Friday, January 13, 2012

Batman: Arkham Asylum review

With the recent release of Batman: Arkham City I thought it was about time I finished the previous game.  I am really not sure why I hadn't already, it's had members of the press and gamers raving about it ever since it was released.  I will also be reviewing the sequel at a later date as I bought and completed it within a week of it going on sale. I think whether or not this game is any good or not doesn't need much clarification, but here are my thoughts anyway.

 Publisher: Warner Interactive
Developer: Rocksteady Games
Expect to pay: £10 - £15

Graphics: 9 out of 10
The only criticism that that I really level at the visuals of Batman: Arkham Asylum is the same grotesque gigantism that effects other games that use the Unreal engine (most noticeably the Gears trilogy).  Most characters are really strangely proportioned, and look like they have quite the steroid problem.  In some cases like Bane and Killer Croc this works, but Batman himself is a bit too much of a beefcake for my liking.  Other than this though the graphics are excellent. The game really does do an excellent job of bringing the comic book world to life and making Arkham feel like a real place.  Don't go thinking that the Asylum is just one building - a short way into the game the whole of Arkham island opens up to you, with many different places including a medical wing, penitentiary, a mansion and even botanical gardens to explore. 

The whole game takes place at night which is in keeping with the setting and characters that we're dealing with, but none of the game is overly dark.  A lot of atmosphere is added by having the large full moon looming in the night sky and recognisable buildings such as Wayne Enterprises viewable from certain places on the island.  The environments that you will be sneaking and fighting your way throughout are quite nice and varied, and even though you end up backtracking to several areas a second time they have been changed significantly your next time through.

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
I am going to touch on the voice acting first because Rocksteady Games have absolutely nailed it by managing to hire most if not all of the people most well known for playing the different characters from the Batman universe.  First of all we have Mark Hamill as the Joker, a role that he wears like a glove and seems to have great fun doing so (even though he keeps saying that he'll never play the character again).  All thoughts of Luke Skywalker disappear the moment the Joker starts to speak, and Hamill has many lines throughout the game as he will frequently make comments or order his henchmen over the tannoy system. I think overall, besides the addictive and well designed game play, it was wanting to find out what the Joker would say and do next that kept me playing just that little bit more each session.

Backing up Hamill are two highly experienced voice actors that play Batman/Bruce Wayne and Harley Quinn respectively - Kevin Conroy and Arleen Sorkin. If you have watched the animated series you will know instantly that these are the same people reprising the roles here. I can't really imagine what the game would have been like if they hadn't manage get these people in the roles as they fit them so perfectly.  It also helps of course that the overall story of the game and the writer of the dialogue for these characters is none other than Paul Dini, a writer who is well versed in these characters and the universe already.

Supporting the voice work is the soundtrack, and the duo of Nick Arundel and Ron Fish have done a very good job of composing an original score that fits the Batman mythos.  DC and Warner could have been lazy here and just used the Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer music from either of their movie franchises (like they did with LEGO Batman), but they have done a proper job instead by hiring Arundel and Fish and it has paid off.  Sound effects play their part too of course and the Batarang, Bat Claw and other gadgets all sound spot on. Also, punches and kicks sound really weighty and painful as you beat the crap out of dozens of poor henchmen over the course of the game.

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
Rocksteady Games have done a truly outstanding job of making you feel like you actually are Batman.  Firstly, the hand to hand combat: you can string moves together with ease and flow from one move to the next taking out up to 12 bad guys in the same fight (they do tend to stand around patiently and wait to get beaten up, but whatever).  Then there is the array of gadgets that you gradually get access to, which both allows you to access new areas of the Asylum and take out bad guys in new an interesting ways.  Stealth plays a part in this game, as many of the enemies carry machine guns and tough as Batman is, he can’t survive a full clip being shot into him.  Instead, you must make use of the conveniently place gargoyles around the grounds, watch the movements of the guards and then glide down and give them a boot in the face.  Or perhaps hang upside down from the gargoyle and wait for an unsuspecting goon to walk underneath, before descending upon him and stringing him up.

The developers shake things up to keep you on your toes throughout the game, by adding explosives to the gargoyles for example, so that you can’t stay on one for more than a few seconds – or by putting alarms on the Joker’s henchmen that go off if they are knocked out, sending another, tougher wave after you.  Every so often you will face off against a boss, who is usually one of Batman’s famous foes like Bane, Poison Ivy or Killer Croc.  These boss fights have come under a fair bit of criticism in reviews, mainly because they all boil down to the same thing – you look for the bosses weakness, exploit it, they retreat and send in a wave of standard goons, you defeat them, repeat twice more, you win.  While they are a little repetitive they didn’t really get on my nerves that much, and the quality of the rest of the game more than makes up for this small quibble.

