Wholly brilliant, Batman!
First, let me say that I am not a comic book fan. I have not read the great entries into the literary canon of works about the caped crusader. To my chagrin, I have not even read Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. But I still know about Batman – he’s everywhere. Adam West, Tim Burton, Christian Bale – these are all reasons why everyone knows the Bat.
But none of that matters. Why? Batman is a cracking good game. That’s why.
Forget what you know or don’t know – this game does all the hard work for you. One of the many masterstrokes is in creating a series of collectibles in the form of a challenge laid down by The Riddler. Exploring the crevices, crevasses, crenellations and craggy peaks of Arkham Island will reveal a well-organised mixture of puzzles to be solved. I don’t normally care too much for collectibles in games, but here they add another layer to an already fantastic game. Firstly, solving them earns you experience, which goes towards getting Waynetech upgrades for your batsuit and gadgets. Secondly, it is a mechanic to unlock information about both the game you’re playing, and about the Batman world in general. Imagine knocking on a stranger’s front door and staring in amazement as a kindly old man invites you in for a cup of tea and a slice of cake, and imparts his incredible life story – it’s the same with the collectibles in Batman. You didn’t know you wanted to know, until you knew. So now you know.
Okay, so how does it play? “Well,” is the short answer.
I have read reviews comparing this game to Bioshock. Yes, it’s that good. Now, I’m not saying it’s like Bioshock – The Dark Knight and Big Daddies are completely separate beasts. However, what does resonate from that comparison is the sense of atmosphere. Both worlds are completely immersive, drawing you in like… well… a decent simile, which this is not. In the same way as Rapture did almost exactly two years ago, Arkham Island has a sense of authenticity, of weight, and of reality. Sure, they’re both comic book realities, but that’s the point – you’re Batman, and this is his world. Welcome to the shadows.
That segues not-so-nicely into my next point: graphics. They’re stunning. Gothic, sweeping, majestic and claustrophobic all at the same time, this is more Tim Burton’s Batman than Christopher Nolan’s, and the better for it. This perhaps demonstrates yet again why it feels so much like Bruce Wayne’s world made flesh – the story is engaging, but almost secondary to the visual impact the game has. Which is a bit like a comic. The plot is intriguing – why is The Joker loose in the asylum, and what does he want? – But it’s never the main attraction. There are some fantastic set-pieces and cut-scenes, too, but I won’t ruin the surprise for anyone uninitiated.
I am hardly the first to mention this, but the voice-work is sublime, too. I certainly can’t think of a game with any better. Kevin Conroy is suitably gravel-throated as Batman himself, and there are some other superb efforts from the likes of Arleen Sorkin. The highest plaudits, however, must go to Mark Hamill as The Joker, who is just perfectly pitched as the hyperactive, murderous, maniacal clown.
So what else does Batman offer?
Exploration is near-faultless. Areas are limited in a similar fashion to the much-vaunted Shadow Complex (and its direct predecessors, Castlevania and Metroid), so Arkham Island has the feel of an open-world game without allowing you to ignore or overlook your main journey. It beckons you down the correct path like an alluring siren, rather than holding your hand like a patronising child-minder.
Batman also has gadgets. Lots of gadgets. A quick tap of a button will fire your grappling hook upwards, allowing you to swoop around rooftops or glide between gargoyles and fight crime from the shadows. Not only does this make you feel suitably bat-like, it also supports a key function of the combat: planning your attacks. The Joker is not a mug, unlike the authorities of Gotham City, who have seen fit to transfer his legions of henchmen to Arkham Asylum to get in your way. Some of The Joker’s henchmen have guns. Unlike his DC counterpart, Superman, Batman is nimble and a bit mental, rather than in possession of superpowers – bullets hurt. So you need to stay out of their way. Hiding in grates in the floor, using explosive gel to blow up walls, throwing special batarangs, dangling henchmen from gargoyles – these are all options in your arsenal when trying to take down a room full of bad guys without being detected. And watching them become ever more frantic as “detective mode” shows their escalating heart rates and rising panic levels is schadenfreude of the best kind. Taking out an entire room of henchmen without them ever knowing where you are is one of the most satisfying gaming experiences I’ve had in quite a while.
There are also more run-of-the-mill henchmen, who haven’t graduated from Henchman University yet, and so are only trusted with pipes, bats, knives, stun batons and, for the exceptionally retarded, fists. You can tackle these hapless victims in a more direct fashion, using hand-to-hand combat. If you use what I call the “House of Pain” tactic and jump around a lot while furiously mashing buttons, you shouldn’t have too much difficulty beating down the swarms of part-time henchmen. However, that does the combat a huge disservice, and once you’ve unlocked a couple of special moves through the Waynetech upgrades, you can really get down to business in the combat challenges.
Combat challenges, like the predator challenges, are unlocked by collecting special Riddler trophies. These can then be accessed from the main menu before you jump in to continue your story. The challenges are actually great practice for refining your skills at either combat or stealth attacks – it’s a shame I didn’t unlock more of them before finishing the game, as it was here (rather than in the course of the campaign) that I really got to grips with the mechanics of beating people up and nabbing goons from the shadows. Seeing as they’re also tied in to both World and Friend leaderboards, they’re also highly addictive, and I would say that I’ve almost certainly spent as much time playing the challenges as I have playing through the story. And I’m yet to beat them all.
Sadly, the story does end. Eventually, you will best all Jokers’ minions, thwart his plans, and cross swords with other nefarious inmates put into Arkham Asylum by Batman. But although it is sad that such a brilliant adventure must draw to a close, it is fitting that it plays out as merely another battle won in the endless war against crime, waged by one man and his quest for justice. Just stay tuned after the end credits for the near-inevitable sequel set-up. Roll on Batman: Gotham City.
Hi-Score – Forget Spartacus; I’m Batman. On Arkham Island. Battling the Joker. Come get some.
Lo-Score – some uninspired boss fights. The game ends.
Final Score – 9 out of 10