Yeah yeah, it’s been a while, between a move and finding a new job. Let’s get this show back on the road, aye?
Very recently, yet another “updated compendium” came out that brings some of the best games of the previous generation kicking and screaming into the current one. Some of these updated compendiums have been absolutely excellent – see Uncharted: The Nathan Drake collection, for example – while others, ehhhhh, not so much. This one is one of the latter, as we take a look at Batman: Return to Arkham.
The original games are no-doubt a masterclass of action-adventure gameplay, and well-deserving of a modern coat of paint. Being updated into Unreal Engine 4 is pretty awesome too, aye? Let’s see how that all turns out…
It’s time for a review double-bill. Let’s start with the classic, Batman: Arkham Asylum.
The original Arkham Asylum was a smash-hit when it came out. It did the impossible – it made a good modern Batman game that actually made you feel like you were, in those infamous words, “the Goddamn Batman.” Naturally something as good as it was going to get sequelized out the wazoo, so Arkham Asylum became the first game of the Batman: Arkham universe, which now spans multiple media.
Batman’s just apprehended the Joker after the crazed clown has set fire to Blackgate Penitentiary and threatened the mayor of Gotham City. Joker’s taken to the infamous Arkham Asylum, which has had massive upgrades in security thanks to the totally-innocuous donations of one Bruce Wayne. Rather conveniently the fire at Blackgate has resulted in all the prisoners there being sent to Arkham as well.
Joker breaks free, takes control of the whole place, and starts making the night a living hell for Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and anybody unfortunate enough to have been working there at the time. It’s not a normal escape attempt, however – Joker wanted to be taken to Arkham, and it’s up to Bats to find out why and stop him before he unleashed chaos untold onto the streets of Gotham.
The gameplay of Arkham Asylum is very much like the Metroid Prime games. Batman starts out with naught but his fists, visor, cape, and more Batarangs than a man can reasonably carry on their person, but by the end you’ll have acquired more tools, learned more moves, and nothing on the island will be beyond your grasp. You’ll even build up a massive compendium of lore using something akin to Samus’ Scan Visor, either in the form of various backstory elements, or just random info on the best of the best in Batman’s rogues gallery. (Along with his allies and a few Z-listers, as well.)
Notably, exploration is fairly minimal – Batman’s path is very defined and laid-out. You can branch here and there, and when you’re in the open air of the island grounds, you’re given some room to stretch out your cape-wings and see what you can find, but generally you’re told where to go one way or another, and attempting to visit some other place usually winds up just wasting your time. Your path through the asylum will take you on a few laps through the grounds, and you’ll revisit a couple locations, and the whole thing is extremely efficient and well-done. The game’s pace is fast, but not terribly so, and it comes together rather nicely. Nothing really feels too contrived – when you’re given an objective, there’s generally good reason for you to accomplish it and detours end up feeling somewhat natural.
Combat is fairly simple – you have an attack, a counter, and a stun for your standard options, along with a takedown move available when an enemy is grounded, but it’ll leave you wide open to attack. When an enemy attempts to make his fist reach your face, hitting the counter button will turn their attack against them. Combat has a particular rhythm to it – mashing the attack button will certainly make Batman fly across the room from goon to goon in a glorious display of fearsome justice, but it can wind up leaving you vulnerable to attack and ruin your combo. You need a good combo in order to use Batman’s unlockable special moves (a throw and instant takedown) and get precious, precious experience points.
Experience points are spent to make Batman stronger in various ways. Increasing health, adding critical strikes, new moves, and so forth. Critical strikes add to the rhythmic feel of combat – timing your strikes makes them stronger and fills the combo counter faster. You can learn how to use Batarangs in combat, or do that crazy cool thing where Batman grabs a guy and hangs them from a gargoyle. You gain experience by beating up goons, getting higher combos, using a wide variety of moves in said combos, and solving puzzles.
Puzzles have been scattered by the Riddler all over Arkham Island, and he’s tasked you with solving all 200 of them. Most of them amount to finding his Trophies, but some require you to know a little bit about Batman lore. These all require Batman’s scanning ability, where you need to find what part of the environment the puzzle is talking about, and then scan it to get credit for solving it. There’s quite a few places where puzzles and Trophies are lying out in the open, just waiting for you to solve them, but you lack the ability to actually get to the puzzle or Trophy in question. Which just makes coming back and grabbing them later all the more satisfying.
