Sometimes jokes can be very misleading to outsiders. For a few months after hearing jokes about how gamey it was that Joker’s henchmen lost track of Batman as soon as he went up onto a gargoyle I didn’t have any inclination to play the game. It just seemed like it would be too jarring to have enemies shooting at me and suddenly be unable to follow the fact that I went up onto a gargoyle. The truth turned out to be a good compromise. But it brings to light an uncanny valley of a different sort. As games become more and more realistic, how do you represent super heroes in a way that doesn’t destroy the video game?
The problem becomes more pronounced when the protagonist is the great detective Batman. In all his other representations (movies, comics, cartoons), Batman is both a talented (if not gifted) martial artist and a master of stealth. He suddenly appears where his enemies don’t expect him and uses this to his advantage since he does not have any super powers. When you are playing a 1980s Nintendo-level immersion game, you can accept things like the main character turning invisible or some other gimmick to show that he can’t be seen by the adversary. When you’re playing a Playstation 3-level immersion game with the PhysX engine providing near realistic physics and with nearly lifelike graphics, that’s unacceptable.
So the game has stealth takedowns. You crouch up to a dude and then you cover his mouth and render him unconscious. After all, Batman doesn’t kill people. Your only ability is to use your weapons to knock people over or your martial arts – which don’t work that well against machine gun-armed enemies. Overall, this works beautifully. You go through all manner of duct work just to end up behind an enemy so you can take him out from behind. At first this is cake. You just wander around taking dudes out left and right. Joke is knowledgeable about your skills so he ratchets things up. At one point, everyone you knock unconscious has a collar that calls out to the other henchmen so they become aware that you’re in the room with them and taking people out one by one. They get nervous and they start hanging out in pairs. So you need to get up on the gargoyles where you can observe the whole scene and glide-kick any guy who gets separated from his mates. It works very well on the whole.
But sometimes it can get a bit ridiculous. Early on Danielle was watching me play. Two men were in front of me, spray-painting one of the buildings. They were standing next to each other about two or three feet apart. I crouch-walked to the guy nearest me and did a silent takedown. The guy next to him kept spray-painting. “Why didn’t that guy attack you?” Danielle asked. I replied, “Because I did a stealth takedown on the guy next to him, I didn’t attack him, it was stealthy.” Danielle wasn’t impressed. The guy I took out was clearly within the field of vision of the other one. I crouch-walked over to the second guy and took him out. Danielle left me to this stupid game. And then there are the gargoyles. Sure, it’s not as silly as all the webcomics and podcasts made it seem. If you go straight up to a gargoyle and they saw you, they will shoot at you. And if you go over to the next gargoyle they will still shoot at you. But, here’s where it gets janky, just go to one more gargoyle or even go back to the first one and they’ve completely lost track of you. It’s like they’re two year olds and who see you hide a toy behind your back and suddenly think it has disappeared. It needs to happen because it’s a video game and you need a way to escape when you’ve made a mistake and been seen by the villains. And 99.9% of the time you don’t notice it. But there are certainly times when I found myself going from gargoyle to gargoyle just because I could do so without being seen.
But, don’t get me wrong, this game is amazing. It is the best non-trivial game (like tetris, puzzle bobble, etc) game I have ever played. The environment is beautiful and logical. While the story is linear and doesn’t have much (if any) room for different endings, the world is completely open. You can explore as much or as little as you want. As the game progresses you get new technologies that let you access new parts of the island that were previously out of bounds to you. How much you explore these areas depends upon your playing style. I am not one of the Pokemon (gotta-catch-em-all) style players. I have a wife I love to spend time with, a photography hobby (link) that is a huge time suck, a webcomic (link), and a house to maintain. (And I haven’t even had a kid yet!) So I play the game to get to the ending and experience whatever parts of the game are put in front of me on the most direct path to that ending.
