Batman: Arkham Asylum

Typically, demos are a representation of the final game.  Arkham Asylum does away with that logic.  While the demo was a limited affair, the latest Batman game is the best of the lot.  In fact, it’s not even the top Batman or comic book game, but a possible contender for game of the year.

The plot is written by one of Batman’s finest writers, Paul Dini (worked on the animated series and writes for Detective Comics).  Although Batman has captured the Joker, Arkham Asylum is more of a revolving door than a confinement center for Gotham’s most wanted.  Joker has planned a trap that he springs at the game’s start.  Most of the game concerns following Joker’s trail and dealing with whatever diversions he throws at.  Some of those “diversions” are other villians and they range from low-level threats (Victor Zsaz) to some of Batman’s most famous (Poison Ivy, Bane, among others).

In addition to the main plot, the Riddler has laid out a series of puzzles around the island.  Only one puzzle is required to be solved but working them out treats the player to additional challenge maps, character bios, trophies and other unlockables.  The player also earns experience for doing so (they also gain EXP from fighting enemies), which can be used to purchase additional upgrades.  These upgrades range from additional fighting moves, more gadgets and body armor (health increase).

The game felt overly long (not a bad thing) the first playthough, but the main story takes about 10-15 hours to complete.  Not bad but certainly hoping for more.  The game makes up for this by being incredibly fun to play.  Combat is excellent and easy, only requiring the use of three buttons to pull off a variety of moves.  Good thing too, because Batman will often be outnumbered and needs the skills to take on a dozen or so people at once.  The game mixes stealth with combat in a way Assassin’s Creed should take notes from.

The challenge modes offer some replay value, as does the hard difficulty.  Hard lives up to its namesake, as enemies are tougher.  Counter icons are missing so the player will have to watch enemy melee/weapon attacks closely, which can be trying in a mob of ten people.  I haven’t played on the higher difficulty too much yet so more thoughts on that later, perhaps.

The music is appropriate for a Batman game (sounding very Elfman-ish) but the real money is on the voice acting.  Quite a few regulars from the animated series return (notably Mark Hamill’s Joker and Kevin Conroy’s Batman).  While it is a treat to hear the familiar voices again, the acting is a tad overrated.  The quality isn’t as great as it was in the cartoon, which can be attested to a different set-up.  In the animated series, all the voice actors were in one room and able to interact with each other.  For this game, each individual was in a studio reading lines by themselves and the monotony can be heard at times.  It’s not enough to make the game bad, horrible or even average, but it is noticeable.

While the graphics are rendered in a realistic fashion, they look a little off at times.  Batman’s character model, while impressive, suffers from Chris Redfield syndrome of having his biceps bigger than his head.  The envirionments look great but some rooms do look the same.  The other quip with the graphics is that a good deal of the game is spent in detective mode, which gives everything a colored tint (typically blue but sometimes purple or other colors).  Detective mode doubles as x-ray vision but also denies the player of enjoying the game’s graphical eye candy.

Still, these minor issues don’t cheapen the game’s entertainment.  Batman: Arkham Asylum is still a wonderful game and does the Dark Knight justice.  Batman has had multiple games over the years and while some were good, none were the true home-run hit Arkham Asylum is.  This is the definitive Batman game and easily recommended, although it might be a bit too cerebral for the run and gun crowd.   Still, if a developer is looking to implement a game with stealth/combat, look to Batman for inspiration.  8.9 out of 10.

Saints Row 2 DLC

It wasn’t until I got Rock Band that I started enjoying the benefits of the PlayStation Network.  After shelling out money for songs and downloading demos, I figured I’d go through my (thin) PS3 game library to see what all was there.  Assassin’s Creed has nothing and the sports titles are from last year.  Saints Row 2 is the only game that has any downloadable content, so I got the second pack.  The first one was a little too expensive ($10) for silly stuff.  Silly as in “Tera Patrick is a homie and the missions do not serve a plot purpose other than to tie Saints Row’s Ultor to the Red Faction version.”  There were other things like new clothes and haircuts in the first pack as well, but $10 is too steep a price.