Innovation and Cleverness: 8 out of 10
There are things that happen in this game that rival the Psycho Mantis encounter in the original Metal Gear Solid for sheer creativity and spot on understanding of the Batman license.  To go into details here would be to totally spoil the impact for anyone who hasn’t yet played the game, and I’m not going to do that.  Suffice to say though that the unique talents of some of Batman’s arch enemies come into play throughout the story in some very interesting ways.  Aside from this, I also like how the usual boring old things like collectables actually give you more insight into the background of the characters, because they take the form of patient interview tapes.

Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
The main story will take a decent enough chunk of time to play through, say a dozen hours at least, but the game is so good that you will probably find yourself powering through the game faster than you realise.  Bolstering the length of this title somewhat are 300 Riddler Challenges, which vary from simply finding trophies throughout the world, solving actual riddles and targeting the item that makes up the solution, or destroying a certain amount of Joker teeth.  I didn’t really go out of my way to find and complete these when I played the game, and at the end I had completed 80 of them, so there’s still plenty of scope for completionists to get many more hours out of the game.

Overall: 9 out of 10
Not only is this one of the best super hero games ever made, it is one of the best action games full stop.  Fans of the Bat are going to absolutely love it, and those that haven’t really got into his comics or movies before may well end up converted after spending a night in his cape trying to thwart the latest evil scheme of the Joker and his cronies.  The sequel promises to deliver all that this game has done and more so, by expanding upon the confined space of the Asylum and giving you the whole city as your playground.  Batman will have to go up against many more famous foes such as the Penguin, Mr Freeze and Dr Strange, but he will be helped by Robin and possibly by Catwoman, depending whose she she’s on this time.  It promises to be one of the highlights of this year in gaming despite being surrounded by so many other amazing titles in the schedule.  If the original has passed you buy though, it is still worth picking up as it is an excellently designed game full of atmosphere and fun gameplay.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

RMGB Awards 2011: Part One

Welcome to my selection of the best games that were released during 2011, broken down by format, genre and then some overall awards. It's been a few years since I last did this, mostly because I normally don't play enough new games within a given year to be able to make an informed choice. This year though I was able to buy all the games that I wanted, due to having a nice redundancy payout from my previous employer. However I still didn't have enough time to play all the big games that were released, especially those towards the end of the year, so instead I will just have to include them in the honourable mentions category at the end and try to come back and review them in future.  The awards will be split over two days, with the first covering each individual format plus a few other categories such as Most Disappointing Game, and the second covering the various gaming genre, Most Anticipated Game of 2012, and my actual game of the year. So without further ado, let's get on with the show...

Best Xbox 360 Exclusive
Winner - Forza Motorsport 4
Where Gran Turismo was once the undisputed king of realistic driving games, now the Forza series has stolen the crown without a doubt. Forza 3 was really the game that pushed the series to the heights that it now enjoys, but the fourth entry in the series adds further refinements to the gameplay and the presentation.  Forget the worthless Kinect modes - instead, enjoy a lengthy single player career mode, a gargantuan range of events to race in, and a true online community of racers, tuners and painters. Where in the third game you could progress to level 50 fairly quickly, this time the cap is a massive 150.  What's more you have a separate level for each car manufacturer, which goes up to 50.

Runner Up - Gears of War 3
Whilst the two previous entries in the Gears trilogy were certainly good games, Epic Games raised the bar considerably with the final part of the Marcus Fenix saga.  The single player campaign is much more diverse in both location and colour palette, and each of the major characters from Delta Squad get their own moment in the spotlight before the curtain falls.  The Horde and competitive multiplayer modes have also been significantly overhauled, and a persistent levelling mechanic added across all the various modes. With the promise of significant single player DLC recently coming to fruition with the release of the Raam's Shadow pack, Gears of War 3 cements its place as one of the finest Xbox 360 releases from 2011.