Batman’s not the terror of the night simply because he punches dudes and solves silly riddles, though. Every so often you’ll come across a group of goons with guns, and they are not so shy to use them, either. Even with a maxed out health bar, Batman can’t take much bullet-based punishment, so rather than take them head on, you enter Predator stealth.
Unlike other stealth games like Metal Gear Solid where stealth basically amounts to waiting for the guards to look the other way and then sneaking by undetected, Batman is undoubtedly the one controlling the situation, and he’s not leaving until everyone in the room is on the ground. Predator sections are all about assessing the situation, and then striking fast, striking hard, and grappling back into the rafters and listening to your remaining victims soil themselves in fear.
Joker’s goons aren’t stupid – while they may walk around confidently without a care in the world if you’re deathly silent, once they actually know you’re in the room causing shenanigans, they’ll leave very little to chance. They’ll peek around corners, cover doors, team up to watch each others’ backs, and come running at the slightest provocations. As the game goes on they’ll even start looking up at the gargoyles you use to survey the room, and if you grapple to or away from them at the wrong time, you’ll get riddled with bullets until you can shake them… but then, they’ll start destroying your perches one by one.
This is where you need to get creative – there’s lots of ways to tackle each room and take out each goon. You could sneak up behind them and take them out silently, or hang them from the ceiling, or pull them over a railing, or blow up a wall on top of them… it’s important to get into the habit of setting up traps. Once they’re down to their last few guys, they’ll start panicking like they’re about to die and all their intelligence goes out the window – they’ll look back and forth and peek around corners, but that’s it – dropping down right in front of one will just freak them out and you’ll have a couple seconds before they start shooting.
To aid him in these encounters and general exploration, Batman has Detective Mode. Activating this tints the whole screen blue and lights up thugs through walls like X-ray vision. It’ll even make the distinction between armed and non-armed thugs. Using it can feel like a cheat at times and it’s often said it’s so good you might as well never turn it off, which isn’t exactly untrue. Of course, there’s always the challenge of playing through the game without it.
The downside to the game is that the boss encounters are generally subpar. Aside from the excellent Scarecrow sections (the last of which actually got to real-sitting-in-front-of-TV-me and not video-game-Batman-me), none of the big name put up very good fights. The game’s also rather short – easily beaten within a single day, even with spending the time to get all the Riddler puzzles cleaned up.
There’s a fun Challenge Mode, which gives you short Combat or Predator encounters to deal with and earn points in, and there’s even the Joker ones that were exclusive to the PlayStation 3 version of the game, which was nice of them. Aside from that there’s just tapes to listen to and character bios to read. You can also try replaying on a higher difficulty (Hard Mode removes the counter indicators from enemy attacks which is cool).
Visually, the original game was stunning. Well-crafted environments, beautiful cape physics on Batman, with some unfortunately shoddy facial animations for anybody who wasn’t a top-tier villain or hero. The contrast between gameplay and pre-rendered cinematics was also fairly high.
The visual update is pretty breathtaking. They even added a rain effect to the outdoors of Arkham Island that wasn’t in the original game – a nice touch, even if it’s kinda weird that only Batman seems to be getting wet. The game’s quite a bit brighter, though – I’d recommend turning the brightness down a bit while playing to recapture the original’s atmosphere a bit closer.
The game seems to be running at an uncapped framerate, or at least, trying to run at sixty FPS – it’s a valiant effort albeit a slightly failed one. The game mostly hovers around the thirty mark, and I’ll admit, I’d rather have a stable thirty than a stuttery sixty any day. It is a shame, too, because the PC port of the original Asylum was extremely well-done and ran at a near-constant sixty on my old machine – which was not only running an ATI-card (which Asylum was NOT optimized for), but also only had 1 GB of VRAM.
It is an additional shame, because the aforementioned Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection runs at sixty FPS. And just kinda does while still looking as stunning, if not moreso, than this game does. I feel like this game probably could’ve run at sixty FPS on the PS4 easily, considering the simpler geometry compared to, say, Arkham Knight which manages a fairly consistent thirty. Optimization matters, folks!
