Batman Arkham Asylum: Greater Than Its Parts
Posted by Ben Zeigler on September 16, 2009
I just finished playing Batman: Arkham Asylum and it’s probably the best game I’ve played all year. I’m not alone in heaping praise, but I mean Best in a very specific sense. It’s not my favorite game of the year (others have left deeper emotional impact) it’s not the most interesting or innovative, and it’s not given me the most total enjoyment (hard to beat Fallout 3 there), but it’s the best-constructed game I’ve played in a long time. First of all, it’s technically and artistically proficient and uses the Unreal engine extremely well. Secondly it has a good set of base mechanics (brawling and stalking are both individually fun) and a well designed collection metagame. Thirdly the narrative is well written and presented. Many good games have excellent individual components, but what makes Arkham Asylum a GREAT game is the way the design brings together these disparate elements together into something greater than the sum of it’s parts.
The key to this is the pacing and flow of the different components. The game starts out with some sweet atmosphere and character development as you bring joker into the high-security area of the prison, in a scene that is highly reminiscent of the start of Escape from Butcher Bay (nothing wrong with that). From there, it transitions into your first combat scene which teaches you the basics while also instantly establishing that Batman is a badass. Then you do some duct-crawling before stalking and taking down a lethal enemy. Finally, you get the last piece of the puzzle as the Riddler Challenge metagame is introduced, which wraps the whole thing into a compelling Metroid sandwich. From then on it simply alternates linearly placed story/brawl/stalk sections while allowing you to indulge in more free-form exploration at your leisure. Hours 1 through 10 of the game follow an identical structure, but it never gets old. Why not?
It’s obvious that this game went through a lot of playtesting. The secret to why it works is that I never once thought “I am tired of doing what I am doing”. As soon as you finished a tense fight there was always a break before the next brawl, letting the lessons you’d learned sink in while you stalked some fools. Even better, the variety is doled out at a masterful rate. After playing the demo I was worried the stalking would get repetitive, but every single encounter has something new to deal with (stupid exploding gargoyles). For the entire game, there is ALWAYS something new to learn and apply. The high-tech prison environment of the first section changes into what I am convinced is the largest variety of environments that is theoretically possible given the setting. There is no frustrating artificial difficulty curve, the progression in the game mechanics comes naturally from more components being available at once. Arkham Asylum is exactly as long as it needs to be and is almost entirely lacking unnecessary filler.
The clearest evidence that the pacing is key is available inside the game itself. Once you beat the main narrative you can complete the rest of the exploration metagame on it’s own, and it became way less compelling without thugs to beat up and the taunting of the Joker (also I think there are about 25% too many collectibles). There are also separate brawling and stalking challenges that extract those components, but I quickly grew bored. It started feeling more like the game I played immediately before and after Arkham, Uncharted. Uncharted features similarly excellent components, but it tends to clump exploration, narrative, and shooting sections into large repetitive clumps with weird difficulty spikes. The odds are I’ll never finish it despite it’s many positive qualities. On the other hand, I played through Arkham Asylum in 3 very long sessions because I didn’t want to stop. Unlike the vague addiction that comes from playing an MMO, I didn’t keep playing because I HAD to, I kept playing because I wanted to see what would happen next. It never disappointed me.
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