Sunday, 4 October 2009

Nanananananananana batmaaaaaan

I have a great idea for a super villain. As a child his rich parent were murdered by a poor person. From this day on he hates the poor and the homeless and tries in his own sick and sadistic way to punish them for their collective crime against both himself and society as a whole. Having trained as a ninja, he returns to his home city to terrorise the local lower classes. Taking over his father company he uses his obscene wealth to lead a double lifestyle; playboy by day and vicious murderer of vagrants by night. He deploys his company’s wealth and arms manufacturing prowess to develop sophisticated equipment to help him on his deluded quest for vengeance. His main weapon however is fear. Turning his own childhood fear of bats against his perceived enemies he dresses up as a bat and terrorises the poor of his city, stalking the shadows, striking without being seen, swooping down on his unsuspecting victims and picking them off one my one. Who will stop the batman’s vendetta against the underprivileged?

I have of course, with some changes, just described to you one of the most well known superheroes ever created; Batman. The point, unless it wasn’t obvious, is that Batman is not exactly your archetypal virtuous superhero who fights crime and never puts a foot out of line. Put simply, Batman is a bastard. He runs around in the shadows beating up petty criminals and using the various gadgets on his utility belt to interfere with the plans of crime lords. He is not an ever-present demi-god who is so absurdly overpowered that he can completely stop all crime ever; he is a very rich guy trying with limited success to stop crime in one particular generic city in America somewhere. Batman makes villains fear him because he does not do the honourable thing by beating them in a fair fight; he sneaks up behind them and hits them over the head. This is because, were Batman to face up to a bunch of criminals with guns he would get shot several times before he could use his ninja training and belt full of gadgets. What makes Batman such a good superhero is that he is very human. Ok so he’s a pretty badass human with ninja training and loads of cool gear, but he’s still a human. It’s not like he’s juiced up on some radioactive bullshit that gives him special powers to fight crime.

Why, you may ask, am I blathering on about Batman? The answer to this question and actually the main topic for this week’s blog is the new Batman game that came out recently, Batman: Arkham Asylum.

The clever thing about the Batman universe is that they created this place called Arkham Asylum, a mental institute where they can lock up all their super-villains, allowing them to be reused. Batman doesn’t actually ever kill anyone; he just sends them off to Arkham so that when the writers need a new idea they can just break one of the old hands out for Batman to reel back in again.

Exactly such a thing has happened in the game; The Joker has broken out of the Asylum and reeked havoc on Gotham until Batman caught him to throw him back into Arkham. Inevitably it’s not that simple; the whole thing is a set up to get Batman locked up in Arkham with all the maniacs and a good helping of thugs to go with them. The perfect set up for a videogame.

Because it’s confined to Arkham Island the game is set in a fairly small location, so all the action takes place in a very limited area. This makes the game very tight, allowing it to tell a coherent and well paced story. The storyline is pretty well linear, although you are free to move around the Island as you please to complete all the side quests, which mostly constitute finding a load of random things scattered around the various buildings on the Island by The Riddler. By setting very deliberate and obvious limits on the scope of their story, the game developers have succeeded in making a very close-nit and coherent storyline, which really works well.

There is one massive issue with the storyline which really annoyed me. While the presence of Arkham Asylum means that you can reuse villains, it also means you can never reach any sort of closure. At the end of the game we are left with all the villains being put back where they belong, the status quo has been restored. The perfect set up for a sequel. In fact we are given one parting shot in the very final cut scene which more than suggests a sequel. Given the success of the game I expect that someone at Rocksteady games is already mulling over how they can spin the story out for another few hours. Open ended storylines where nothing is really achieved except the restoration of the status quo is not good writing.

The main problem any serious medium will have with Batman is that he is essentially a nutter running around in pyjamas and a cape. It’s very difficult to be dark and gritty when you have Batman running around fulfilling every child’s dream by dicking around on the rooftops and flying. Ok so he’s easier to fit into the modern fad of being gritty and realistic than most superheroes because he wears black rather than the incredibly vibrant spandex that most superheroes wear and has very dubious morals, but he still dresses like a bat for goodness sake. The game compensates for this by dressing up all the villains in even more vibrant colours and making half of them batshit insane. Of course this works because they’re in a mental asylum. The Joker especially is presented as being completely off the wall (as is appropriate). For most of the game he sits in a room making snarky comments as Batman runs around beating up his minions, he seem to take pleasure in the fact that the thugs that are getting haunted by Batman and are completely helpless to stop him. This of course gets around the fact that there’s really no point posting guards when you know Batman will just beat them up, perhaps the Joker just enjoys watching them suffer.

Fortunately, given that an almost constant commentary is given, the voice acting, is on the whole, pretty good. The only person who got on my nerves to much that I literally had to turn down the volume was Harley Quinn and I’m pretty certain that was intentional. The only annoying thing was some of the dialogue, which was at times so filled with clich├ęs that I wanted to cry. Batman especially was stoic and full of emotionless tough guy drivel that I was almost hoping the Joker would win. Writers can’t seem to realise that they can give the main protagonist a personality without making him a complete pussy.

