I’ve decided to start reviewing games that I play, as a way to practice being analytical of games. These aren’t really going to be proper reviews as much as analysis and deconstruction of games, although I’ll probably also give my opinion of the games over the course of the reviews. However, the main point is to analyze the games in terms of mechanics, content and presentation and how they feed into the dynamics and game-play experience.
So I have a cardboard box. In the cardboard box, I’ve put a bunch of console games that I’ve purchased over the past year or so (usually when they were on sale, or I found them on the cheap, or I got them as gifts) but haven’t gotten the chance to play yet. Now, when I’m done with a game, I can pull a game out at random from the box. Games range from big budget titles to things I found in the bargain bin. The first game I pulled out of it was Batman Arkham Asylum, so here’s my review.
[Review after the jump]
First of all, here’s my opinion on Super Hero games, and what Super Hero games should do. What super hero games should do is make you feel like you’re a Super Hero. What most super hero games have done, however, is overlay a Super Hero character over a preexisting genre. Playing CIty Of Heroes, for example, I felt like a character in any other MMORPG, I just happened to be dressed in technicolor spandex. Spiderman 2 made me feel like Spiderman when I was swinging around, but during combat, it feels like a standard brawler. So right off the bat, the question to ask is if this game makes you feel like you’re playing as Batman, rather than a generic action-adventure character. And, for the most part, I would say yes. But let’s break it down a bit.
First of all, there’s the combat. Combat can be divided into two distinct styles. Combat against unarmed enemies/enemies with melee weapons, and combat against enemies with guns. When fighting against melee thugs, the game is essentially a brawler, but the game has very streamlined controls that allow you to jump around and over enemies, counter their attacks, and handle large amounts of enemies attacking you at once. While it still feels mostly like a brawler, it has a distinct batman flavor in how the combat flows.
However, where the combat really takes off is when you’re fighting thugs with guns. Essentially what will happen is you will find yourself in a large room with thugs patrolling the area. If one of them spots you, they will all begin shooting at you until you can get out of their sights by swinging around. If they start shooting at you, you can die pretty quickly, so the key to these parts is stealth. This is where the game really feels like you’re playing batman. The game gives you tons of abilities and opportunities to take out the enemies one by one, so that they don’t see you. You can hide on top of gargoyles (which are in doors for some reason…) you can crawl under floor vents, you can sneak up behind enemies, you can use your cape to swoop down on them, and you can use a variety of gadgets to help you out.
As you pick off the enemies, the ones left over will become more panicked. The enemies behave in realistic and interesting ways. If they hear a noise, they will investigate. If they see one of their friends knocked out, they will call out to the others. You can use their behaviors to your advantage to guide enemies away from the group to take them down. All of this adds up into a really excellent experience and these sections were some of the highlights for me.
These segments aren’t perfect, though. Some methods of take down are more effective than others, and sometimes you can just keep repeating the same method over and over again, and the only issue is waiting for a thug to isolate himself. The thugs can’t see you on the gargoyles unless they’ve already spotted you, so you can just wait it out. The game fixes this a couple of times by limiting your use of gargoyles, making the game much more tense and stealth based. I wish they had done this more often, though.
So that’s the combat, how about the other elements of the game. As Batman, you’ll need to travel through the grounds and buildings of Arkham Asylum. The game runs through a mission system where you’ll have an objective, and directions on how to get there. You don’t have to do much free exploration in the main storyline, but there is some element of this in the Riddler and Arkham Records sidequests. Basically, there are trophies, interview tapes and other hidden items spread around Arkham Asylum. There are also Riddler riddles which you can solve by using your detective mode on the object the riddle is referring to. However, I felt that most of this side content was rather shallow, as it was usually just slightly off the beaten path and didn’t offer much of a gameplay reward (Although you could fill out the backstory with some of the items, which was nice). I often found myself accidentally stumbling upon a Riddler trophy and being disappointed because I had been trying to figure out where to go for the main path. This is brought to a head with the “Joker Teeth” which are bouncing around on the floor and which you can smash to get some extra points. This seemed like an entirely unnecessary addition as it just meant you’d be tossing a few batarangs at novelty walking teeth every now and again. There was not really any challenge involved in doing so, and it was just an obsessive-compulsive task for you to complete.
The detective sections also don’t really live up to the rest of the game. They generally involve going into some sort of special vision mode (I wasn’t aware Batman had those) to detect chemicals or DNA in some area, and then following the trail. I feel like the detective elements should have made the player actually find clues and use those clues to come to conclusions. A lot of games these days seem to not want to allow players to figure out what they’re supposed to do, but instead lead them on a leash. While it makes the experience run more smoothly, it robs the game of one of the most essential parts of being Batman. Other than the usually (in my opinion) silly, and, moreover, optional Riddler riddles, the game didn’t let you reason from clues like a detective. It replaced it with a system that would be more at home on an episode of CSI.
Now, I want to come to one of my favorite aspects of the game. And that is the Scarecrow sequences. At certain points the game will begin shifting into a Scarecrow venom induced nightmare world. Once they reach their peaks, the game becomes a sort of side scroller where you must avoid the spotlight gaze of a giant version of Scarecrow. These sections really go all out with creating a psychedelic nightmare. I really enjoyed the transition sequences that brought you from reality to these sequences. Each one was unique and frightening in it’s own way. They really mess with your mind. I don’t want to spoil to much, but I was mentally prepared to use the middle analog stick to dodge the attack once I reloaded.
One problem, which wasn’t really much of a big deal, but bugged me incredibly, was the save system. Essentially, the game ran on checkpoints, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I had a few issues with it. For one, it autosaves at each check point, and there’s no way to save manually. The symbol for auto-saving is easy to miss, as it stays at the bottom corner of the screen and doesn’t pause anything. This means I’m often paranoid about quitting until I actually see the symbol pop up, and I usually only see it if I’m looking for it, meaning that when I decide to quit, I have to keep playing for another area until I can get to the next check point to make sure I don’t loose any progress. Secondly, and even more importantly, the game doesn’t save directly after boss battles. It always seems to be based on entering a certain area, not completing tasks. Beating a boss battle should ALWAYS allow you to have a checkpoint and save. I learned this the semi-hard way after the first boss battle, but fortunately it was an extremely easy one, so it didn’t take much effort to do it again. It just felt like and extremely amateurish way to set up a save system.
Overall, the game was probably the first super hero game I’ve played to succeed at this level at creating that super hero feeling. It had some flaws, but those were heavily outweighed by the awesome elements of the game. The game felt engaging and, most importantly, creative all the way through. I got the feeling that the developers had really wanted to make a Batman game, and that they took the opportunity to put in tons of elements they’ve been wanting to use for a long time. It seemed like the product of people having fun and doing what they want, which is how art and entertainment should be. From the excellently designed gameplay, to the hallucination sequences, to the way Batman finally defeats Joker in the end, the game was incredibly fun and original.Stumble it!