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Batman Arkham Asylum early impressions

by Birdrun file under Games

I've been somewhat behind the 8-ball when it comes to the Arkham series -- and the last few years of AAA game releases in general, come to think of it -- so when the latest entry in the series was released, then subsequently un-released (on PC, at least), I decided to revisit the series from the beginning. Arkham Asylum is an impressive game, even several years later. I'm about one third of the way through, if the save screen is to be believed.

I think it's fair to call it a Metroidvania title -- the player spends their time navigating back and forth across a massive environment, unlocking abilities which allow access to more places. It remind me most of Metroid Prime in playstyle and in atmosphere. (Although where Samus morphs into a sphere to get through tunnels, Batman does it the easy way -- crawling. Seriously, Samus, why make things more complicated than they need to be?)

Hand-to-hand combat is a tad monotonous. There's a few different mechanics such as countering, stunning, and takeouts, but when there's more than a couple of enemies you don't have time to pull most of your moves without being hit, so most melees quickly devolve into hitting the punch button (and occasionally countering) until everyone else falls over. The fighting animations are glorious and have a wonderful sense of space and weight and physicality, but they also feel pretty disconnected to the players' input, for the most part. That having been said, spotting an enemy before he sees you, laying some explosive gel on the ground, then luring said enemy (or enemies) over the gel and blowing them up is insanely good fun. There's quite a few other fun ways of taking out an unaware enemy, like pulling them into a nearby pit or hazard with the Bat Claw.

Taking out thugs with guns is a whole 'nother kettle of fish. This demands stealth and patience. Thankfully, no one EVER thinks to look up to find the guy who models himself after a bat and who they just saw grappling up to the roof. I guess they're not paid for smarts. Machine gun fire will reduce Batman to a pulp within seconds, so you need to act only when no one can see you. This means watching the thugs patrol the room, waiting for someone to break away from the group and be out of everyone else's line of sight, swooping in to attack and getting out before anyone sees you. For a large group, it can take a while, but it's really satisfying. I particularly like the overhead takedown, where you just drop down and grab someone from above. The enemy AI is actually pretty sophisticated. They'll split off into pairs and cover each other, run to assist their fallen comrades, and generally remember where you last struck, complete with vocal ques to let you know what they're all thinking.

I was particularly struck (and oddly satisfied) in one instance when there were two thugs left in the room. One asked the other to come with him and cover him (as they'd all done so far). The other, now terrified, said 'no way' and ran off on his own. I don't know if it was scripted to occur in that instance, of if it's just a feature of the AI that happened to trigger at that point, but either way it gives the impression that your series of attacks has rattled them to the point that they won't cooperate, which is something I've never really seen done in a game before.

Detective mode is not unlike Metroid Prime's scan visor. I particularly like that it highlights active enemies, which is great for giving the player some spatial awareness of the room he's in. For someone spatially challenged, like me, this is a godsend.

While Joker is "The Standard Batman Villain who Must Be In All Things Batman", He's actually pretty appropriate for this game. The series of set-pieces presented are really cool from a gameplay perspective, but would normally be considered utterly ridiculous. Things like, for example threatening to kill hostages unless Batman sneaks past this room full of thugs undetected. Normally that would be ridiculous from a story perspective. In this case, though, it feels somewhat appropriate because of course Joker would set up something like that just to f#$% about with Batman. That's basically just what he does. It's not out of character at all.

Other loose observations:

  • I love the slow damage of Batman's costume over time. Everything starts out pristine, and over the course of the game, you start collecting damage. Cuts start appearing on the suit, and tears in the cape. These are persistent between saving and reloading (I assume they're triggered at various points in the game), and are perfectly consistent across gameplay and cutscenes. This does absolutely nothing to the game mechanics, but it's an awesome bit of attention to detail and adds a lot to the sense of realism.

  • Batman sprays the explosive gel in the shape of his own logo. That always makes me smile. Batman is always presented as being practical above all else, so the idea that he'd take the time to spray his own logo (only to blow it up) seems out of character in an amusing way.

  • There's a skeleton stuck behind a grating in one of the tunnels. Someone had a very lonely death.

  • There's similar grating with a book, some gloves and some goggles behind it later on. This seems very out of place. I assume it's a character reference I didn't recognise.

  • Artist 1: Do you think we can make Poison Ivy's outfit even more skimpy? Artist 2: Sure, why not?

  • Actually, speaking of Poison Ivy, don't her costumes usually feature lots of leafery? That doesn't seem like it'd be overly practical. Then again, she is seen to be able to grow plants at will, so maybe she can just grow clothes on demand. Thinking of which, what else could she gr... NO. NOT GOING THERE.

  • Speaking of costume changes, was this game the first to present Harley Quinn in something other than the cartoon style outfit?

EDIT: They took away my gargoyles. Bad people. I like my gargoyles.

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