Best Game Ever?
Like BioShock's underwater dystopia, Arkham Asylum is a place of wonder and inexplicable horror. The demonized Victorian architecture blends seamlessly with a lifetime of comic book history to create a tourist attraction that steals your attention away, and makes you wish you had a camera to preserve the unbelievable imagery. The Asylum isn't just a backdrop for this twisted tale, it is its tone-setter and driving force. The Asylum pumps just as much excitement into this adventure as the pointy-eared vigilante, Batman, does.
With the Joker seizing control of this establishment, it doesn't take long for its inmates to be freed from their cells. Impressively, none of these goons feel like standard video game fodder. I think developer Rocksteady Studios has gone to great lengths to make all of the inhabitants, be it the inmates or the now-hunted guards, feel like they are living, breathing characters. They converse with one another, interact with Arkham's geometry, and ultimately create their own self-contained stories. Their scripted behaviors translate to brilliantly devised gameplay cues that dictate how Batman approaches a scenario. Almost all of the encounters bring different twists and challenges that play off the personality traits of the caped crusader.
Some situations allow you to play up your "demon of the night" legacy, by striking from the dark and instilling such a degree of fear into your opponents that they shoot at the shadows, fall right into your traps and are so scared that they shoot around corners without looking. Batman's detective skills are also used in a variety of entertaining ways, such as using his high-tech gadgetry to follow a DNA trail, or employing his perceptive skills (which in turn are ours) to solve the Riddler's many riddles. Through a beautifully designed melee system, Bruce Wayne's years of martial arts training are highlighted with brutal efficiency. Even when the odds are stacked against you ten to one, you are empowered with the feeling that you will wipe the floor with them all. The ease with which Batman can counter an attack and retaliate with a teeth-showering blow almost makes him seem like he is at peace on the battlefield.
His "wonderful toys" bring great depth to the navigation of Arkham. Like the Metroid or Zelda games, areas of this fortress are locked off until new gadgets are obtained. Most hold valuable secrets, like experience points for adding new combat abilities to your arsenal and awesome audio recordings delivering the backstory of the Asylum and its inmates. There's always a good reason to backtrack through this dark place, even if you spend far too much time navigating its ventilation shafts.
The story behind this amazing Batman experience doesn't evolve much from Joker taking over the Asylum, but it dishes out water cooler moments like they are going out of style. Some play off Batman's insensitive side, others highlight the rogues' ability to manipulate him, and a few are sprinkled in as tips of the hat to long-time comic readers.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is definitely this year's greatest game (and also my favorite game ever), not just from the connection established with the world, but from its ability to innovate where new ideas are needed, and moreover, deliver an adventure unlike any other.