is open to explore, many areas are only accessible when Batman gets access to certain gadgets as you progress through the story. You control Batman from a third-person over-the-shoulder view, no different from the recent Resident Evil games or Dead Space. While sprinting, the view shifts to a wider angle, and during combat, the camera is pulled back similar to that in third-person action games like Devil May Cry. The gameplay itself can broadly be divided into three major aspects – combat, stealth and investigation.

Batman is capable of going toe-to-toe with unarmed goons in hand-to-hand combat. The combat system itself is quite fluid but challenging at the same time. It’s definitely easy to get into but difficult to master (as evident from the game’s Challenge Mode. More on that later). Dubbed as ‘freeflow’, the combat system allows Batman to chain together a string of attacks, counters and special takedowns into long combos. The longer your combo, the more powerful and quick Batman’s attacks will be. Take or miss a hit however, and your combo chain is reset. Achieving perfect combos can prove to be difficult at first and more often than not you may find yourself simply mashing the attack and counter buttons to get through most of the fights in the story mode. While button mashing works for most of the time, the game does mix things up a bit later on by throwing some particularly challenging foes along with normal ones, thus forcing you to strategise and make use of all available options.

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While Batman may be able to take on a dozen thugs in melee combat, it’s a completely different story when the Joker decides to give them some automatic firearms and shotguns. This is where the stealth element comes into play. At various points in the game, Batman will be pitted against a group of thugs carrying firearms while trying to complete an objective. The idea here is to stay hidden, isolate enemies and take them out one by one. Gameplay-wise these sections are easily some of the best parts of the game and, in some ways, more fun than engaging enemies in melee combat. Batman can stay out of sight by grappling and hiding atop (a little too) conveniently placed gargoyles or under floor grills. But what really makes him deadly in these situations are his gadgets. With the press of a button you can turn on a special X-ray like vision mode called Detective Mode. This allows Batman to see better in the dark, highlight enemies and also detect their weapons and current state of mind. Pretty nifty, huh?

Once you have the area scanned, it is up to you to isolate enemies and take them out stealthily by sneaking up behind them or hanging upside down from a gargoyle and quickly lifting them off before they know what hit them. As the other thugs find their buddies lying unconscious or hanging from gargoyles they will begin to panic and lose control. You’ll hear them throw nervous taunts at you in trembling voices and talk among each other. It’s at these moments where the game really succeeds in making you feel like The Dark Knight. It’s very similar to the dock sequence in Batman Begins. Taking out a bunch of armed thugs without being seen at all is quite satisfying no matter how many times you do it. As you progress through the game, you’ll earn new gadgets and upgrades that allow you to try new and different strategies as the scenarios themselves start to get a little more challenging.

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Lastly, there are investigation elements, which rounds off one of Batman’s key talents – being a world-class detective. Some parts of the game require you to collect forensic evidence and clues in order to track down a character and your next objective. This is where the Detective Mode comes into play once again. These sections are somewhat similar to the Condemned games as you are given a highlighted ‘evidence area’ in which you can search for clues using the Detective Mode. The interface is very slick and, coupled with the sound effects, it really gives you a feel of what it would be like to use some of the most hi-tech gadgets in Batman’s arsenal. Speaking of which, by the time you reach the end of the game, you’ll get your hands on some pretty cool toys ranging from various types of Batarangs, explosives and hacking devices, among others. The controls are quite responsive. Whether it’s fighting, grappling on to ledges and gargoyles or using gadgets; everything feels like a breeze.

Next page: Villains, graphics and sound, and final verdict

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