Saturday, July 30, 2011

On Arkham Asylum...


I really don’t like Batman…

I always feel as if it's necessary to initially point that out when talking about him. As far as mainstream comics go, I pretty much draw the line at anything that isn't Spider-Man (being that he was the only mainstream Caucasian 'superhero' I could even remotely relate to), but I've always been able to find appreciation in some of the others. One of those others is of course---the dark knight.

I've honestly never bothered with him past the obligatory childhood phase where I watched the Tim Burton movies and just had to have the accompanying toys. However, I was cynically surprised when Nolan rebooted the films to their mostly-deserved critical acclaim (though I recently flew off on a rant about how The Dark Knight should be a mediocre film[1]).

So, apart from genuinely enjoying Nolan's recent trilogy, I've had no real exposure to the comic hero---then I purchased Batman: Arkham Asylum this past week. While I was initially impressed by the demo I played last year,  it still wasn't quite enough for me consider shelling out for. Then on a whim I decided on Arkham Asylum instead of Nier. I don't regret the purchase (especially considering it's a two-year old game that only ran me $20), but once again I'm a victim of knowing who and exactly what I want out of my games[2].

First and foremost, the hype for the game itself far outclassed it, but being that could generally apply to any 'well-recieved' games, I guess I should clarify even further that games like this only stand out as paragons because they have no relevant competition. The last Batman game I personally remember playing is the accompanying Batman Begins game on the original X-box, which wasn't actually a terrible game[3]. What Rocksteady did with Arkham Asylum was only notably exceed the basic formula for what will make a decent Batman game. They didn't evolve it, they even didn't innovate it, they just expressed competence while navigating it (and threw in a few goodies for the fans to lull over).

What I find really taxing about the whole thing is that Batman is an inherently different figure to design a game for. When compared to the other biggies such as Spider-Man or Superman, it's instantly recognizable that Wayne only has one thing---his wallet. That wallet allows access to neat little gadgets and gizmos that almost scream 'Hey! design game mechanics around me!'. Now I'm not arrogant enough to say that this inherently makes it easier to design a game for, but I will say it should throw into question to how all games featuring Batman's family[4] should be designed. Hell even the general navigation of Batman is more fitting in gaming than the likes of Spider-Man, Superman, and any number of heroes that designers think it's more 'fun' to focus on in terms of their 'powers' (e.g. Parker can swing everywhere and this is something that most of the Spider-man games consistently get right because that's all that most people care to deem 'important').

Stealth shouldn't be an exclusive trait to Batman in the 'gameverse', but it seems to be given the general familiarity to who he is and what he can do (e.g. things such as Nolan's summation of Wayne's ninja training help aid this perception these days as well). Through these types of consistencies in the character, AA makes it very clear that Batman isn't invincible, as a couple of shots will put his ass down for the count---thus this makes the game at times a very methodical experience (which is mostly to its merit). Like I just stated though, it shouldn't be exclusive to him as a character, as other more aptly named superheroes are just as susceptible to gunfire and the like and just as accommodating to other type of genre-work akin to stealth (again, Spidey is a great example there[5]). 

If I go any further with that, I'll just diverge too much into what I want out of an ideal Spider-Man game, so I'll stop here today. 

Harley Quinn is cute though...
So the greatest compliment that I can give Arkham Asylum is that it is a fantastic new template for how any superhero game should be approached, but that's where my compliment ends. As a game on its own merit, it's just another reminder of how much lower gamers' standards are and how quickly they're willing to dote on something just to pass around geek communion (in this case the comic & game community which have always been in close proximity to one another). I'll give Rocksteady a deserved vote of confidence by purchasing Arkham City in a few months, but if it's not moving the concept's general milieu along in terms of its mechanics, characters, and interweaving between the source material's conflict translations[6], then I'm not bothering again.

1. A quote from a Salon article that I recently read concerning comic heroes which hit a number of valid points but diverged way too much (and wildly) to be taken seriously past a certain extent. 

2. My post here from two years ago where I identified the hype for what it was in regards to me.

3. It was just yet another unbearably medicore cash-in licensed game.

4. That is---any damn superhero.

5. Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, I still haven't played this, but I'm guessing that even if it does acknowledge what I'm talking about here, it's still blatantly guilty of focusing on his superpowers instead of his limitations as a 'superbeing'.

6. This is just a shorter way of saying how a the source material's concept is translated to the player. In this case, that means how much of Bruce Wayne's conflict and 'I am Batman' the audience gets to feel instead of just the 'I'm Batman dude---fuck yeah!' design methodology that I picked up on as a substantial force driving Arkham Asylum.