Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Batman: Arkham Asylum: The Chore of Enjoyment

Thanks to Steam, I have a handy barometer of my game enjoyment to reference - hours played. As of this writing, I've played it a total of 33.6 hours of Mass Effect and bought and downloaded the sequel, logging 30.7 hours to beat that. During the same sale in which I bought Mass Effect, I downloaded Batman: Arkham Asylum. I’ve logged a mere 4.2 hours so far. In addition, I've logged 2 hours here, 3 hours there in other, smaller games. Deus Ex, M.U.D. TV, World of Goo, Multiwinia. In fact, I'm only playing through Arkham Asylum right now so I could feel comfortable deleting it off my miniscule hard drive. After that, I plan another go at mass effect 1 and 2 and downloading another AAA title on my queue, like Bioshock.

I can't wait to play Bioshock.

The question I have is why? Why is this popular and critical darling an obstacle I must get through rather than an enjoyable experience?

On paper I should love this game. Largely considered one of the best licensed games, Arkham Asylum comes from a who’s who of Batman pedigree. Character designs by Jim lee, written by Batman comic and animation alumnus Paul Dini (perhaps my favorite), and most importantly voiced by the same actors of the animated series - Kevin Conroy, Arleen Sorkin, and Mark Hamill's delightfully energetic demented Joker. And it’s Batman!

Added up, all of the math means that this game was made for me.

So why is getting through this game such a chore?


I should admit that my system is not the most gaming geared - it’s a measly laptop that reaches the minimum requirements for my graphics work, and that’s about it. So, when I first entered the Asylum, I did so very slowly. I began to have similar issues with Mass Effect 1 and 2, and so I looked up some tutorials on how to tweak my system. Batman runs pretty smoothly now (thanks to my desire to make sure Mass Effect runs very smoothly). Still, I kept going back to ME 1, bugs and warts and all, and only occasionally visiting Batman: AA. This disparity still seems too wide to be ignored.

There’s an unfair comparison, isn’t it? Two games couldn’t be more different. Still, I was playing them simultaneously, and devoted more time to one than the other. I enjoyed Mass Effect so much I barely waited to download the sequel to continue Shepherd’s adventure.

While I’ll still wait to finish this game before writing a full review (as it would be unfair of me to not), I figure it is appropriate to look at the first 5 hours and ask myself why I’m not having fun.


My first thought was rather cynical: did I not want to like this game?

I was cynical about Mass Effect. I didn't believe it would take me where people said it would take me. I didn't believe that the game could be that good, and it was. Despite my best effort, Mass Effect sold me.

I desperately want to like Batman: Arkham Asylum. It seems that nearly everybody else does. Still, public opinion could easily be shaped by widely read opinions. Or, could it be that a good game is a good game, and therefore earns those reviews?

Perhaps that's the issue - I wanted more from the game than I got. I wanted to be blown away in the first hour, and it didn't fulfill its promise.


But that's not true - the opening credits sequence, with its limited movement, and Batman following a talkative Joker really got me. Hell, the bats flying though the menu system got me. However, those very first moments of gameplay, in the tutorial levels, didn't.

But that's not fair, is it? Tutorials are a notoriously bad bit of business one must get through to teach you how to play the game, after all. "Use W, A, S, D to move" is not a great plot point.

True, but Mass Effect's tutorial bit (walking through the ship to a cutscene than landing on a planet) didn't feel like training. I have a fond memory of that bit where my Shepherds look ahead, out at the world that I've just come into. Portal's entire game is a teaching / tutorial level for the eventual "boss fight" with GlaDOS. The bike riding sequence in Grand Theft Auto 3: San Andreas was the most laughable, literally starting you off by riding a bike. Fallout 3 uses the tutorial level to start you off as a baby, an infant, that slowly teaches you how to walk while establishing your character's relationship with his father, the very driving plot point of the game. Most games I have played, including those with complex key-bindings and difficulty didn't feel nearly as bad as that first hour of grinding through Arkham's prisoner reception hall - which seemed to be designed by some sort of mad labyrinthine architect.


So, writing then? Bioware is specifically known for its writing, and it was one of the primary reasons I had to come back into their world over and over again.

