Despite year-over-year sales declines putting a recession-fueled wet blanket over the entire industry, video games are still a big business, and a hit-driven one at that. Hence, much of the attention falls on a handful of commercial superstars each year, from Halo 3 to The Beatles: Rock Band, leaving plenty of worthy games languishing in obscurity.
That's why it's pleasing to see critics and gamers alike praise Warner's Batman: Arkham Asylum, a new action/adventure game about the famed caped crusader. Earlier this year, during the annual E3 video game industry trade show, we said:
Perhaps because it started life as a lower-profile project, this game was able to develop without a movie release deadline to hit or a hard holiday season shipping date. What we've ended up with is one of the best games we've played this year, with appeal that goes far beyond comic book fans.
Now that we've played the final retail version of the game, releasing on August 25, our initial impressions have been confirmed, and we're willing to say this may be the best overall gaming experience of 2009. CNET's sister site Metacritic.com says the early reviews average out to a score of 91 out of 100, which the site labels as "universal acclaim."
With decent (for a video game) scripting and voice acting, and a grim, detailed setting on Gotham's spooky Arkham Island, we concur with several reviewers who have compared the game to 2007's BioShock, another critically hailed title that mixed talky character development with brutal action in a vaguely dystopian setting. The plot is a typically McGuffin-filled story about the Joker taking over the secure mental hospital that houses both him and a rogues gallery of other super-villains - naturally requiring Batman to set things right.
The real secret to Arkham Asylum's appeal is something too many games ignore -- variety. Instead of setting up a basic gameplay mechanic and repeating it until your thumbs fall off, this game jumps from hand-to-hand combat to stealth to detective work (using some kind of highly advanced Bat-goggles that can track DNA and fingerprints, as well as see through walls). The net result is that you never spend too long doing one thing, which helps fend off boredom.
To be fair, the game's deceivingly open environments mask that it is a largely linear experience, funneling Batman from one challenge to the next through the use of conveniently locked doors and new Bat-gadgets that are doled out as the game progresses. Also, some of the dialog can be hokey, and if like us, you lack a deep knowledge of Bat-lore, many of the references and cameos will go over your head. Still, it's a tribute to the game's strengths that you don't need to much beyond a passing familiarity Batman's movie or TV incarnations or appreciate this game's excellent pacing and production values.