So, for me the Riddler trophies were given the least emphasis in finding. They mostly just generate taunts from The Riddler. I know they unlock stuff like additional fighting areas, but I didn’t care because that didn’t affect the main game. So I found all the easy ones and some hard ones when I got lost. In fact, a lot of the extras (the others I will mention in a moment) I found were a consequence of the fact that I’m horribly inexperienced at playing open-world 3D games. Around the time of Mario 64 I was in Junior High and very soon after that started dating and working part time jobs, so I more or less stopped playing games as avidly as I once had. So I can’t play an FPS to save my life. I wasn’t allowed to play the earlier DOOM games and the FPS revival of the late 90s coincided with my aforementioned social life. So I wandered around despite a very well designed map of the island and of each of the buildings. I just couldn’t read it well (something not true of me and real life maps). So I found a bunch of Riddler trophies in dead ends. (to steal a phraseology from Dan — protip: if you want to find the Riddler trophies, go to the rooms in the opposite direction of your objective)
There were two other extras that I REALLY enjoyed and I would seek them out whenever they wouldn’t take me TOO far off the main path — interview tapes and Chronicles of Arkham. The Chronicles of Arkham are also found in random rooms, closets, and wrong turns in the air ducts. They tell the story of the guy who founded Arkham and his, ironic (if a bit expected) descent into madness. You can read it on Wikipedia if you search for his character’s story. But it’s fun to hear from the voice actor in the game. I’ll get to voice acting later. The interview tapes are the most amazing part of this game outside of playing as Batman (one of the few DC characters I ever cared about). These are tapes of the various Criminals held on Arkham being interviewed by their psychologists. It was so much fun to hear that I would go the furthest off the main path to find these. If you can collect all of them, they tend to form a story that takes place over about six or so weeks and you can see how interacting with the mad affects the psychologists. I wish I could tell you more, but the spoilers would ruin this part of the game that I loved so much. I’ll tell you this much, make sure you get all the tapes for Zsasz. It is chilling! Also, I am sad I only got the introductory Harley tape before she’s been seduced by Joker. I’ll have to find a way to hear the other tapes on the net. The Joker tapes are the least worth getting because they mostly explain the story of the game, but you already know all of that story by the time you get his tapes. It just fills in some details, but I felt I knew too much at that point for it to be suspenseful.
The story is top notch! Part of the reason why I loved the game so much is that it takes place in the Batman: The Animated Series universe. I know that technically all Batman stories are canonical because they do such a good job of making it all fit together over at DC. But each medium still has its peculiarities. I think Nolan has done a wonderful job updating Batman for the 2000s, but I find his Batman to be a bit too gruff and his Bruce Wayne to be a bit too much of an ass. So the fact that this game takes place in the BTAS world helps because that’s my main experience of Batman. (I watched it compulsively as a kid and I own all the DVDs now) And not only did they place it in this world, but they got as much of the voice talent from the cartoon to participate in the game. So all my favorite heroes and villains sound as I remember them sounding. (Especially Joker!) If there’s one thing that can really screw up an otherwise great game, it’s bad voice acting. (I’m looking at you Heavy Rain; also you Final Fantasy X) Actors are not always necessarily great voice actors. Robin Williams and Mark Hamill are two that can. I can’t think of any specifics right now, but too many games (and anime dubs) have had the latest “it” actors do the voices to the detriment of the product. This great voice work is part of why the interview tapes as such a joy to listen to. The only time that the voices get annoying are when – remember how I said I’m not that good at games? – you take so long that Joker starts repeating himself. And they’ve given Joker a LOT of dialog so for me to get him to repeat himself means I’m trudging through very slowly. But it can kill the mood a bit. It otherwise seems perfect – very non-game-like. Yeah, the henchmen can get uber-repetitive, but compared to other games, you don’t really end up hearing the same thing over and over that much.