Zero Punctuation specifically isolates the writing as clumsy, and I sort of agree. It pains me to say it as Paul Dini is one of the best comic book and visual media writers out there, especially where Batman is concerned. That being said, something went wrong here. Some of the dialog is a bit too much, but then again, I'd venture to guess they didn't give Paul Dini much to do.

Whereas Bioware's writing philosophy is to keep them on staff and hire them from the get-go, Eidos, Rocksteady, and WB games come from a different world entirely. They hire the writers to create set up the levels and setpieces that they have already created. So much technology and resources have already been expended into creating the game, the writer is left to merely create the framework surrounding it. So, Paul Dini probably had to write several thousand lines of mostly use dialog in order to set up the game and give it the drama he feels it should have.

Alot of the story logic makes little sense to. Why am I being distracted by a collection quest set up by the Riddler if Gotham is a panic? Optional fan-service, of course. It's not enough to play as Batman, we needed some rickety addition just so we can keep people playing - but that just confuses the design. Batman should be grinding through to SAVE GOTHAM, not messing about with stupid gimmicks left by a third rate criminal (who doesn't even bother to show up in the game). Why does Waynetech build the security gates and Batman NOT have a back door to the place? Is he worried that he's one day going to go crazy and break into Arkham and deal with all of the villains himself (hint; he's already nuts)? Oh yeah, Lucius built them, not Bruce. But Bruce did bother to put his own freaking batcave into Arkham. Did Amadeus Arkham get a good deal at a statuary, because there are SO MANY FREAKING GARGOYLES INSIDE BUILDINGS.

One of the early lines I cringed at was when Harley Quinn specifically points out her costume as her "new, sexier look". I can only imagine what it meant to do that as Dini was Quinn's original creator on the animated series. Wildstorm, lead by Jim Lee, reworked most of the characters for the game. Changing Harley from a fun sociopath to a crazy sexpot when rendered in 3D. Dini couldn't help but point that out, it seems, and the writing became clunkier for it.


Wildstorm's vision of Batman isn't too far off from the comics. In fact, Lee penciled the Batman classic, "Hush", and was lauded for his character designs. They weren't much different from historical design, but every character looked better in some way.

The looks in Arkham Asylum, though, are muddy, dirty facsimiles of the originals. This doesn't quite work when one brings in voice acting and writing from the animated series.

Wildstorm's Batman is a badass. He slowly becomes more scarred and tattered as the game goes on, wearing him down. He's a pacifistic Rambo, a Dirty Harry who won't kill the bad guy, but chiselled nonetheless. He's a pair of underwear and a cape you wear when you're 5 and pretending to be the Bat.

When I think about the Animated Series, however, I think of a moment where they flashback to Crime Alley (something that happens in this game) and Batman watches helplessly as his parents get killed in front of his eyes. His white pupils turn up, scared, frightened, a vulnerable little 8 year old boy as he falls into oblivion.

That Batman is not a badass. He's conflicted, angry, and human. This Batman isn't vulnerable. He can't be. His face has a constant look of determination, sheer force of will. There is no way that he can lose.

And there it is, my main problem.

There are no stakes. I have no reason to come back and play because Gotham will continue to be safe.

Shepherd had to save the Universe, and it was not easy to do. The humans are the newcomers, and have to prove themselves, but Batman doesn't have this issue. Ultimately, I wanted to play Mass Effect more to root for the underdog, whereas Batman, well, he's just the jerkoff who likes to beat up nameless Blackgate fugitives.


  1. But you never mentioned the fight mechanics? I did enjoy the bat-fu, though you should have an xbox controller to fully understand what I mean. And most of the boss fights are memorable. Voice acting is top notch, as expected. I agree it was stupid to have Wayne tech security panels all over the place; Batman should have been able to hack those right off the bat. But beyond those simple flaws you mentioned, this is a very solid game.

  2. Actually, I kinda did (re: slowdown and issues on my PC). However, my point was that the bugs removed me from the gameplay enough to look at these other flaws.

    The combat, once I cleared up those issues, was fun. So far, the boss fights are basically, evade, hit, evade, hit.

    I'll add a part 2 as this goes on. Didn't mean to make it a "hate Batman" post.

    I didn't even begin to address detective mode, which is horrible :)