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BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM / Eidos / PC
Arkham Asylum gets off to a bit of a rocky start on the PC. It's basically best thought of as a fusion of Resident Evil 4, Metroid Prime and Metal Gear Solid, so it's clearly screaming out to be played with a gamepad. Sadly, Microsoft has some kind of deal with the publishers to where only Xbox 360 pads are compatible with the game. Supposedly there is "some" third-party support, but I have a Saitek that is only about two years old and the game merrily ignored it, that and message board topics on the subject indicate it's not very robust at all. Keyboard control is alright, I guess, given that there's a strong FPS element to how you move around, but gamers unadjusted to WASD style probably won't like it. If you want to use an unsupported pad you have to use a third-party unofficial workaround.
The other thing is that the save system is kind of bullshit. You have to be logged into Windows Live to be allowed to save a game (they force you to create a profile, though it doesn't have to be public.) The funny thing is they let you do an "offline" mode where you're logged in for the purpose of saving only, but the leaderboards and such aren't transmitted at all ... so really it seems like some kind of a forced data-harvesting scheme.
These are admittedly minor irritants, however; get past them and you're in for what probably really is the best superhero game yet made. The Batman world portrayed here is sort of a pastiche of numerous other Batman graphic novels and cartoons. The guy who wrote the game, Paul Dini, was the lead writer for Batman: The Animated Series, the Batman cartoon from about 10 years ago that was very popular. Arkham Asylum has a way more serious and grim tone than the cartoon, however, though there are some aesthetic similarities to the characters, and most of the voice acting cast from the cartoon returns to reprise their role in this one. The story is basically a heavily modified retelling of the graphic novel A Serious House On Serious Earth, but less cerebral and experimental, and with more of a "generic superhero" cant to the story as a whole. Batman brings the Joker into Arkham Asylum after capturing him during some undescribed incident at City Hall, but he's suspicious as the Joker seemed to give himself up too easily, so he accompanies the guards as Joker is led back to his comfy cell. Of course, along the way, the Joker escapes, assisted by his gang of Vin Diesel clones, conveniently just transferred over due to a mysterious fire at nearby Blackgate Prison (for the Not Insane). So now Joker, his gang, and a handful of other super-villains who were on hand and set free are now running the asylum in which Batman is trapped, and that's where you take over.
The game's default camera and control style immediately put you in mind of Resident Evil 4, as does the mostly linear path through the game featuring epic set-peice battles and clearly segmented and self-contained action sequences. You're not stuck with the over-the-shoulder perspective here, however, you can "free look" anywhere you like at any time with the mouse or right analog stick. The tone and stealth elements call to mind the first Metal Gear Solid, however - you're moving between different facilities and outdoor areas in an island compound, with periodic showdowns with super-powered villains, and there's a hefty dose of "stealth sequences" where you'll have to sneak up on heavily armed enemies to survive (something of a Tenchu element as well as a big part of this is grappling to high vantage points and waiting to jump on unsuspecting enemies below). And the Prime element comes in in that you'll acquire Batman's powers gradually as you go, enabling you to double-back and reach areas you couldn't before.
The graphics are gorgeous, save the Joker goons who share extremely similar character models all through the game. How did Joker manage to recruit so many ripped Vin Diesel clones? Said goons aren't much of a threat to Batman's top tier combat skills when they're unarmed, but pretty soon they find caches of heavy machine guns, and direct conflict with them will cause The Bat to be shot to peices pretty quickly. Goons tend to be grouped into either a large mass of unarmed that there's no way around but through, or a group of five or six armed in a room that conveniently has a bunch of gargoyles and shit for Batman to perch on and ambush them from. The former battles feature the "Freeflow" combat system, a better name for which is probably "controlled button mashing". You point Batman at a hapless goon, push the lone Attack button, and he turns into a whirling dervish of kung fu death that totally overwhelms the poor slob. The challenge is in that you are generally surrounded by six to twelve goons, and have to push the separate "Counter" button at the right time to block incoming attacks aimed at your back as you tune up on your current hapless target. The "predator" sequences I found much more amusing - Batman uses gargoyles, ledges, vent systems and etc. to sneak around on armed guards and choke them out instantly from behind, all the while monitoring their blood pressure and mood as they get increasingly more terrified and jumpy as their numbers thin, culminating with them just shooting at random shadows and objects they bump into when they've reached their highest state of hyperventilation.
Why does the game merit a Good and not an Awesome? I was in love with the first 75% or so of the game, but frankly, the final 25% feels rushed and like good ol' Deadline Time/Budget Considerations took control. On the whole, the game's boss fights are actually the lowest point, and for two main reasons - one is that the "muscly guy who charges at you and you have to toss a Batarang at to stun then sidestep" canard is re-used faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar too often, as is the "actual boss villain just kind of sits on a high ledge somewhere and sends waves of goons at you before descending so you can smack them a little bit." Both of these lame techniques keep popping up all the way into the final battles of the game, and sadly the very last battle of the game is almost nothing BUT a solid twenty minutes of these two things, ending what was an otherwise brilliant game on a rather sour note.
The other issues is replayability. The game is wholly linear, and once you've experienced it once there's not much new to see. Granted, it packs a solid 15 hours or so, which you hardly even notice passing as most of it is so damned absorbing. And there's a ridiculous amount of "Riddler challenges", little hidden items and puzzles that earn you new unlockables as you go, and after you beat the game you can play in an "exploration mode" that lets you wander about Arkham freely with all your goodies and almost no enemies, allowing you to explore looking for all the hidden Riddler goodies at your leisure and convenience.
The problem is that, after finishing the game, as good as most of it was, I had zero desire to dig up the 120 or so Riddler bits I was missing. I tried the "extra content" - since I didn't care for the "Freeflow" melee combat in the main game all that much, those maps were lost on me, and the Predator maps sadly just had you repeating a room from the main game just with Moar Guards tossed in. So that leaves you, really, with nothing else to do. I had the GotY Edition, which supposedly comes with four unique bonus maps ... but they were pretty thin and there wasn't much outside of that, so unless there's some mindblowing fan mods I don't know about, don't expect a whole lot left when the main ride is over.
The game is still most certainly recommended, however. Outside of the iffy boss fights and the limited replayability, the game is superbly atmospheric and nearly every other detail has been nailed. I'm looking forward to Arkham City.
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