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darkskywatcher

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Batman: Arkham Asylum [Feb. 13th, 2011|01:27 pm]
darkskywatcher
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UGH. Alright, it was a good game. I admit it. But the plot and setting bugged the hell out of me, especially the missed opportunities. More than usual, there are spoilers within.

The game starts with Batman taking Joker back to Arkham Asylum, Gotham's resident home for supercriminals, where the Joker shortly leads a mass breakout, using imported goons from a more "normal" supermax prison. You then spend the game going through and trying to stop Joker and some of the other villains of the DC Universe from doing Very Bad things.
First things first, the game provides you with a bunch of profiles for various villains Batman has fought, and presumably to Arkham, throughout the years. I read them, and reading them collectively became an exercise in eye rolling. Many of the villains that Batman fights are apparently "world-class" in some specialty. Granted, some of them have to be to fight Batman, but it was obnoxious to see it over and over again, especially applied to minor villains that I'd never heard of. That one I can't really blame on the game creators, though, because there was nothing they could really do about the mythos that they had to work within.
But the thing I can blame on them, and did throughout, was the characterization of the good guy NPCs. They are, to a man, victims. The police commissioner is rescued, and seemingly gets off the island that Arkham is on...only to reappear in chains in the final act. Huh? Did he get a case of Stockholm syndrome or something? There is never any explanation provided as to how it happened, it's just senseless.
Then there's the guards. This one hits a bit close to home because I work in security. The guards, from the first, are scared shitless and at a loss for what to do when the Joker gets free. Throughout the game, most of them are killed off by the various forces that assault the island. And I can't imagine that it would work that way, based on my own experiences. Even at my site, where we aren't armed or trained to resist dangerous and violent individuals, I work with several former soldiers and a few guys that are training to be cops. At least one of them has live-fire combat experience.
Now consider the asylum. Breakouts have happened. Not on a mass scale, maybe, but it's happened. Furthermore, the guards are armed and armored. Give the dangers of the duty, it's likely that the asylum, especially, recruits from the armed forces and the like. Why would those people be prone to panic in that way? Because their radios don't work? Please.
Also, the guards panicking, while it creates some opportunities for Batman to rescue some of them, also misses a bunch of opportunities to enrich the narrative.
For a simple example, wouldn't the game be enriched by showing, even briefly, a group of the guards making a fighting retreat off the island, possibly aided from a distance by Batman? That would highlight that the sane thing to do in the circumstances is to retreat, allowing the player to consider, however, briefly, how it differs from batman's response, which is to stick around and try to stop Joker.
Then there's the other, bigger thing. The game points out several times that Batman does not kill. This is highlighted in several cutscenes, and reinforced during gameplay. The most memorable of these for me was when I was confronted with a big group of thugs across a yawning, and presumably "bottomless" pit. I used the Batclaw to pull the thugs, one by one, off the edge and into the pit. As they fell out of site, there was a splashing sound. In other words, no matter the actions of the player, he could not make Batman kill. But the reasoning is never explained. They talk about his parents, and some of the origins of the character, but that particular trait is never explained.
And this is an opportunity, again, for the guards to provide contrast. They are armed with lethal weapons, under attack by people that want them dead, and the circumstances are such that their actions are unlikely to be recorded or condemned. Furthermore, several of the audiologs about the supervillains point out that some of them have wounded or killed guards in breakout attempts or psychotic behavior. As far as I'm concerned, that would add up to a circumstance, especially on into the game where everything is definitely FUBAR, where a guard pulls the trigger, and I don't mean in some sort of firefight. I mean execution style, right in the side or back of a villains head. Wouldn't the game be better, and better point out the particular characteristics of Batman, if that had happened? Here, especially, I got the sense that an opportunity to deepen the narrative was missed. (I'm ignoring the fact that a scene like that would absolutely have earned the game a higher ESRB rating, which might have impacted sales)
The last big missed opportunity, as far as I'm concerned, is that the game has nothing useful to say about the treatment of the insane. The inmates of Arkham are almost universally characterized as dangerous and violent (the only exceptions are some of the supervillains, like the Riddler, who spends the game pestering you on the radio and placing collectibles but otherwise absent). The cages they are locked in, the locked transport beds, the masks and the straightjackets, all seem appropriate for people that are not worthy of compassion, mercy, or even pity. That's not a good attitude for people to have or develop about insanity and the insane. Most forms of insanity are much less shocking and violent, and most of them are treatable. The one psychologist that consistently shows up in the audiologs as having faith in treatment ends up sounding delusional. It's distressing.
On other topics, the game can't seem to decide whether Arkham is an old, rundown mental institution or a high security prison with state-of-the-art research facilities. There are, in the public spaces, old equipment that looks like it came right out of Bedlam, while all around are high security electronic barriers and an extensive camera system. I just don't think it works.
As far as mechanics go, the game does a good job of creating combat and stealth challenges, which appear in the game and are thereafter available as challenge modes. Combat is generally pretty exciting, and usually pretty fun once you have enough of the upgrades to start really beating face. The combat system revolves around building up big combos to do special moves (and also to get more XP). The only obnoxious thing is that it becomes possible in the course of wailing on guys to get into a situation where the other targets are all offscreen, and so to hit them and to keep the combo going you need to basically pick a direction, hit the attack button, and pray that there is a guy there for you to hit.
One of the better things about the game is the collectables, most of them courtesy of the Riddler. These actually feel possible to complete: I may actually go from writing this review to collecting the last 30 or so in the game, something I don't usually even consider in most games. It helps that there are area maps that tell you almost exactly where all of them are...though getting to them might not be easy.
Well, I'm running out of steam and bile, so I'll basically leave it there. I can only recommend the game if you either a) already love Batman and the DC universe, or b) can ignore the obnoxious parts of the plot and setting.
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