(The game also lacks the additional PhysX effects present in the PC version of Asylum. Again, I feel like this is something that could have been possible, but then again, I’m not entirely sure how PhysX works in the first place. Doesn’t it offload some stuff to the GPU that would normally go to the CPU, and that’s why it’s recommended you have two cards when doing it? I dunno, so maybe that’s why, but don’t quote me.)
In the end, Arkham Asylum is a fantastic game, with a relatively well-made update. If you’ve never played the original, well, this is certainly worth picking up… if it didn’t cost fifty dollars alongside the next game on the list.
Time to take a look at Batman: Arkham City.
City takes place about a year later – Warden Sharp from the first game is now Mayor Sharp and has taken the slums of Gotham and transformed them into a walled-in concentration camp called, well, Arkham City. He’s placed the enigmatic Hugo Strange in charge, tasked TYGER Security with policing it as well as apprehension in the streets of Gotham, and things are generally somewhat bleak-looking, what with every criminal and every crazy in Gotham in one place.
Even Batman is having trouble finding out more about the place, but he knows he can’t just let it slide. As Bruce Wayne he begins to campaign against the city politically – this only results in him himself getting thrown within the city walls. He finally gets a face-to-face with Strange, who reveals that he knows Wayne’s darkest secret – that he is the Batman.
Batman manages to gear up with the help of an air drop from trusted butler Alfred, and with that, he sets to find out what Sharp and Strange are really up to with Arkham City. Amidst all this, it would seem the Joker is dying after the events at old Arkham Asylum…
City takes just about everything from the original game and ramps it up to eleven. Combat is improved, flowing much more easily and with more options, which you’ll need, since thugs are smarter than ever. They’ll use more weapons, they’ll use armour, they’ll team up more, and just generally do a better job at keeping you on your toes. In the original game you didn’t have to worry too much about where your punches flew or what was coming at you during the fight, since you could figure everything out before jumping in and come up with a plan much easier. In this game you’ve gotta think while you fight, because at once there could be three regular goons, a guy with a bat – does more damage, cool, but wait, those two have armour – gotta stun and beat-down, which leaves you kind of open, especially since that guy has a shield – unblockable attack and can’t hit them, okay, so…
The key is turning it into organized chaos, which is definitely very possible thanks to your new moves (like knocking out several downed thugs at once, or being able to enter a quasi-bullet-time by keeping your combo going without using your special moves), but combat is definitely much more of a challenge this time around. In the late-game you’ll encounter some situations which will test your mettle like Asylum never did. Some old tricks won’t work, but fortunately, Batman’s got plenty of new ones.
Stealth is also expanded upon. The open air of Arkham City actually offers some interesting stealth situations – you won’t have perches like in Asylum unless you’re in an enclosed space, so open-stealth is generally more risky, but also, more freeing – you can survey a situation from a neighbouring building, formulate a plan, set up traps, and then activate them from that same neighbouring building in absolute safety.
Indoors stealth is about the same as ever – get all the dudes without getting gotten, which means zip-line-noping to a perch when you get seen. You’ve got more options though – some thin walls can be broken through by sheer brute strength, and you also get a Knockout Smash which you can perform during a Silent Takedown – it’s an instant KO but is very loud, instantly alerting everyone to your presence and position. Naturally it makes setting up certain traps easier, though.
Thugs are smarter here, as well – they’ll use thermal goggles to see if you’re hiding on perches (which has a counter that makes you invisible as long as you don’t move… which honestly I don’t like and I’d rather that upgrade have been scrapped for challenge), or even to see through your new smoke bombs, they’ll use jammers to block your Detective Mode, they’ll lay mines… while near everything has a counter, these counters tend to have limited uses or require upgrades, and may even require you to take some risks. There’s a bit more verticality in room design with this game as well – while Asylum generally had maybe one or two floors and then easily accessible gargoyles, City opts to make the perches a little more difficult to reach at just any given time, and thugs are much more open to destroying them as well. Quickly adapting to the situation is key.
Progress is much more open and Zelda-like than Metroid. Batman starts off with most of his gadgets from the end of Asylum and gains a whole host of new ones as well. Arkham City acts as a sort of overworld while the various locations like the Museum or Steel Mill act as “dungeons.” There’s also a wide variety of sub-missions that try their level-best to distract you from the plot at large, and even more Riddler challenges that actually take the form of puzzles and mini-challenges. Finding the trophies is the easy part – it’s getting them that tends to be the problem.
