LTTP: Batman: Arkham Asylum

This game has blown me away. Whatever Rocksteady does next, I’m already interested.

I know I’m only a month or so removed from the game’s release, but that seems like a lifetime these days, when my entire friends list has already deserted this for Forza 3 and FIFA 10. We’re a fickle bunch with short attention spans, us gamers.

But anyway, my initial statement is an accurate summation of how this game makes me feel, now that I’ve got around to playing it as a belated birthday present. I remember saying, back when Zelda: Twilight Princess came out, that it was the first time in ages that I’d found myself losing track of time as I played, and Arkham Asylum has been one of the few games since to have done the same thing. The other day I sat down to play, intending to do so for an hour or so, and ended up stopping four hours later. The next day, five and a half. I started at 7:00 and literally the next time I looked at the clock it was 11:30. It’s scary when it happens, but it’s also the mark of a very, very good game.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

A lot of this game’s inspirations are obvious, but Rocksteady has certainly picked the right ones. Arkham has that same worn-down and dirty – not to mention suspiciously unsanitary for a hospital – look of BioShock’s Rapture, as well as discarded audio diaries to fill in the back stories; it plays to the strengths of Unreal Engine 3 – it’s really one of the best-looking non-Epic uses of the tech, with gorgeous character models and brilliant animation – by making its buildings and architecture look like they come directly from Sera, but still differentiates itself by looking like a Batman game.

Rocksteady’s carefully straddled the line between accessibility and fan service, presenting an almost-complete who’s who of Batman villains – Batman’s no killing policy and the ending leave the possibility for sequels open, of course – with hundreds of nods to famous characters and events in Batman’s past to be found, mainly through the Riddler’s challenges. I’m a bit of a Batman fan and I don’t recall anything that will cause the fanboys to lose too much sleep through the developer taking liberties, and there are a few elements that I know are drawn from the comics but drew confused rolled eyes from laymen who assumed that it was Rocksteady fabricating things.

Coming at the game late on, I’d heard about the saggy portion as the game approached its climax, but I didn’t find it problematic at all. The game moves at a fantastic pace, bringing in new areas and gameplay elements constantly, doing a superb job of giving you new and interesting things to do. A list of gadgets and new moves meant that stealthy confrontations with multiple enemies was something I looked forward to, because the game does a stunning job of making you feel like Batman, using your skills to isolate an enemy and take him down silently as his friends are made ever more anxious and jumpy – look at the scene in Batman Begins when he clears a room of thugs by darting around and hiding in the rafters and imagine how badass it feels to do it yourself.

And the aforementioned all-star cast of the Dark Knight’s nemeses is certainly done justice. Only a couple really strike me as feeling like your typical boss battles, and the rest are of extremely high quality. Without spoiling anything, the encounters with Scarecrow are stunningly well done, and I have high hopes that he’ll be back in the next one.

I heartily recommend this game. It’s running high in my provisional GOTY list and while it’ll do well to top the one to beat, it’s definitely one of this year’s best adventures.

Uncharted 2: Wow…

Uncharted 2 does a lot of impressive things, but what gets me more than anything is quite how old it makes something as beautiful as the original game. If you have both I encourage you to compare, say, the first game’s forest sequences to the sequel’s Borneo rainforest, and then bear in mind that this is just a short sequence, and within a few hours you’ll hit the mountains of Tibet, Istanbul, Kathmandu… and some that it would spoil it to tell about. Even in that short sequence it wipes the floor with the first game, let alone the competition, and still manages far more variety in its environments.

Uncharted 2

In short, I’ll be very surprised if we see many – or any, in fact – console games this generation that look better than this. The gloriously animated and acted cut-scenes are up to the standard of Heavenly Sword, and unlike that, this has a good story and a good game to back it up.

Aurally, as well, it’s a masterpiece. This is really the first game that I’ve bought since my new sound system that can output uncompressed PCM sound, and it’s done everything from shake the walls to making me think that a knock on the door from the rear speaker was real. Little things like rain, and big things like debris from explosions landing all around you just all sound crystal clear and so well defined. It manages subtlety and giving the sub a workout with equal aplomb.

Don’t think it’s also just an AV upgrade, though, because Naughty Dog’s done a fabulous job of tightening up the few rough edges that the first had, gameplay-wise. Uncharted fell victim to that early PS3 problem of having to somehow justify the Sixaxis’ motion control through superfluous and gimmicky use, from the annoying but fairly sensible use of it when balancing across logs, undermined somewhat by the baffling use of motion control to aim grenades, and both are thankfully excised here. Hand-to-hand combat is less of an uphill struggle, too, as I can actually now perform combos.

If I have a complaint, it’s that a lot of the environment is simply window-dressing and completely non-interactive, and as a result you can frequently find ledges and platforms that look climbable but actually aren’t. After a couple of hours, once you learn the game’s visual vocabulary, you can tell at a glance, but as it’s neither as obvious as, say, Mirror’s Edge’s red highlights – not saying that’s a bad thing, obviously – nor as organically clear as the best Prince of Persia games. It might have been a bit less subtle about the highlighting of interactive objects early on, as I’m not the only one who’s been overlooking things in the opening stages, and late on, in the mountains, there were more than a couple of moments where I fell a couple of feet to my death because that platform wasn’t meant to be jumped on.

But regardless, is this an early contender for game of the year? Certainly. I’m struggling to see anything that can come close at the moment.

Best News Ever

How could I forget to make a post about this? It’s not exactly Shenmue III, but the confirmation that Ryo Hazuki will be making an appearance in the upcoming Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, his first in-game appearance since Shenmue II on the Xbox in 2002, is the next best thing.

Ryo Hazuki in Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing

What’s weird is that back when the game was first unveiled I was going around making jokes about this, suggesting that Ryo and his forklift – as well as the currently unconfirmed New Yokosuka Harbor race track – would be a perfect little acknowledgement of the Shenmue series’ not inconsiderable cult following. This would have the dual benefit of also raising the profile of the series again and forcing Sega to update the Ryo Hazuki character model for the current generation, which is surely half the work of Shenmue III done.

And that’s only what’s gone and happened. The people behind it are obviously savvy enough to know that this game has a significant following, as your average character wouldn’t command such fanfare and such a self-referential announcement – “He shall appear from a far eastern land across the sea, a young man who has yet to know his potential… And he’ll be driving a badass motorcycle” – but baby steps, right?

But yeah, it’s not quite what we’re looking for, but I’m almost ashamed to admit that it’s enough to make this a probable purchase on day one, if only to complete the collection.