Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, Batman!
It’s always great when a small developer comes out of nowhere and shows the world how to make a game. Despite a small dabble with a sequel to Urban Chaos, itself produced by fellow ex-compatriots Mucky Foot, Batman is the first big-budget offering for the British-based Rocksteady.
Built on Unreal technology, this entry into Caped Crusader canon does the sensible thing and forges its own direction rather than be content to exist as a tie-in to 2008’s Dark Knight. Heavily influenced by both the comics and the animated series, Batman: Arkham Asylum (henceforth referred too as B:AA) paints a strong, distinct portrait of how Batman should be. The Joker has managed to trick his way into Gotham’s favourite institute for the criminally insane and traps Bats with a load of angry inmates who just happen to have a bone or two too pick with everyone’s favourite chiropteran crime fighter. Hilarity ensues.
The whole of Arkham Asylum is open for exploration, with areas divided up into rooms that offer both stealth and arena combat, with the player never being penalised for approaching the various situations using either method (apart from a few explicit circumstances). The Dark Knight can easily hold his own against a moderate to large group of generic thugs, using timed counters, combos and (eventually) special moves obtained through upgrades earned by fighting, foiling the Jokers many layered schemes and using your intellect to solve puzzles laid down by The Riddler.
Whilst not exactly important to the game, these involve a diverse selection of tasks including locating a picture, item or cleverly aligned spray-painted question mark through a riddle, finding patient interviews & cryptic clues relating to the Asylum’s history, cutting up chattering Joker teeth with your infinite supply of Batarangs (the official reason for such a never ending supply is ‘because he‘s Batman‘) or locating numerous small Question Mark statues.
Fists are all well and good, but once guns are introduced into the mix, things become a lot more dangerous, forcing the Caped Crusader to the rafters (or more often than not, numerous conveniently placed gargoyles) or under the floorboards, after which a game of cat and mouse ensues, with the superior skills & equipment of Batman facing off against superior numbers and the ever-present threat of lethal firearms.
Whilst the game can be effectively played away from the aforementioned gargoyles, it’s all too easy to just Glide Kick or commit inverted takedowns (lifting up a target and leaving them hanging by their feet) repeatedly, something the game seems to start to cotton on too towards the end by placing bombs on your concrete vantage points, but then proceeds to bottle it immediately by reverting for the sake of playability. Still, it’s hardly a problem because of the way the game actively encourages you to mix things up using stealth, abilities and gadgets by dishing out new equipment at a steady pace.
It’s not all heavily armed goons and gargoyles though. Every so often the game steps in to remind you that Batman fights more than just the Joker and throws in a bit of fan-service in the form of a boss fight, which all play on the typical stereotypes – Killer Croc is lethal to face off against, so his encounter plays as more of a stealth-off (make too much noise and Batman gets munched), The Scarecrow uses his fear gas to screw Batman’s shit up too tremendous effect and Poison Ivy has her trademark humongous plants and seduced lackeys. It’s a bit unfortunate that Bane is just a huge muscular thug who runs around and throws things at the Bat, but there wasn’t much else they could really do.
What‘s worse is that Rocksteady liked the muscles from Santa Prisca so much they used him as the format for the many ‘Titan’ battles that increasingly permeate the game as you progress. They all follow the same pattern – Brute enters arena, starts running or throwing items (often unconscious/dead bodies) at Batman, only to run into a wall following a clonk from a Batarang mid-charge. Said Brute then staggers around whilst Batman delivers enough strategic slaps to knock it down further, before then proceeding to ride the brute around a bit, clouting the numerous grunts who are dropped in to spice the fight up a bit, before being thrown off. Rinse and repeat two more times until everything is knocked out on the floor.
Like the gargoyles, it’s a format that is easily abused in lieu of using the caped crusader’s many more interesting and difficult-to-perform abilities. Thankfully, the minor missteps of these Titan fights, coupled with the ever-present deus ex machina of the gargoyles in the Predator rooms doesn’t take much away from the games shear quality, vibrancy, innovation and absolute solidity when you consider everything it was up against from day one.
Rocksteady had only one prior game under their belt, the Batman franchise as a computer gaming property was almost terminally under a cyclical curse of movie tie-ins and poor releases and during pre-release build-up, the game was lost amongst many other high-profile titles and the media scrutiny of the sale of publisher Eidos to Square Enix. As it approached release, more details were revealed, specifically the reveal of the Animated Series cast & writers and the character redesigns by DC’s Wildstorm studio and interest built up sharply, but nothing could probably have really readied anyone for how good the game actually is.
Even the little touches are fantastic – one moment stands out where Batman scans a characters office for a fingerprints, with his cowl picking up thousands wherever he looks until he fine tunes it by age of print. Little touches that even the most capable of developers might well have missed, yet things that stand B:AA from the crowd.
At the end of the day, the simple fact that the game takes established formulae from across the entire gaming world and tips them on their head with stunning results (the freeflow combat, Scarecrow’s nightmare sections, the important fact that someone has made a good Batman game) speaks volumes for Rocksteady‘s skill. The fact they went further and tidied up hated genre-tropes, such as fetch quests, by smothering them under a thick layer of fan service is just bat-icing on the bat-cake.
B: AA is a certified must-buy for any format. It’s hands-down the best Batman game ever, probably the best superhero game since either Spiderman 2 or Marvel vs. Capcom (whichever floats your boat more) and an almost flawless example of how to make a computer game in this day and age. Own it!