And after paying for the second pack (a much more reasonable $7), I’m not sure I’d want to pay for the first set of content.  The missions tie into the plot and lay the groundwork for a sequel, although they were a bit harder than I’d like.  One of the charms of Saints Row is that it isn’t as backbreakingly hard as Grand Theft Auto.  Not so here.  Flying helicopters, while easier, is still a pain in the ass and the sniper rifle was never my favorite weapon.

On the other hand, I’m not sure if it’s the increased difficulty or because I just got done playing San Andreas and had to readjust to the control scheme.  PS3 controllers are the same as PS2 ones and too often I kept hitting the wrong buttons.  For example, tapping X to sprint (how it’s done in Grand Theft Auto) instead of R1.  I didn’t redjust and instead, charged blindly into the storyline.

The other add-ons were kind of lame.  The new vehicles are not customizable, which kinda defeats the purpose of adding them (just about every car can be editied in a variety of ways in Saints Row and its sequel).  The bike and boat (won’t be bothered to remember their names) handled really weird and will never ever be used again.  Another minor gripe is Dex’s character model.  Saints Row 2 butchered Julius (he looks awful compared to the first game) and now Dex can be added to that list.

So what was worth paying for?  The missions, while basic in execution and rather hard, were still violent fun.  The final mission in the pack has your character being attacked by mimes and ninjas (who stealthily stalk the rooftops and appear from smoke bombs).  Hilarious, violent and fun!  Probably wasn’t worth paying $7 for but I’ve spent more money on worse things before.

A fun pack overall, but only recommended for Saints Row 2 completionists.  If there’s still an appetite for more Saints Row 2 after the original is completed, this pack will fulfill although a $7 price tag should raise an eyebrow.

Arkham Asylum Demo Impressions

The problem with their plan is that when you take an insane person to the asylum, you’re just taking him home…the very place he knows best.

One of the advantages of the PS3 is the nice, free online set-up.  I don’t play online multiplayer (three months of Xbox Live after Halo 2’s release was all I needed) so my only interest is downloadable content for games.  Rock Band track packs, extra Saints Row 2 content, a Metal Gear Solid encyclopedia (even though people could just use the Internet, it was free dammit!), and demos for upcoming games.  So when the demo for the upcoming Batman: Arkham Asylum hit the PlayStation Network, it was on my PS3 a few minutes after public release.

In short, it’s not much of a demo but a “midnight snack.”  Aside from the grapple gun, gadgets were absent.  A shame, I was hoping to mess around with the explosive gel shown in the trailers.  With the gadgets missing, the variety of ways to dispose of henchmen did not feel so variable.  The demo was also a lot shorter than I would have liked.  Hopefully, these are not indications of the game’s gameplay/depth (or lack thereof).

Still, it was a fun romp through the asylum.  The freeflowing combat was easy but exciting, although the constant slow-motion might get old.  The voice acting, while a bit off at times, was still great (Batman, Joker and Harley Quinn are all voiced by their animated series’ counterparts).  And despite being gimped by the lack of gadgets, the possible ways to dispose of henchmen were fun, creative and awesome!

While there isn’t much competition, Arkham Asylum is shaping up to be the definitive Batman game.  Most of those games focused on the action and while Arkham Asylum has that, it also captures the shadowy aspect.  There’s more to Batman than his physical prowess.  He’s a criminal predator who strikes fear into his opponents by being able to strike unexpectadely.  Hopefully, the detective aspect is captured as well.

San Andreas Revisited

My PS2 memory card must have went through a similar crisis my GameCube one suffered.  I loaded up San Andreas the other day and noticed all my save data had been erased.  So, I had the “privilege” of starting all the way from the beginning.  It quickly became apparent that San Andreas, while good fun, is definitely overrated.  There are features introduced in Saints Row 1 that it’s hard to imagine they didn’t appear in either follow-up to GTA III.

