Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Batman’s Arkham story is Best game of 2009 (so far)

Ok, with the Holiday season coming up it is obviously too early to call any game the best of 2009. None the less it has been a pretty good year for gaming so far so I thought I’d put in my two cents for the best game I’ve seen so far. I’d even go so far as to say that when the year ends, this is likely to still be the best of 2009.

For my money Batman: Arkham Asylum (B:AA) is the winner so far, hands down. The game breathes life into one of the most recognizable comic book heroes and goes so much further than any super hero game to date.

It’s probably safe to say that most people who are not familiar with the Batman universe have little or no knowledge of what Arkham Asylum is. And those that know it is a mental hospital for the criminally insane of Gotham City may not fully appreciate what that means. As the place where most of Batman’s biggest foes (Joker, Bane, Two-Face, etc.) end up, Arkham has come to represent a virtual purgatory in the DCU. So it comes as no surprise that having Batman spend a night in Arkham is at the bottom to some of the darkest stories in his history.

Which is precisely the story behind B:AA. As the game starts up we find Batman doing what he does so often, returning Joker to Arkham after another breakout and crime spree by the Clown Prince of Crime. But this time Batman is unhappy. Well, Batman is never really happy, but putting Joker away is usually where the story ends. In this case we find that the Joker has given himself up almost without a fight, and that sounds alarm bells for Batman’s always suspicious mind. And sure enough, it turns out Joker is looking forward to his “home-coming.” Arrangements have been made. A fire at Blackgate penitentiary has made it necessary to move many of the prisoners there to Arkham temporarily. Many of them are Joker’s henchmen, adding to the suspicious nature of Joker’s return.

During the course of the game you will be introduced (or re-introduced if you are familiar with the Batman stories) with many of his most familiar foes. What makes B:AA the best Super Hero game ever is the way you get to experience what it is to be the Bat. At your disposal will be nearly all of “those magnificent toys” the Joker is always going on about. Use the Grappling gun to swing up to a roof top, or hide out in the rafters to listen in to the bad guys conversations to gather intelligence. Switch to Detective mode to find clues about what is going on. You can fight the bad guys head on, or you can sneak up behind them for the classic silent take down. Rarely are you constrained to one tactic in the game.

The fight system in the game is simply spectacular. While most of your attacks are initiated by a simple button press, the fight moves are elegant and varied. Each fight looks like it is being choreographed for a movie, but each fight can go in completely different ways no matter how many times you replay a scenario. It’s the kind of attention to detail that shows that the creators really know and love the Batman mythos.

Which isn’t a surprise either. After all, the game was produced by some of the same artists who worked on many of the movies and animated creations for TV. Writer/director Paul Dini (Batman the Animated Series, Superman the Animated Series, Batman Beyond, etc) wrote the story for B:AA, and his humor and love of the characters shows in every line. Even better, the voices that people are so familiar with from the Animated series are here as well: Kevin Conroy (Batman the Animated Series, Batman Beyond, etc.) reprises the voice of Batman and Mark Hamill (Star Wars, Big Red One, Batman the Animated Series, etc.) does the voice of the Joker. In fact, I think Hamill’s manic Joker voice acting may be the best Joker on film period.

But this isn’t the Saturday morning cartoon series. This is a darker, more adult and much much grittier Batman. This is a a younger version of the Batman from Frank Miller’s 1986 The Dark Knight Returns graphics novel. Graphically this is an amazing game and I mean that knowing how great today’s games can look. This is the best of the year. From Batman’s Kevlar weave batsuit to the foreboding and haunting Arkham Island, the game developers obviously spent thousands of hours bringing the Batman universe to life.

Just as Bioshock surprised me with it’s rich visuals, deep deep story line and snappy game play a year ago, Batman: Arkham Asylum has raised the Super hero gaming genre to a new height. I hope they plan on giving us a sequel. Certainly they have only dipped their toes into the massive world of Batman, with over 70 years of source material to use for more stories. I’ve yet to play this game through completely. I keep restarting it to re-experience various parts, and because I don’t really want it to end. It’s that good. I can’t imagine another game releasing this year that would cause me to change my vote for best of 2009, but I can’t wait to see what the rest of the year holds.

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