Saturday, August 15, 2009

Ramblings: Batman Arkham Asylum Demo Impressions

If you pay attention to video games at all, you're probably aware of the Batman: Arkham Asylum video game by now. Speaking as a complete freak for anything and everything Batman, I simply cannot state in words just how excited I am for this game. I mean, seriously; I can't think of the words to describe it. I even pre-ordered the goddamn collectors edition and I never bother with those.

So of course I snatched up the demo the very second it went from being a Live Gold only exclusive to available to everyone. By the way, just to say it now, I really think it's bullshit that Microsoft actually reserves some demo's for anticipated games to Live Gold only for about a week. It's a stupid tactic; absolutely no one is going to run out and nab a Gold subscription just to play a demo, so what's the point beyond being irritating? It's a practice that really needs to end; all it really does is hurt people. The online play, the Netflix streaming; that's one thing. The demo restrictions need to end.

Anyways, so I've finally played the demo to one of my two most anticipated games of the year - the other being the completely metal Brutal Legend - and I figured I'd give my thoughts on it and general impressions of the game so far. Keep in mind that this is not a review or anything. As such, I may have a tendency to ramble or swear; this isn't a professional style review, just a smattering of thoughts on a game I'm hotly anticipating the release of.

Anyways, the first thing I could say is that having completed the demo, I'm actually rather pleased with what they gave you for it. The length of the demo itself isn't spectacular or anything - there are certainly those that last longer on X-Box Live - but what is given completes the general criterion any demo should strive for; give the gamer enough to whet their appetite and entice them to come back for more. The demo starts at the beginning and runs to right before a first encounter with some deformed hulking creature. On top of that you have access to some nice character bios and two trophies from the full game to gander at. Not bad guys.

I must say I liked the bio's, by the way. Short and to the point. A perfect primer to familiarize any gamers who might have been living under a rock long enough not to be familiar with most of Batman's rogues. At the least, I suspect they'll be handy in the case of Mr. Zassz; just about anyone can be excused for not being familiar with him, as he only appears in the comics sporadically despite being an enticing villain. I loved the little touch of two patient interviews under the Jokers profile, by the way; they're not important to the game, but they give an idea of the Joker himself and set a certain mood.

First thing I noticed without a shadow of a doubt upon startup; this game is fucking gorgeous. It really feels like Batman and Arkham come to life. Gritty, grimy and disgusting, the asylum feels like a rundown warehouse that's seen too much use over it's years. The Asylum has a few futuristic elements to it, such as laser barriers that keep prisoners from escaping, but they thankfully don't detract from the experience. In reality, they're kind of necessary; otherwise it would be kind of hard to even remotely believe Batman could be trapped someplace like that. In short, everything looks fantastic.

They weren't kidding when they said that the game was drawing on Batman on the whole, by the way. This game doesn't tether to simply one era or comic of Batman or even any one adaption like previous games. It's kind of a mashup of much of the classic history behind the character. Classic voices for the characters, for one thing. Harley in particular feels like her animated counterpart, except in this she's more akin to her comic counterpart in regards to human life; she's not against killing, at all. Oracles backstory includes the infamous bit where Joker shot her in the spine and paralyzed her. This Batman games world is Batman boiled down to his essence before taking elements from the whole cloth of Batman's history to build it. It works well towards making this game feel like it's own entity; you're not going to need to be familiar with anything Batman to pick up this game and understand it's world, which is frankly how it should be.

The voices? For the most part just plain awesome. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hammil - Batman and the Joker respectively - slip into their old roles with ease and oh man it's like they never left. I vote we have it officially recognized that these two are the greatest in these roles, bar none. Even Heath Ledgers turn as the Joker can't beat how classic and timeless Hammils Joker feels. Same goes for Harley; whenever I read any comics with the character I must admit I always hear her animated counterparts voice in my head reading the lines.

The others measure up rather well too, for the most part. Oracle sounds pretty decent as do many of the guards. The only voice that really took me out of the experience was Commissioner Gordon. Perhaps I've just been hearing the kind of voice we got in Batman: TAS for too long or maybe it's being used to Gary Oldman's turn in the role. Either way, from the second Gordon opens his mouth he sounds wrong. It simply does not sound like what you would imagine Gordon to sound like. Luckily you don't hang around the character long and even then you will have just started to get used to the voice, but it's still a bit of an oddity. I find it hard to believe that with such dedication to getting classic interpretations of these characters in voice that they couldn't have gotten someone that sounded similar to one of the Gordon's we've encountered in past adaptions.

The camera takes a little getting used to at first. I must admit that the over the shoulder third person camera always throws me off for a bit at first, no matter how many games with it I play. Thankfully once you get the hang of it, it stops being a problem; I suspect many others won't have an issue with it at all, but I've always had a bit of momentary difficulty with the perspective. The buttons felt intuitively placed, for another thing. So much so, mind you, that you won't even realize there's no jump button for most of the experience; it's simply not needed.

Combat is a somewhat simplistic affair. You have one button for regular attacks, a button for countering and a button for the cape stun. This threw me a bit at first. I've been playing a few games in the vein of God of War lately - the most recent being the Conan game, which was pretty good by the way - and I instinctively kept going for light and strong attacks, which in this game are the attack and counter buttons. So I'd hit Y and nothing would happen until I realize I was being a duncecap. Once you get the hang of it - hell, you probably won't have the same issues my dumb ass did picking it up at first anyways - it actually works very, very well.

As you can probably tell, there's not a lot of depth to how you fight. You're not going to find a bunch of complicated combo's to pull off here. In reality, that's the perfect way to do it. This game is not about jumping into the fray like Bruce Lee and kicking everyone's ass, though you do get the oppourtunity to do that from time to time. This is not Batman the Urban Commando; this game has Batman the creature of the night. Dropping in on foes, using your gadgets, quick takedowns, leaps from the shadows; that's what this game is about. Thankfully it works wonderfully. This game really doesn't need strings of combo's or long battles against enemies to remain exciting.

This is the first time I felt like the combat actually worked perfectly for a Batman game. Being the Bat freak I am, I've played most of them. Sadly, most Batman games have sucked ass. The 3D ones, anyways; some of the old 2D sidescrollers were pretty solid affairs. The best of the lot before now was Batman Vengeance, based off of the "Gotham Knights" animated version, as fans call it. Even in that game, the combat was a pain in the ass. Let's not even get into the camera. You ended up getting too close to an enemy and the camera shifted to the side and you were immediatly locked into some combat mode that was tough to get out of. The button layout changed and you couldn't use any gadgets. Basically a mishandled system in general.

The demo's length in general was enough to do it's job. I wanted more once it ended. It was enough to let you get a feel for all the basics, too. By the end of the demo, you'll have experienced open combat, use of your batarangs, learn to move from gargoyle to gargoyle high above, get the hang of singling out opponents and deal with your first fight with a group of enemies. In short, you get a taste of pretty much all of the very basics before the demo ends. If you rush through it you can probably complete the demo in approximately twenty minutes. If you take your time, however, you'll probably get a good forty minutes out of it. A forty minutes that you won't want to end, if you're anything like me.

In general? I want this fucking game. Now. There is no doubt whatsoever that this is going to be the standard for Batman video games from here on.

I'll definitely be reviewing this game once I get my hands on it and play through it, by the way. Rest assured of that.

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