Jones's Game of the Year Vision Quest: Day 1: Batman: Arkham Asylum
In the name of sussing out the one, true Game of the Year winner, I went back to the three major contenders and gave all three quick and dirty, Bink Video-logo-to-end credits play-throughs. Thus far, in the last four days, I've finished Batman: Arkham Asylum and Uncharted 2. (Assassin's 2: You're next, pal.)
No, I haven't been outside in awhile or had contact with other life forms other than cats.
So let's roll up our sleeves and talk about Batman, shall we?
I'm not a Batman or a comic book fan, so the game's subject matter wasn't a hook for me. In fact, I remember sitting through a few demos of the game over the last year or two and thinking: Big whoop; another Batman game. I was certain this one would be just as terrible as its predecessors.
Only it wasn't.
Which I think earns developer Rocksteady some serious bonus points. I mean, look at what they were up against. They took the long-standing tradition of bad Batman games, and in one fell swoop, created a game that was so good, it made us completely (well, mostly) forget the 30 years worth of painfully awful games that preceded it.
More than Paul Dini's dialogue (this game taught me who Paul Dini actually is), more than the terrific combat engine, more than the voice acting by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, it's the scale of the game that ultimately makes this game great. Spider-man and the Hulk need cityscapes to perform their heroics in; not Batman. Batman, as a character, from what I know about him, prefers more intimate encounters. He's a lurker; a skulker.
Instead of giving Batman all of Gotham City to run wild in, Rocksteady confined him to Arkham Island; instead of grandiose open-world set-pieces, Rocksteady relegates Batman to air ducts and floor grates and sewers. The result: the game world is perfect for the character; and the character is perfect for the game world.
A friend of mine said to me: "I wish [Arkham Asylum] had some driving levels."
I wanted to punch him in the nose.
A driving level, I argued (yes, this is an example of nerd talk) would negate all the wonderful things that Rocksteady has done here. A driving level would have destroyed the game's claustrophobic intimacy. I said, "You can find half-cooked driving levels in pretty much every other game on the planet."
He said, "But I wanted to drive the Batmobile."
Again, I had to resist the urge to pucnch him in the nose.
Sure, Arkham is claustrophobic, but it always feels like it still has plenty of sites to see and secrets to reveal. It's small; but it's incredibly dense.
The Asylum itself is weathered and worn; it feels like a real place, a credible place; it feels like people have lived and worked here, and, well, gone insane here. And it has a P.A. system (which the Joker makes use of, obviously). It is the most fully realized videogame environment since Rapture. In fact, it's such a distinctive environment that I found myself thinking of Arkham as the game's third significant character.
The game clocks in at a lean seven or eight hours, which some gamers will complain is a bit short. I didn't mind the length. But I hear you.
And, as terrific as the free-flowing combat is, it does start to wear out its welcome in the game's later stages. X, X, X, Y, Y, B, B, X, etc. Zzzzz. If I hear one more henchman say, "Keep hittin' him!" or, "Are you OK, buddy?" I will lose it.
The game's third act is a slight disappointment. The final battle with The Joker--spoilers ahead, people--isn't really a boss battle with The Joker; it's yet another fight against waves of henchmen that's disguised as a boss battle. (The game crescendos, I think, with the Poison Ivy fight.)
Still, there are moments in this game that are unparalleled in gaming history; empowering moments; moments that made me feel a whole lot like a man dressed up "like a lunatic and armed to the teeth" (as The Joker poetically puts it.) Going into a room filled with armed guards, then picking them off one by one, while the remaining guards reluctantly continue their patrols and their heart rates rise? (Heart rates are visible while employing Detective Mode.)
Man, you can't beat that.
Now that's entertainment.
[Next up: Uncharted 2.]