Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum = Game of the Year

Unlike some of his other Justice League friends (Aquaman, LOL), Batman actually has a history of decent games under his utility belt. The classic NES title and SNES Batman Returns immediately come to mind, as does Batman: The Video Game for the Genesis. From there on, it's been largely hit-and-miss, with a few nuggets of quality standing out. Overall, the quality of the games in the relatively large library, larger than that of most super heroes, is perhaps the main reason why I'm more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt each time a new title is released. I've played and enjoyed most of them - I even enjoyed Rise of Shin Tsu - so Arkham Asylum had to be a decent game, right?

Wrong. Arkham Asylum is not only a great game, it's perhaps the best one released in 2009 so far. Little-known developer Rocksteady Studios has created far and above the best action game of the year; it's made the semanal Batman title and set the bar for super hero games. How it did this is probably a lesson in simplicity itself, a lesson perhaps so simple that it has manage to elude developers for so long. Hidden in plain sight, as they say.

Last year, I wrote a Double Take article on the excellent Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin for the Sega Genesis. To me, the biggest attraction that game had, as well as what made it such a good super hero game in the first place, was the fact that it was developed from the ground up specifically around its star. Most hero games are simply action or beat-'em-up titles with a license slapped on to boost sales. With SvtK, Sega went the route all these games should take from the start: it developed the game around the star, making it unplayable with anyone else.

Arkham Asylum does this in spades. Sure, Batman is seemingly nothing more than a muscular dude in tights who kicks major ass. Gaming is not lacking in this department, but that's not all that makes Batman who he is. Anyone can beat up thugs, but not everyone has the combination of talents and gadgets that make the Dark Knight essential to this narrative. In other words, the game simply wouldn't be the same - or as fun - had the hero been Superman or anyone else.

Rocksteady combed through everything that makes Batman such an icon. His ability to instill fear in criminals, his incredible athletic ability, and most of all, his unmatched detective skills. The Caped Crusader's keen intellect and problem-solving ability is pivotal to the game's progression, and there are dozens of side riddles (guess who from!) that need them as well. What makes it all so incredible is that you the player are the one using those (i.e. your) skills, which brings the level of connection to character to a level never before seen.

This connection goes beyond just the plot and is actually central to the gameplay itself. A tap of the left bumper brings up Detective Mode, which turns everything a light shade of blue and allows otherwise overlooked things to come to light by turning them bronze. Moreover, certain clues, such as DNA trails, are only visible this way. A down side is that you'll spend most of the game seeing everything in blue, but that's because you're scouring every corner of the ancient and decrepit Asylum to find a trophy or riddle you missed. And air ducts. Lots and lots of air ducts.

Add to it all the jaw-dropping visuals, butter-smooth gameplay, upgradeable abilities and gadgets, and some awesome voice work (Mark Hamill as Joker, Kevin Conroy as Batman, and Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn!), and you have what is simply the best comic game ever made. It all comes together so well that you're even able to forgive the weak plot. Suffice it to say that the Joker takes over Arkham in order to release an army of mutant monsters. Bane, Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, and a few others are on the loose and need taking down before Batman can tackle the Clown Prince of Crime himself. It's not very deep, but the acting is superb, and Arkham is just so massive that you'll forget the storyline completely.

Arkham's huge size is a major plus, as the several buildings that sprawl across the compound will need to be revisited several times to access new areas and find new data on the inhabitants. The whole game itself is quite long for an action title, and there are even unlockable challenge areas to finish off after you're done with the main quest. They even have online leaderboards!

Simply put, Batman: Arkham Asylum is the game to own this year. I bought the Xbox 360 version, though I've heard conflicting reports that the Playstation 3 version looks better. That one also has exclusive Joker challenge levels that can be downloaded for free from the Playstation Store. I got mine at Gamestop, so I at least have the Scarecrow's challenges to play. Whichver version you choose, you simply cannot go wrong. This is the game you show to anyone who knocks this generation of consoles. It doesn't get any better than this...

... unless we get a sequel!