Actually to give due credit to the writers, they did include some really well done sections using Scarecrow to confront Batman with his past, creating a real sense of vulnerability. This is especially well created when the figure of Batman is replaced by Bruce Wayne as a child, walking through the rain soaked streets of Gotham when the soundtrack to his parent’s murder is played. Unfortunately these elements are few and far between and the actually levels where you fight scarecrow don’t quite live up to the cut scenes.

Another techniques used by the writers to make Batman less of a cold, heartless bastard is to have Joker and co. constantly comment that locked up an Arkham is exactly where Batman ought to be. While this is a step in the right direction, in many ways it doesn’t go far enough. Joker keeps on saying that Batman is a nutter, but never seems to present any evidence, simply repeating the same old one-liners over and over again. The idea that Batman is as bad as the criminals he’s fighting could have been presented really well by using Scarecrow’s hallucinogenic drugs to present Batman with a twisted view of his own past, much as I did at the start of this review. Instead the idea of Batman’s insanity is presented in an incoherent and underwhelming way.

I’ve just noticed that I’m almost at two pages in Microsoft Word and I still haven’t mentioned gameplay, so let’s do that. Actually there’s very little to say, the combat flows beautifully, is fun to play and appropriately challenging. The main problem with it is that there is too little variety. Once you’ve beaten up one thug with a pipe, a brick, a knife or an electric rod, you beaten up them all. A couple of different variations of thug would make some of the fights less samey. Despite this the combat system is one of the most entertaining I’ve ever played.

While unarmed thugs are taken out with seamless, flowing combos, thugs with guns are generally taken down by creeping up behind them and taking them out silently. These stealthy elements mix with the hand to hand combat seamlessly and progress nicely in difficulty, although the game doesn’t really exploit the final developments of that progression. There is one really challenging level near the end, but nothing after that, which is really disappointing. One does have to wonder however why the thugs don’t ever look up and why whoever designed the interiors had such a fixation with gargoyles.

It just would not be Batman without gadgets. There is always the danger of overpowering Batman with a whole dirge of different gadgets which can solve any problem. Fortunately the game balances the gadgets really well, meaning that, although new things become available, they don’t necessarily make life any easier. Gadgets allow access to different areas, most of which only contain more of the Riddler’s challenges. The main issue with the gadgets is the way in which Batman gets them; at one point he even calls in his batmo-plane to deliver a new gadget. Why not just get in the bloody thing and use that to stop the Joker? Maybe Batman is insane after all, that or the writers couldn’t think of any other way of getting that particular gadget to you.

The principal weakness of the gameplay in Arkham Asylum is the boss battles. Batman seems to have an infinite number of Batarangs because every single goddamn boss fight requires that you throw one at an appropriate villain at an appropriate time. One would hope that the developers could think in slightly more innovative ways of defeating people like Killer Croc or Bane than simply throwing a Batarang at them and running away. The only thing that makes it harder is that you have to beat a load of thugs up at the same time. As I have already alluded to the fact that Scarecrow levels are particularly underwhelming. The first one is good, but after that they don’t get much harder. If only they did because the sections themselves are excellent. Probably the best boss battle is the one with Poison Ivy, which is both challenging and really fun, although even then it’s still just throwing a Batarang at the giant plant. It also contains the game’s one quick-time event, so it looses marks there. The pinnacle of inadequacy comes with the final boss battle against a juiced up Joker. Essentially it’s a fight against a load of thugs with the occasional bit where you have to run away from a giant version of the Joker. That is all the game can offer? Fighting one of the most psychopathic and brilliantly insane super villains of all time and all the game can offer is exactly the same as it has for the last few hours? All the developers can think of to do with the Joker is given him some spinach like half the other bosses in the game and make you avoid getting beaten up by him? After completing the game one is left with an underwhelmed feeling of ‘is that all you’ve got to offer’. We are left with the feeling that the game is rummaging around in its toy box, searching for something new to show us. The Joker is a crazy psychopathic clown for goodness sake, how hard can it be to create a really wacky and at the same time truly challenging and original boss fight?

Despite its flaws, this game is superb. If you haven’t bought it yet, go and do it now. Batman Arkham Asylum is one of the best games I’ve ever played. Sure it’s not perfect, but it’s well worth the expense. Not only does the story make for hours of fun, the challenge mode allows you to make the most of the game’s best bits. Given the game’s success I think it’s inevitable that a sequel will emerge at some point. Let’s just hope that they put as much time and effort into making it as good as this game as well as trying to iron out some of the issues. The game could easily have taken a different direction and I hope a sequel will try to develop some of the things the game didn’t really do very well. I fear that any sequel will fail to live up to the game’s very high standard, but, if done properly, a sequel could be just as good if not better. Anyway, to sum up this absurdly long blog, Buy. This. Game

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