It’s fortunate that traversal is much smoother than in Asylum. Batman has much more economy in his movement – rolling out of grapples, slides, being able to perform more actions while running, and being able to dive bomb while gliding to build up speed and move through the sky at a swift pace. Once you unlock the Grapnel Boost – which is really easy and really early on – you can get from one end of the horseshoe-shaped map to the other without ever touching the ground within three minutes.
The more open structure can make the game feel somewhat unfocused compared to Asylum, especially given the nature of the plot which makes it clear time is of the essence.
It’s a good job that at least the boss fights this time around aren’t a sorry bunch of sadsacks. There’s the Mr. Freeze fight which you’ve probably heard of and it’s definitely the best of the bunch (and just one of the best boss fights ever generally), but most of the other bosses are rather fun and paced apart rather well. A much better showing than Asylum ever had.
Hard Mode this time ’round doesn’t remove counter indicators. Instead, once you’ve beaten the game, you unlock the New Game Plus, which lets you take all of Batman’s skills and gadgets you’ve gathered over the course of the original playthrough, and start at the beginning of the game as if you already had them. If you think it’ll be easy, think again – not only is every counter indicator completely removed, but the enemies have been buffed to compensate – they’re harder, better, faster, stronger, and have access to all their resources from the word go. You’ll even encounter things you never would have thought of, like armoured foes during Predator encounters (which require noisy approaches). It’s a worthy challenge for anyone who feels up to it.
(Want to have some real fun? Try this challenge I like to call Vengeance Mode. Play through the original game on Hard without purchasing any upgrades or getting any optional ones, either, and then start up New Game Plus. Copy the save file so you don’t have to do it again ever, and now, play through New Game Plus… again, without any upgrades you can purchase or pass up on, and without using Detective Mode unless the game forces it on you. I think you’ll find Remote Controlled Batarangs are your new best friends.)
Visually, again, the game is beautiful. The city is wonderfully decayed and gothic, taking inspiration from just about every possible source of Batman ever. The amount of small details is staggering, and character animations are much improved over the original.
It’s kind of a pity then that the game doesn’t really run very well.
Unlike Asylum’s revision, which valiantly sticks around thirty even as it strives for sixty, City seems to dip more often and more severely. That snow effect isn’t as new as Asylum’s rain, either – and City suffers from the same increase in brightness and decrease in contrast that Asylum did. Again, turn your brightness down while playing. You may want to play with your TV’s settings a bit to get that vintage look with the nice new textures.
But of course there’s that slowdown. Expect the FPS to drop into the twenties while you’re gliding around Arkham. You’ll see spots of sixty here and there, if you’re staring at walls or otherwise not forcing the game to render that much, but the experience is just plain choppier than its predecessor. City was the start of bad PC ports for the Arkham series, and it’s clear that it’s here that optimization was not on the front line of discussion. The game actually crashed on me, if you can believe it. Five years down the line, it gets a fresh coat of paint on a stronger console and it crashes. That’s just inexcusable. This was after the day one patch, by the way.
This revision still looks really nice and if it ran as well as Asylum’s did, I’d say the package was worth it. Hell, if they both just ran a stable thirty and didn’t bother trying to hit sixty, I’d probably enjoy them more.
Speaking of those day one patches, by the way, I hope you’ve got about sixty gigabytes free on that hard drive of yours, ’cause the games are gonna need that much downloaded content combined before they even bother running. (Asylum needs around twenty-five, City about thirty-five.)
Kinda weird how I don’t have nearly as many PS4 games as I do PS3 games, and yet so much more space is being taken by the disc versions of the PS4 games than some of my downloaded PS3 games. Ugh. I know, decreasing loading times and all that (which… doesn’t really seem to be doing much, so good on ya, devs) but it’s still annoying especially since changing hard drives on the PS4 is a right pain.
All in all, either you’ve already bought the collection and it was worth fifty bucks to you, which hey, go for it. Or you haven’t, and you probably shouldn’t and should just play your original copies of both games. Unless you can get Asylum by itself.
Modern revisions can be better than this, though. I mean, this thing was freaking delayed and we get it in this state? It’s hard not to be disappointed.