So, the story … the story is great. Like a great novel, the story in Batman: Arkham Asylum does a couple of near 90 degree turns. Overall, it’s not a huge surprise. It’s not [insert name of your favorite author]-quality work, but it’s enough that you don’t quite know what’s going on from the beginning. What you do know is that Joker has taken over the island with the help of Harley and a confederate. After that, details emerge slowly enough to keep you in the dark like a good novel. Also like a good novel, not everyone is who they appear to be on the surface. Helping you out, but not so much that it starts to feel too gamey is Oracle, Barbara after becoming wheelchair-bound in the events of The Killing Joke. No longer Batgirl, she becomes a hacker and helps provide Batman with schematics (the maps and stuff officially come from her) and a link to the outside world – although that’s mostly just to establish environment, not vital to the actual game.
Let me get back to the environment for a second. This game is super immersive! Let me give you an example of how this can be so awesome and so chilling. Very early in the game you are walking through a hospital wing of the island complex. Even though Joker’s takeover has given him full control of the island’s TV and surveillance systems, this wing of the hospital has been left playing its usual video. So you have the juxtaposition of a business-as-usual video playing in the background with an abandoned hospital, save the dead doctors here and there. The feeling is very creepy – kinda how you imagine it would be like to walk through Disney after some kind of apocalypse had killed off all the humans, but left all the rides intact. You walk around with the rides continuing to loop, the doors open where people should get in, close where people should get out. “Exit to your right, please. Exit to your right.” Plays endlessly. It’s almost enough to drive you mad. And that’s how it feels going through the hospital. And that’s without getting to the fact that if you actually watch what’s going on in the TVs you end up feeling a bit disturbed by some of the dialog. The rest is stuff that you store away in your head until you hear more story exposition and then that part suddenly makes a lot more sense. (Again, like a good book or movie) And, I didn’t realize how long the hallway was, so I just stood there watching it, when it loops around, it starts to add to the maddening feel of a system left running without anyone to hear it.
Contributing to the environment is a mechanic borrowed from games like Eternal Darkness that kicks in when you’re fighting Scarecrow. If there’s one part of the game that using a FAQ can wreck, it’s the Scarecrow fights. If you’re one of those OCD people that has to collect everything (::cough:: Dan) then please do that on your second play-through of the game. The unexpectedness of how the environment goes all wonky is AWESOME! And it’s way less awesome if you know it’s coming. (Especially the last one – OMG! DO NOT let a FAQ/Walkthrough ruin that for you!) Let’s just say that the first time it happens, it freaks you out because you think you’ve done something wrong. The actual Scarecrow “battles” are cakewalk “puzzles”.
A final quick mention about the environment that didn’t seem to fit anywhere else, as the night wears on, Batman’s appearance begins to reflect the scuffles he’s been in. His cape is torn and his suit gets a bit grimy. I think that’s pretty neat and we should see it more often when characters are going through all this crazy stuff.
Which brings us to villains. From the Batman pantheon of villains you fight about a handful. But this game isn’t really about fighting villains. It’s not the plot of the Adam West movie where they all get together to attack Batman (and the world). Rather, all the villains happen to be imprisoned on Arkham, so something like half the villains you face aren’t even aligned with Joker. They just happen to have been set free due to his takeover and also just happen to hate Batman because he put them there. This also leads to a bunch of different boss fight mechanics. The ones working with Joker tend to be more traditional boss fights. The ones who are just running around tend to be more analytical or puzzle based. (I won’t ruin it by mentioning who is doing what) And, of course, some aren’t even there. Two-face is off on another caper. Penguin is nowhere to be found. The Riddler is patched into your radio system and taunts you as you discover clues.
This game comes as close to perfection as I have yet experienced. The creators of the comic book Watchmen wanted to create something that took unique advantage of the medium of comic books. That’s why it was not as awesome a movie as everyone thought it would be. Video games based on movie and comic book franchises have always suffered from the same effect. In fact, it has become cliche almost to the point of non-surprise that any video game based on a movie will be horrible. What works for a movie just doesn’t work for a game. Better luck can be had by having the game tie-in with the movie rather than paralleling the plot, but it’s still a hard proposition. Up until Arkham Asylum, everyone said the same thing about video games based on comic book characters. But with this game we finally have a game that allows you to truly feel as though you are the main character. You aren’t controlling Batman – you ARE Batman. And that is why this game rocks.