Batman: Arkham Asylum Demo Review

Many websites have already titled this game “arguably the most anticipated game of the summer”1: Though it easily makes top 5 twice at GameStats, it only comes close to cracking the top 20 at Eurogamer. That being said, however, Batman: Arkham Asylum could very well be the most anticipated game - not titled Call of Duty.

British developers Rocksteady dropped demos for the game last week, and rather than crumble under the excitement, we dedicated the entire Slowdown team to combing through the demo, three-man Bat-style, giving it a hard long look in anticipation of the forthcoming September release of the PC version. In fact, this may very well be the most ridiculously in-depth look at the demo you’ll happen to chance upon. Should you find a more thorough article, though, let us know in the comments section… and we’ll retract this boisterous claim. Consider yourselves warned!

There is a simple reason for Arkham Asylum being awaited with such bated breath, we all agreed: Batman simply does not have a great track record in the video game medium, to say the least, with a fat share of unbalanced justice awarded to our favourite caped crusader. Bein’ a gamin’ Batman fan is what it is, but that has yet to prevent everybody from seeing the obvious potential in doing a Batman game right. In a “Making the Game” video, game director Sefton Hill implies that Rocksteady, too, get this:

The world wants a great Batman game. … He’s such a cultural icon; he deserves a game to match.2

As far as previous attempts go, though, it turns out Nabeel’s favourite is the SNES version of The Adventures of Batman & Robin, Konami’s beat ’em up based on the animated series. I personally have a soft spot for the first NES Batman: what it may have lacked in authenticity and faithfulness, it made up with sharp controls, Batman’s abilities and weaponry. Even in this early work, the developers understood how important it was for players to feel like they were controlling the Avenger of the Night. Lastly, the Sega CD version of Batman Returns, though a masterful technical feat by John O’Brien, is unfortunately a very difficult and sometimes grating experience.

That’s about it. Richard would be quick to mention the PC Engine Batman, but while the game is good, it’s far more Pac than Bat. In any case, Nabeel points out that Batman: Arkham Asylum does in fact share a few things in common with the aforementioned Batman & Robin game: Voice actors from the animated series, and… holy Batgame, it might be good, too! The actual demo under review, though, is very short, with only three successive combat areas containing less than 20 enemies overall, a cut-back combat move set, no boss battles… hardly representative of the full game.

As the demo begins - after a barrage of company logos (that you can turn completely off, thanks to the adaptable engine) - we are treated to a shortened intro to the game, wherein The Rock has come ba… Batman brings the Joker back to Arkham Asylum. As well all knew to expect, the two are barely through the massive security doors of the high-security facility when the clown prince of Gotham already breaks free.

After the theatricals, players gain control of the man, who has to face a series of thugs released from their cages. The major theme of the game is instantaneously revealed, that Batman is not the hunter, but the hunted; that he is not free, but contained, and instead of taking the lead, he is forced to react and respond to the whims of the Joker.

The sequencing of the demo mimics the full game: Players face action interspersed with talk and exploration, a sample of the three hats Bats is to wear: brawler, detective and predator. The smooth transitioning between each style allows you to theoretically approach dangerous situations as you please, though in practice, some of the apparent freedom is clever masking: Batman being so vulnerable to armed groups beautifully disguises the otherwise clear-cut differences in-between hand-to-hand brawling and the “predatory” gameplay. Other games tend to solve this very real dilemma of motivating stealth-based play by infuriatingly stripping off the players’ weaponry, often more or less arbitrarily.

In any case, the game most decidedly encourages players to vary their approach to dismantling baddies: Where facing a handful of unarmed thugs resembles a sparring session, armed groups in larger numbers become harder - if not altogether impossible - to beat with brute force. This is where the detective mode comes in play; with the press of a single key, a neat locational scanner allows you to see and analyse threats in the area, and discover vantage points that you can use for hiding and planning your attack. Pouncing from gargoyle to gargoyle is very satisfying indeed!

In closer combat, each move by the hero blends beautifully into the next, and successful strings of attacks chain combo points that award you with more experience points. The game has an extensive array of various martial arts -based moves: Punches, kicks, chokes and takedowns. While much of the game’s close combat is raw and visceral, we found Batman’s silent rear chokes to be on the softer side, perhaps a manifestation of Rocksteady’s commitment to maintaining the character’s heart?

Nabeel: I was worried that the elaborate fighting animations would interfere with the experience, making it more about flash and less about reaction and feedback, but the developers have managed to strike a balance. While I am not always sure what particular animation is going to play when I hit the attack button, I feel like I am in control.

