Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Second Run at the Best Video Game Ever

I love Batman. I love Batman a lot. Batman is, in my mind, one of the greatest fictional characters of all time. I mean, right up there with Hamlet. I think Bruce Wayne, and his masked persona, are a pool of character elements that are rife with potential and can be exploited in myriad ways.

I really think this is part of the reason that Batman has, by my admittedly possibly wrong memory, been exploited in other media more than any other superhero character. Seven feature films, a live-action television show, and 4 animated series, not to mention several attempts at a video game version. The character, I think, just feels more realistic, and the motivations are easily understood.

 So many super heroes have had games attempted. Some work better than others, but, in general, the track record has been miserable. Most games are slapped together monstrosities designed only to cash in on a movie, or other media. The hardly ever capture the feel of the characters, even remotely. This is especially true of Batman, where you have so many disparate elements.

Batman is a powerful fighter, a honed martial arts expert and fighting machine. He's also a creature of stealth and darkness, emerging from the shadows to eliminate enemies, and then sliding back into the night. He's equipped with an arsenal of gadgets and weapons, which he can wield with expert precision. Add to that his brilliant mind and incomparable detective skills.

Any of those elements can fulfill a complete gaming experience. Most games would only tackle one of them, and most games, lets be honest, wouldn't even exploit that one element to the fullest. (The shelves are filled with games that fit that description.) The idea that one game could encompass all of those parts of the character, execute them in an excellent manner, and balance the experiences against each other to make a well-rounded game is almost a miracle.

It's a miracle that Batman: Arkham Asylum pulls off with style, wit, and a storyline that feels completely organic to Batman and the world he inhabits. It's simply the best Batman game, ever, and I'd even call it the best superhero game ever.

I've finished the game once, on "normal" difficulty, probably about a year ago. I just loved the experience, and knew that I would play the game again. Likely several times, honestly, but I wanted to put it away for a while, so as to make the experience fresh again. So, a week, or so, ago I popped the disk in and started in on "hard" difficulty. I can honestly say this is a game that simply does not wear out it's welcome with me.

It's a matter of feel. I start playing, and I feel, immediately, like Batman. The game play is an exercise in total immersion in a world that, as a fan of the character, always feels exactly right. There's a neat trick the designers of this game pulled off, in that their Batman, and his world, feel like an amalgamation and extension of  all of the versions that have appeared in various media over the last couple decades. A fan of the Christopher Nolan movies? This feels connected to that. The Tim Burton films? Ditto. The Bruce Timm animated series? Fits in there, as well.

The latter version, Batman: The Animated Series, is probably the closest connection. The wonderful voice actors for Batman (Kevin Conroy), Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin), and the incomparable Mark Hamill version of The Joker are a part of this game. We also have a story and script by the wonderful Paul Dini, who worked on that show.

Batman: TAS is likely the best adaptation of the Batman comics that will ever exist, capturing all the facets of the character, from the most juvenile and outlandish, to the most serious and noir-derived. What the game does so well is take that version, and make the visuals a bit more realistic. The version of the Batsuit in this game is probably the most "realistic" looking ever presented, outside of the Nolan films. It also makes the action and tone a bit more adult. The series had numerous network censor problems involving physical violence and fight scenes. Notably, Batman could never punch a crook in the face.

(Amusing side bit...When The Animated Series crew were tasked to create a feature film from their series, without network censors, the result was Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (so far, the only animated Batman film to actually appear in theatres). I was always amused that the very first time Batman strikes a crook in that film, it's a close-up of his gloved fist slamming into the poor sap's face. Take that Fox network censors!!)

Having Conroy and Hamill, especially, doing the voices is a real boon to the game, it attaches an immediate familiarity, and, again, helps with immersion into the world. Your avatar certainly looks like Batman, it moves like Batman, and does all the things you expect Batman to do, that it also sounds like a Batman you're familiar with is the cherry on top.

