Several people have noted that the reason Batman: Arkham Asylum is as brilliant as it is, is that Rocksteady have taken an IP that many before them have tried to exploit with far less stellar results, and literally made the best of it. I’m fairly sure they’ve assumed the position of a player, taking a good hard look at the Batman franchise and extracted from it a series of aesthetics from which they’ve distilled a set of dynamics that they’ve deconstructed into a series of mechanics that when forming the basis of a Batman game finally manages to do the Dark Knight justice.
The overall aesthetics are thoroughly in support of the Batman IP, and the main dynamics that stuck with me as I played were the timing-based martial arts melee system, the elimination-based “Predator” stealth sequences, and highly systematic scavenger hunt-style exploration.
The thing that most interested me about the melee system in Arkham Asylum was how it managed to encourage a play style very much in line with the Batman IP. There’s nothing new to timing-based melee, which I have most recently also encountered in Heavenly Sword and Assassin’s Creed – it’s typically tied to a counter-attack move which must be timed to enemy attacks – but in Batman it is so overwhelmingly effective that I ended up always on the defensive, striding casually, fearlessly into a fight, ignoring the enemies until the very last moment when I turned their attacks against them.
To play perfectly in Arkham Asylum, extremely accurate timing and a level-headed overview of the combat situation is necessary. You’ll be fighting crowds of enemies from the word go, and if you can maintain the flow of the combat by using the counter when an enemy attacks and attacking when the enemies hang back, you will work up a combo bonus that awards you special moves: an instant take-down that neutralises an enemy with a terrifyingly painful animation or a throw-move that allows you to knock over a few enemies by hurling one of their friends at them. I personally find it extremely difficult to maintain the flow of combat for extended periods, since attacking at the same time as an enemy instead of countering his attack is likely to earn you an iron bar to the face at the cost of your combo, but if you can manage it, you will be exactly the unstoppable dervish that Batman should be. Even if you play more cautiously as I did, the animations and the pacing of the fights make Batman seem extremely dignified and badass.
Of course, being a fan of stealth games such as Thief or Splinter Cell, my favourite parts of the game were the predator sequences where Batman is pitched against several armed enemies patrolling an open area. Unlike unarmed enemies or enemies armed with melee weapons, criminals with shotguns or assault rifles pose a serious threat to Batman, whose armour is fairly resistant but certainly not impervious to bullets. This forces you to employ stealth and cunning, using Batman’s arsenal of gadgets and the environment to isolate the enemies and neutralise them one by one. In most cases, convenient gargoyles adorn the walls under the high ceilings, perfect for moving unseen through the arena, getting an overview of the enemy patrols, striking swiftly with ruthless precision, and then making a quick escape as your victim’s allies come to investigate.
These gargoyles, though their presence requires a not inconsequential suspension of disbelief, ensure that you have an easy way to plan your next moves, that you will almost always be striking from above as Batman is prone to doing, and with a certain skill upgrade, the gargoyles even allow you to carry out the signature Batman move of hanging enemies upside down by their feet. There’s even an achievement for cutting the rope with a well-aimed batarang to scare the living daylights out of another enemy passing below.
Which ties into the main reason these sequences work so well: it becomes a point in itself to freak out your enemies. Unlike in Splinter Cell or Thief, you want them to know you’re there, partly because it makes them careless, but mostly because it’s hilarious. Once they’ve realised you’re there, taking them out one by one, they go looking for you, scared out of their wits. They’ll fire bursts of bullets in the direction of a noisy boiler, they’ll mutter nervously or call out to you in fear, and they will split up and search for you in dark corners where they’re easier to eliminate stealthily. You’ll be carrying out psychological warfare against the AI, and it makes you feel exactly like Batman should feel: sure you’re outnumbered and outgunned, but that doesn’t matter; you’re just that much better and smarter than your enemies.
Which provides a slightly clumsy segue to the third major dynamic that defines Arkham Asylum for me: The Riddler’s puzzles. Where all my favourite games feature a strong element of exploration, Arkham Asylum is probably the best I’ve played so far at incorporating it into interface and gameplay mechanics and supporting it with the narrative design. Intent on outsmarting Batman once and for all by creating a riddle so fiendish that he cannot solve it, The Riddler has assembled a very comprehensive scavenger hunt around Arkham Island, including many proper riddles to solve, but mostly hiding a ton of objects for you to find. Finding certain objects unlocks challenges for you to play through seperately from the game proper, and most of the actual riddles unlock biographies of Batman characters when solved. Patient interview tapes flesh out the background fiction of the super villains that appear as boss encounters in the game, and a series of cryptic journal entries have been carved into stone slabs around the island and end in a challenge to identify the person who has recorded them.
Though all this may seem somewhat contrived, it lent real purpose to my normal compulsive exploration, internalising it neatly into the game’s fiction and wrapping it in an engaging little meta-narrative with a satisfying resolution at the end. It was also very well supported by the game’s inventory of gadgets, with new secrets becoming accessible as you progress through the story, gaining more gadgets. This did trip me up a bit, as I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to collect certain secrets, only to realise much later that I was missing the necessary item to access it. Once I had realised how it worked, however, it provided a strong incentive for me to get to know the levels well enough to remember where I’d previously discovered inaccessible secrets.
This implementation of the secrets, and the way they were hidden as puzzles throughout the game world, also supports the Batman aesthetic pretty well, though it may not initially seem that way. Of course one might assume that Batman would be too preoccupied with defeating the Joker’s ominous plot to poke around Arkham Island for hours looking for hidden areas, the objective of defeating the Riddler and ensuring his arrest supplies a plausible justification, and the exploration itself forces you to make good use of Batman’s gadgets and detective skills as you search Arkham Asylum’s extremely detailed levels for the Riddler’s puzzles.
All in all it’s probably the most successful use of an existing intellectual property that I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing within the computer game medium, and of course it helps that almost every aspect of the game is extremely well executed. My only complaints are quite personal, and must be levelled at a few entirely predictable and unoriginal boss fights that tripped me up and caused quite a bit of frustration, but they’re almost outweighed by an equal amount of far more interesting and memorable boss fights, and that’s to say nothing of the rest of the game, which is consistently flawless. Since this post is specifically a look at how Rocksteady have managed to do such sterling service to the Batman IP, I haven’t even touched on the game’s surprisingly engaging plot (surprising because outside of the Nolan films, upon which this game is not based, I have little to no interest in Batman) or brilliant acting from everyone involved. On the whole, the narrative design is highly commendable, embedding its background fiction expertly in the level design while using both cutscenes and scripted sequences to relay its plot.
There’s very little wrong with this game, and if you haven’t already, I think you should buy it. It’s out for X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3 now, and it should be out for PC some time this week as far as I know.