Best PS3 Exclusive

Winner - Uncharted 3
Whilst Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is a very hard act to follow, Naughty Dog have almost but not quite bettered it with their third instalment in the series. This time things get rather personal as we get a glimpse into Nathan Drake's past and his friendship with Sully, before racing an ancient organisation to be the first to discover the mythical Iram of the Pillars. Drakes pride may just cause him or one of his friends their lives, as he journeys around the world, finding clues, solving puzzles and getting into many life threatening situations. This game once again shows the developers technical and storytelling prowess, and not only a fantastic single player campaign, but also a in depth mutliplayer mode and a co-op mode.

Best Wii Exclusive

Winner: Xenoblade Chronicles
The outcry from US gamers who believed that they would never see this game released in their territory was well deserved, as this is a truly remarkable RPG and one of the best games ever released on the Wii. Playing rather like an offline MMO, and delivering hundreds of hours of gameplay, Xenoblade Chronicles also pushes the hardware to the limits of its performance with its huge breathtaking vistas and epic score. Thankfully Nintendo have recently announced that the game will indeed get a US release later in 2012, thus serving as a fitting swansong for the Wii before it is usurped by its successor, the Wii-U.

Runner Up: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
It may have taken until the Wii is on the way out as a viable gaming platform, but Nintendo has finally captured the full potential of motion control with the release of the latest in the Zelda franchise.  Though the graphics are beautiful for the most part, the Wii does occasionally start to show its age, and the MotionPlus controller does have to be recalibrated just often enough to make it become a minor annoyance.  These issues are just enough to knock Skyward Sword down to the runner up position.

Best DS Exclusive

Winner: Solatorobo
Solatorobo is actually the sequel to a much loved yet little played PS1 game called Tail Concerto.  Both games take place in world populated by anthropomorphic heroic canines and antagonistic (or just plain naughty) felines as the travel amongst a chain of floating islands in their airships and robotic walkers.  These games have all the charm of a classic Miyazaki animation such as Castle in the Sky, and are essentially action RPG's that also feature flying sections quite heavily.

Runner Up:  Okami-den
The original Okami was one of the most beautiful games to be released on the PS2, and this DS follow up does a brilliant job of shrinking everything down whilst maintaining same style.  Quite literally, in the case of the wolf god main character Chibiterasu, who is the smaller, cutesified son of Amaterasu from the first game.  The controls are not quite perfect which prevented Okami-den from stealing the top spot, but in every every aspect this is a great action adventure game and easily rivals the Zelda games available for the DS.

Best PSP Exclusive

Winner: Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
I reviewed a game in the Legend of Heroes series in the early days of this blog and gave it quite a high score. In hindsight it wasn't quite as good as I said at the time because it has an appalling translation, mediocre story and unremarkable mechanics.  When you compare this latest entry to that one, the difference is quite astounding. You can still tell they share the same lineage, but XSEED have spent much more care in localising Trails in the Sky, and combined with the charming graphics and excellent soundtrack it all adds up to a fantastic package for fans of playing RPG's on the go. The battles are still a little traditional, but you probably wont care as the rest of the package is just so much fun.

Most Disappointing Game

Winner: Fable III
Compared to Fable II, it just felt that Molyneux and Lionhead Studios had basically phoned in this entry to the series.  Most of the enemies you encounter are reused from the previous game - in fact the whole experience feels like a hand-me-down and not the least bit fresh. I did still quite enjoy playing through it but compared after all the excellent new mechanics of the second game in the series it just didn't do enough to stand out in a year that has seen a staggering amount of top class games released.

Runner Up: L.A. Noire
The new facial animation technology developed by Team Bondi and implemented in L.A. Noire is extremely impressive, and the grimy setting is also a fascinating place to explore, but mechanically this game was not without it's problems.  The main one was the interrogation scenes - you would often press the button to challenge a suspect and expect protagonist Cole Phelps to say one thing, only for him to completely go off on one without warning and basically accuse whoever happens to be in the hot seat of murder.  The other issue I have is the the pacing - the game is entertaining up to a certain point and then it feels like it should have ended, only it keeps going for many hours past this point.  A briefer game would have actually been more enjoyable in my opinion.

Worst Game of the Year

Winner: Hyperdimension Neptunia
I am always keen to try out as many RPG's as I can that are released throughout the year as it is my favourite genre, but boy do I wish I had never tried this one.  Stupid anime characters that barely feature any animation whatsoever explore the most boring random dungeons ever seen, or star in barely animated cut scenes that contain some of the worst dialogue and misguided attempts at humour ever to be included in a video game.  Whatever you do, do not buy this game!

That's it for part one, come back soon for part two which will include genre awards, the most pleasant surprise of the year, and my overall game of the year!