The combat is built on three actions: Attack, stun, counter. Both Nabeel and I were very pleased with the mere existence of the counter-attack: In Nabeel’s vision of the Batman character, he is more of an anticipatory and calculating fighter. Personally, I still get flashbacks of the fistic acrobatics of the original series… Zap! Boom! Bang! Just before an enemy strike, then, a spider-sense -like alert appears above the attacker’s heads, giving players time to respond to the attacks. Increasing the difficulty level will remove the tattletale warning for players with actual reflexes.

Nabeel: I’m pleased with the controls, one of my initial concerns. Rocksteady have provided a smart control scheme playable with either the mouse and keyboard or on a gamepad. The XBox 360 controller, for instance, is instantly recognised by the game and the on-screen button prompts change the moment you start doing something on either.

We did ask Rocksteady whether they planned on supporting other gamepads, but so far, we’ve yet to receive an answer. Nabeel continues on the topic of the controls:

Having run through the game using each controller set exclusively, I prefer the mouse and keyboard simply for their precision. On the gamepad, while the camera is mostly automated and unintrusive, it’s also a little slow when handled by the right analog stick.

While the controls are fluid and functional, “smart” is not the first word that springs to mind; in fact, a scheme that forcibly combines the same button for running and jumping is closer to “crazy” to me. The game does also lack the very necessary ability to define controls in-game, and even fails to remember its configuration settings (such as turning vibration and subtitles on/off), or retaining discovered character bios and trophies, which function as the reward for the more scrupulous explorers. There are plenty of vents, nooks and crannies to uncover, after all.

Despite these demo-related gripes, there is considerable depth to the control set: To counter an incoming enemy attack you must hit the right mouse button, holding the same button down an aiming reticule appears for the batarang. Furthermore, if you left-click while aiming, you will throw the batarang as expected; however, if you middle-click on the mouse-wheel (which normally executes a stunning blow) the camera will follow the weapon in its flight.

Nabeel: The aforementioned feature is hardly useful, but nice to watch as you snipe enemies from further afar.

Nabeel: Another concern I had when images were first released was about the general look of the game. Sporting the Unreal 3 engine, the game has the sheen and saturated colour scheme typical of this generation’s actioners. Moreover the characters are incredibly bulky and slightly stiff in animation, and their gritty makeoever feels odd matched with the voice talent from the animated series. In-game though, the art direction holds together quite well and makes more sense in motion.

The entire gallery of rogues has been given an aesthetic overhaul, and though the character designs are bound to draw more fire after the game is released, at the end of the day, it’s only natural to borrow vigorously from the grotesquely exaggerative tradition of the American superhero comic book. The interiors of Arkham Asylum, then, are appropriately dark and moody, with intricate detail sprinkled about. With the few areas revealed so far, we’ve already seen people draw parallels to the art deco -influenced architecture and mise-en-scène of BioShock.

Richard, though, was very sceptic of that particular comparison, noting that where BioShock’s aesthetic consisted of aims and ideals, Arkham’s seems to be more about adapting the past as a vehicle. Early hype promised a concoction of BioShock, Metroid Prime and Zelda; whether these, or the newer BioShock/Riddick parallels thrown about have anything concrete to them remains to be seen. My gut feeling is that both 2K Boston and Rocksteady were willing to sacrifice certain gameplay-related features in order to achieve a thicker narrative ambience.

One more comparison, a combat-related parallel drawn to Assassin’s Creed, drew the ire of the Assassin’s Creed II Combat Team Lead, Charles Randall:

[The demo], on the other hand, has a ridiculously simple system that’s going to get pretty stale pretty fast, and doesn’t even have close to the complexity of AC (which, BTW, pales in comparison to what AC2 has).

Last things last: As mentioned in our earlier post, the PC version of the game was unfortunately delayed so that Rocksteady could better implement PhysX. While the demo does contain these enhancements, Nabeel felt the touch-ups to the environments did not quite justify stalling the launch. Just to be certain; for maximum effects, you will need GeForce 260-level card (or an entirely PhysX-dedicated 9800), otherwise the game performance takes a large hit.

Added details include fog, papers strewn across the floor and banners across the ceiling that react in believable, cloth-like fashion, with more breakable elements in the environment like pillars and floor tiles. It helps to provide a feeling of feedback as you interact with the world; With the functionality turned off, the world remains considerably more static and untarnishable.

Arkham Asylum will be released for the PC on September 15th. The demo version is available now, and though much has already been said, here and elsewhere, many things nevertheless remain both unseen and undiscussed. With highly scored reviews already trickling in for the console versions, and with Eidos seemingly once again shocking the game media with questionable press tactics, Batman: Arkham Asylum is bound to be one of the most controversial titles this year.

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