Such features as the handy ability to re-start a mission after failing.  In San Andreas, if a player dies/gets busted in a mission they respawn at a hospital/prison.  If they don’t die, the player has the fun of driving all the way back to the mission marker to restart the damn thing.  This is not a hard endeavour, but an annoying one that’s compounded by San Andreas’ gigantic game world.  It can take several minutes to get from one location to another. 
Driving through the Badlands/Desert for missions is the definition of tedious.  Yeah, the world and detail put into it is impressive but it does detract from the gameplay when all the player wants to do is progress.

Keep in mind that, unlike Saints Row, the world is not open from the start and must be unlocked via completing missions.  On that note, what’s the point of having an open sandbox game world if the majority of it is going to be fenced off at the beginning?  For a game that teases freedom, it places restrictions and rules so much that there actually is no freedom.  This carries over to the gameplay.

Speaking of gameplay, Grand Theft Auto has always been hard…not hard as “difficult” but “annoying.”  The actual difficulty lies in AI incompetence and awful controls (for the planes/helicopters).  AI incompetence appears when the player needs an NPC to do most of the work.  An example of this is early in the game is where CJ and Smoke have to chase after a group of San Fierro gang members on a train.  CJ drives and Smoke has to shoot them.  The problem is CJ is in no position to help and Smoke can’t aim to save his life.  If the San Fierro guys aren’t dead by a certain point, the mission fails and Smoke berates the player.  “All you had to do was follow the damn train, CJ!”  …Because it’s my fault he missed all those shots.

Whoever green-lighted the control scheme for planes/helicopters should have ran the game through some more playtesting.  These vehicles are a real bitch to fly and worse, learning how to fly them is a requirement.  That’s right, the game locks up and the story progression halts.  At least Zero’s missions (contenders for being the game’s most difficult) have the luxury of being optional…  However, the bad controls aren’t just limited to the planes/choppers.  Being able to switch between targeting enemies is nice but sometimes, I found myself not targeting enemies…  One mission involves going into a plastic poker chip facility and destroying the machines.  All too often, CJ was focusing on the machines and not the guards wielding AKs.  It made a rather moderate mission more annoying, not difficult, to complete.

Despite all those flaws, San Andreas garnered rave reviews.  It’s universally regarded as a near-perfect game (on a 10-point review scale, San Andreas was usually a high 9).  I’d knock it down to high 8-near 9 (the equivalent of a high B).  A fun game that stops being fun on too many missions.  It’s enormous game flaw that it’s unforgivable that Saints Row was the first to implement.  Speaking of Saints Row, it captures GTA’s feel and gameplay better than GTA itself.  Saints Row aims for fun, not for story or graphics.  In games like this, that’s all that really matters.  Who’s interested in the story of Grand Theft Auto anyway?

Year Five

Five years worth of writings that people are lucky to read once in a while.  Depending on how it’s looked at, this is either an accomplishment, exercise in madness or complete waste of time.  The past year has the least amount of entries posted…and is also the one with the least amount of comments (although, it still came close to the previous year’s numbers).  I’d sum up the past year but my inability to write anything interesting should be enough of a statement.  Hopefully, a new year will allow more things to come to mind.

That said, only one minor thing to note about the recent health care debate.  Our government is funny.  According to them, this legislation is so urgent that many will vote on it before they read the bill, just like the stimulus bill earlier this year.  By the same token, Congress is not willing to give up their recess/vacation.  If this legislation is so dire, why not continue working and debate the bill?  If a vacation can’t be postponed, the legislation in question must not be so necessary after all.

These same people also bitch about the length and complexity of the bills they’re required to read.  First off, reading bills is part of the job description.  If Congressmen Conyers didn’t want to read legislation, he should not have applied for the job.  Second, perhaps legislation should not be so bureaucratic.  Bills do originate from Congressmen, after all.  Lastly, what’s the rush?  There’s no point in rushing a bill through the lawmaking process, especially if the lawmakers have not had the time to read it, unless there is something in the bill they don’t want us to see.

Then again, hypocrisy, laziness and deceit are all attributes commonly found in Washington.