Dini's plot is pure Batman. The Joker is captured yet again, and we join Batman in the midst of transporting him back to Arkham Asylum. Of course, it's not all as it seems. Joker manages to manipulate the situation to have his gang moved to the asylum from Blackgate prison, and then take violent control of the island where Arkham is situated. It's a nod to Nolan's Batman Begins, where Arkham was situated in "The Narrows," which was some sort of island portion of Gotham. The game takes it further, with the institution being an entire island, much like Alcatraz, in the middle of Gotham Bay.

That geography is unique to the game, and honestly, it something that might be really cool to use in the comics. It effectively places Batman in a "Die Hard" situation, he's trapped in a (relatively) confined space with dangerous criminals and psychopaths on the loose, and innocents (guards, doctors, Commissioner Gordon) to protect. It's a pressure cooker plot, and as you travel around the grounds, you're more than aware that you're completely outnumbered.

The location being Arkham Asylum also allows many of the classic rogues gallery to be used at will, as well as some of the not-so-classic (*sigh* Bane). The game makes liberal use of Harley Quinn (almost a given with Joker and Paul Dini involved), Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, and Scarface (no Ventriloquist, however). Special notice must be given to the clever sequences involving The Scarecrow, which, in a lovely little meta touch, have a moment that simulates a "3 rings of death" XBOX meltdown (really scary, believe me). The Riddler is also very prominent in the game, but never appears on screen, having scattered various riddles and prizes about the island for Batman to collect, he taunts you repeatedly as you progress.

I was sad that my personal favorite, Two-Face, was nowhere to be found, well, aside from a couple of riddles. Although, he's already announced as part of the sequel, due next Fall, Arkham City. Kudos to that.

The action beats of the game fall into two basic types, straight hand-to-hand combat, where Batman will square off against a bunch, sometimes dozens, of the Joker's goon squad, and "predator" sections, where you use stealth and strategy to take out your enemies one by one. Both are highly compelling, and the game mechanics are smoother than most.

The hand-to-hand sections have simple mechanics. One button to punch and kick, one to counter blows, and one to evade. It can drive you toward a simple "button mashing" style, but you learn pretty quickly that just jabbing the controller only gets you so far. There is some strategy involved, like knowing when to counter an oncoming hood, or just take a swing. The best thing I can say is that this strategy, the quick decision, becomes pretty much instinctive. You're making the move before you even realize you need to. This makes for very fast-paced fun combat, and the game also offers some really cool, slow motion takedown animations for Batman. It really drives home the physical power of the character.

The "predator" sections can move quickly, or be very methodical. One of the game's strengths in these sections is a real sense, as it would be in "real life," that Batman is controlling the environment and determining the pace of his work. You can rely on physical force, or set traps using elements in the rooms. What's also nice, for a character who's whole gimmick is based on the idea that criminals are "a cowardly and superstitious lot," is that you can get heartbeat readings on your prey. You see them get more and more terrified as you take out their compatriots. There's a real sense of grim victory as you watch the last guy freak out when he realizes he's all alone.

I should say there are also non-plotline "challenge" levels for each type of action beat outlines above. You can compete in score for the hand-to-hand sections, and speed in the predator levels. The challenge levels are a ton of fun, and satisfy my need foe some quick action if I don't want to drop back fully into the game, proper.

I'm solidly back into the storyline, now. I'm just as enthralled as I was the first time. This game is set to have a long shelf life, for me. I can completely see myself pulling it out every six months and running through the story. I can't say that about a lot of games. As a Batman fan, it's just too much damn fun to play a game that gets so much of the character exactly right. There's even sections, admittedly limited, that dive into detective work, where you need to find clues and use them to hunt your quarry.

In my book, this is the best video game I've ever played. It's been out for at least a year, at this point, so I'm sure, if you have interest, you've played it. If you haven't, however, it's too much fun not to encourage you to check it out.

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