Sunday, 20 September 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Batman games are almost uniformly awful. Very little attempt is ever made to submerge the player in the identity or actions of Batman. Instead developers cast him as a karate toy, content to scroll screen right and thump enemies, occasionally enlivening his virtual career with a brief Batmobile racing section. Eurocom and Electronic Arts gambled with on-message predatory stalking in 2005's tie-in Batman Begins, but that game quickly bogged itself down into a witless prompts trail. When Rocksteady began trailering Batman: Arkham Asylum, they were content to focus on Unreal Engine re-drafts of icon figures: the denizens of Gotham as viewed through a slimy, musculature filter that rendered them as stout figurines. How would it play? A Gears of War alike land-grab brawler? Thankfully, Rocksteady were much more ambitious than that.

Loosely patterned after Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, Batman: Arkham Asylum arms players with a Kevin Conroy voiced action figure stranded in the bowels of the titular madhouse. As Batman, the player must creep and throttle their way to Mark Hamill's Joker, and victory. Rocksteady's enterprising approach to licensed playsets first stresses itself in the playground. The environment bristles with a queasy schizophrenia. It's Victoriana decadence, with rough utilitarian upgrades. Paths available to Batman skew bedrock mechanics - the twilight world of cramped crawl spaces, and forgotten cave foundations. Rocksteady have built Arkham like a seizing mindscape: layers and layers of barely credible security actions papering over huge alarm fissures. Arkham boasts acres of barely developed, and subsequently discarded, framework. The asylum is total malfunction, a space scarred by the madmen it houses, and the spectral owners that haunt it. There's even an ID beast, prowling at the core.

Rocksteady's success isn't just limited to the world they weave, the studio has also minted an avenger simulator that finds equal footing for two disparate disciplines. In administering billionaire justice, Batman can sit aloft and rain gadgets and stalking torment on his foes, or he can descend and thump toe-to-toe. Neither aspect is prioritised, although some snipe strategy is prudent, the player can dispatch their nuisances in whichever manner they deem fit. Players will mostly opt to perch though. Seating themselves ceiling high above the crowd presents frequent opportunity to pick and tease at your enemies. This hunting aspect stresses the singularity and loneliness of the character's fiction mission. Leaping from gargoyle to gargoyle, above foes too petrified to gaze up, gifts players a peerless insight into mind-maths of being a batman. You learn to relish the moment your quarry decides to split up and hunt stag. You delight in gliding down kick-first onto criminals, grappling with their prone bodies, before stamping a stun signature on their foreheads. How wonderful it is to be a bat fixated psychopath.

Floor level combat is a whirl of tight, tapping counter offensives. Players must keep their Batman on the move to clock up combos and unlock coma blows. This pugilism mechanic becomes a reactive Batjob, the regularity of enemy regurgitation spinning a snatch of meta-fictioning: Batman faces the same foes, over and over again, their skillset so limited, they become less a threat, and more an opportunity to transform mind-mapped malaise into a symphony of hammer-blow chains. This vague sense of making a personal fun out of boredom is key to Rocksteady's portrait of what it is to be Batman. Role-playing for such an extended period of time encourages an atypical perspective on being this kind of hero. Batman's near silence shifts from rugged stoicism to agitated impatience. He doesn't want to talk to his enemies because they have nothing new to say. The Riddler's time consuming side-quests do not tax the hero, or player, instead they are just an obstacle that, whilst never boring, must be overcome. It's hard work being Batman. Thankfully, it's also enormous fun.

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