Not just the game of the year, but the best third person action game since Max Payne.
This terrific game is a result of hours of hard work, careful planning and intelligent design. It is a credit to the ability of Rocksteady, a once relatively minor developer, and the publishing efforts of Eidos, that they were able to craft what will be the best game of the year. The idea to place the game purely on Arkham Island is an intelligent one that sets the overall tone for the entire game. The story was written by Paul Dini who also worked on the animated TV series. With Rocksteady he has crafted an extremely dark, violent and gritty fantasy world, not to be mistaken for the realism of the Christopher Nolan films. The game is frequently disturbing through its gothic setting and the characterisation of the fractured psyche of many of the inmates and super villains. There is definitely a rich history of the prison itself and its creator to be discovered by the players throughout the game.
A third person title, the game shifts from hand to hand melee combat, to stealth, exploration and some light platforming sequences. Though the feel for the game takes time for the player to settle into, it excels in all of these elements. Standing off centre, the player model for Batman himself seems too large in reflecting a distorted perspective of this environment. Yet as the camera pulls well back when you enter a fight, the cinematic quality of the battle becomes apparent. With repeated clicks of the left mouse button, Batman is able to throw a number of combo punches and will earn experience points for defeating enemies which can be spent on upgrades, such as armour. With the right mouse button he will counter incoming moves from foes. Though this sounds highly simplistic, and at first it may feel so, the exhilaration of the Freeflow combat system is derived from the speed at which you can attack enemies and almost simultaneously block incoming blows as well. The ability to be fighting one enemy in front of you and then suddenly counter and block one behind you is highly satisfying and the moves with which Batman accomplishes this are amazing to behold. Although it may seem as though the player only has a small number of moves, intelligently the ability of Batman to perform many of these himself removes the sheer impossibility of having to remember so many different key combinations in the heat of battle like in Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. It is a very fun and intuitive combat system, surely to be mimicked by other action games.
To ensure that the game does not become stale, there are a number of variations added to this combat system. You will encounter enemies that have knives, pipes, electric prods and assault weapons. Some enemies can block your moves, making it essential to vault over them and punch them from behind. Adversaries are also smart enough to pick up weapons from the ground from fallen comrades or to rip blocks off the wall and throw them at you. The gadgets you have at your disposal, such as the batarang, add further variety to the combat and thanks largely to the well thought out interface, these items are extremely easy to access on the fly. It is very exciting to punch down an enemy and then press a quick key to launch the batarang at another enemy as he reaches for an assault rifle off the floor. For much of the game, the ability of the camera to keep up with the action, only intervening when you pull off a finishing move on the last baddie, is excellent too.
The flipside to the melee combat is the stealth action of Arkham Asylum which is equally brilliant. At its simplest, Batman is able to perform a number of lethal silent takedowns by sneaking up behind a guard unnoticed, rendering him unconscious. Yet the most thrilling challenge is when Batman, using his detective vision, must clear a room full of guards armed with assault rifles. With the press of a key Batman can enter the predator mode allowing him to see the infrared locations of his enemies. Although he is extremely skilled as a fighter, Batman is highly vulnerable to assault weapons and can be killed in a few shots, making it essential to assess the room from the top of gargoyles and take out guards silently. One could risk using Batman's gliding ability to kick down a guard or by jumping down silently and taking another out from behind. If you have the appropriate upgrade, it is possible to use the inverted takedown move and hang a guard upside down once he walks underneath your gargoyle. The AI throughout these stealth sections is tremendous and well designed. With your detective vision on, you can see the increasing heart rates of guards as they discover the bodies of their comrades. Guards will also react to sound and as they become frightened they will fire off a loose shot, talk to each other in panic and call out to Batman himself.
As with the combat, the variations that are added as you progress through the game are excellent. Later in the game, guards will wear electronic suicide collars that will alert them to when and where their comrades have been taken down. This rapidly increases the tension of these moments, forcing players to plan out their attack and move quickly. Yet given that the guards are more spread out than in other stealth games, it is refreshing in not having to spend a long time reading the patrol patterns of the guards all the time. Only when guards become particularly scared will they team up in pairs and cluster closers together. The experience of the publisher Eidos in working on other stealth games such as Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines, Thief: The Dark Project and Deus Ex, shines in this aspect of the game, particularly in regards to how smart and entertaining the AI is.
The exploration and platforming sections, though not as prominent as the stealth and combat, are also competently handled. Batman will regularly have to use his detective vision to find clues such as fingerprints to follow trails. The platforming will often involve jumping across debris and grappling up to once unreachable areas. The latter is particularly satisfying as Batman will never miss a jump, nor is it necessary to press a different key in order to make him grab onto a ledge in time, removing much of the frustration found in other adventure games such as Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia. Although some of the detective action repeated, it fits contextually with the story, allowing it to be more seamless rather than contrived.
The games story, written by Dini and presented through some extremely attractive cut scenes, is highly serviceable for a very unique setting and the inclusion of several awesome villains. Dini knows these characters so well and the small touches, such as the Joker testing Batman's morality by asking him to knock him down at the beginning of the game, or the way that Harley crumbles, bursting into tears after she meets her demise, are fine touches. Though there are not a lot of twists in the plot, there is still a great deal of history to be discovered throughout Arkham. In a move similar to Bioshock and System Shock 2, audio recordings can be found throughout the game that detail patient interviews with many of the game villains and also some self recorded episodes of the founder of the island, Amadeus Arkham himself. All of these tapes are particularly fascinated, well written and wholly disturbing.
The game runs on the Unreal Engine 3 and as it was in Bioshock, it is a great choice for these claustrophobic environments, which are all stunning to look at. Yet this game is perhaps not as structurally linear as that title though. While not an open world experiences, the island itself acts as a hub allowing you to move between the various buildings and sections of the island prison. The environments, from the prison itself, the hospital, underground sewers, a mansion and many more, add to the character of the madhouse and the variety of the game. The detail in many of these environments, like the shadows and the mould on the tiles is sensational. The character animations of the game are the real scene stealers though and Batman is almost lifelike in the fluidity of his movements. The audio too throughout the game is particularly strong, with voice acting from Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising their roles from the animated TV show, adding to the games chilling atmosphere.
Though many were skeptical about the quality of this game before its release, Batman: Arkham Asylum is not only one of the best games that Eidos has published in years, but it also marks Rocksteady as one of the form development companies of the gaming industry. The games overall presentation, gothic atmosphere and fluidity of the combat and stealth systems ensure that this is not just the game of the year, but the best third person action game since Max Payne.