Monday, August 10, 2009

demo monday: batman: arkham asylum

just google "boner crimes" if you think this is photoshoppedOver the last few months, I’ve spent more time reading promotional material for Batman: Arkham Asylum than I have spent actually playing games, and that’s no exaggeration. Square Enix (née Eidos), the game’s publisher, seems desperate not to see the game fail, at least based upon the endless salvos of screenshots fired into the blogosphere every day and the late-August release date – no fighting over Christmas money for this game.

Can it beat the hype? Any game this exposed risks failing simply because expectations were ratcheted too high, but I generally try not to get my hopes up for comic book-related video games. Eager to separate fact from marketing, I dove into the demo and was pleasantly surprised.

First thing’s first, Square Eidos and Rocksteady studios will automatically win points with comic buffs by eschewing the continuity of the movies and cartoons, using the comic books as their canonical backdrop. I’ve never read the comics – it’s a facet of nerd-dom to which I’ve historically not been privy – but the game’s creators were thoughtful enough to include detailed character biographies for the unwashed masses, we who are only familiar with The Bat because of Christian Bale or Adam West.

Gameplay is third-person stealth action. For the layperson, this means you’re looking at Batman’s back most of the time, and charging the enemy head-on will almost certainly get you killed. Straight ahead combat is competent, but a little over the top – if you start a combo, which happens often, the camera goes into Super Dramatic Slow Mo Action Mode, which is occasionally cool but mostly immersion-breaking. If the game would let me punch one of the Joker’s henchmen without being so melodramatic, I might have had a better time.

Where the game really shines is in its stealth elements, which are essential to your survival. Charging even a couple of enemies with guns and will get you cut down before you can take them out, so you need to use Detective Mode, which allows you to see enemies through walls and identify objects with which Batman can interact. You can grapple up to gargoyles on the walls, swooping down on enemies from on high. You can duck under grates and behind corners, carefully timing your button presses to neutralize targets without alerting the rest of them. If you do get spotted, you’ll need to swoop out of their firing lines quickly, keeping your head and getting out of harm’s way.

The only really goofy moments in the game’s stealth actions that I saw in the demo involved taking enemies out from behind. To do this silently, you crouch, move up behind your target, and press Y to finish the job. The problem is that this works too well – even if you kill a guy standing right next to another guy, as long as you don’t stand up and reveal yourself no one will notice you. Apparently a side effect of the meds at Arkham is loss of peripheral vision.

Also surprising was the game’s voice acting. They’ve gotten a lot of voice actors from Batman’s past to voice the characters here, with a good number of them reprising their roles from the well-remembered 1990s cartoon series, and their experience shows. Especially good are the “recordings” found in the character bios – these are essentially logs from Arkham Asylum, detailing conversations between one or more asylum doctors and the villain in question. Two of the Joker’s reels come with the demo, and if the rest are of the same caliber I’d say they’re some of the better voice acting I’ve heard in a game recently.

Satisfying though it is, the demo really isn’t long enough to sell me on this game. The whole thing ends in a way I find more annoying the more I encounter it, the show-me-a-boss-but-don’t-let-me-fight-it method. Here’s a chance for the game to show me how it handles a different sort of combat than what I’ve been doing for the whole rest of the demo, and since it’s just one boss it’s not like the game would be tipping its hand much, right? I guess not. Dear Everyone: stop ending your demos like this, it is super irritating.

It didn’t convince me to buy, but it did convince me that this game is worth keeping an eye on. Hopefully the rest of it is as pleasantly surprising as the demo.

Rocksteady Studios and Square Enix’s Batman: Arkham Asylum is due out on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 on August 25, with the PC version following on September 15. The 360 and PS3 versions will cost $59.99, and the PC version will cost $49.99. Played single-player demo to completion.