Monday, September 7, 2009

FEATURE - why Arkham Asylum is such a big deal.

If you choose to include the trailing edge of August (which you should, I reckon), Batman: Arkham Asylum is definitely the Game of the Summer. It got a lot of good press prior to release, but absolutely exploded in importance once people were able to go hands-on with the full game and establish its remarkable quality. Not remarkable by triple-A game standards, of course - but everyone was still floored by Arkham Asylum, and if one can consider the gaming community as a very nerdy city, the new Batman game was the talk of the town.

There have been great third-person action games this year - Resident Evil 5 and inFamous come to mind first - but it's been Arkham Asylum that seized most keenly upon our collective imaginations. So if it's merely as good as other great games like inFamous and RE5, why is it such a big goddamned deal? Well, for two-and-a-half reasons.

(1) - every other comic-book hero game ever.

This is the no-brainer. Licensed super hero games suck, licensed movie games suck, and have sucked ever since E.T. established the standard of such game sucking back in 1982. There are blips on the radar, of course. Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay was absolutely remarkable when it appeared, but this was the high point for many years before and after.

Recently, the best licensed games have been Wanted: Weapons of Fate (which was merely "okay", and never more) and the God of War clone X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I never got my hands on the full version of Wolverine, but reviewers seem to echo the impression the demo left on me - Wolverine is well-realized, but the title is merely an average button-mashing brawler.

No, for the most part licensed games - particularly comic book hero games - are abysmal. I'm looking at you, Iron Man and Incredible Hulk!

But Arkham Asylum isn't just a decent game or a very-good game. It's bloody great - which is absolutely stunning, thanks to the company it keeps. Every other licensed game will now be judged by the standard it has set.

(1.5) - I'm Batman.

Wolverine is wicked-cool, Spider Man does whatever a spider can, and Superman's just super, but the fact is Batman is the greatest superhero ever. He's not super because of a freakish mutation or his alien heritage - he's just a man who became super due to his own iron will, which has driven him to attain peak physical perfection and the razor-sharp intellect of the world's greatest detective.

He's surely got the cool-factor going on. Batman is James Bond without the need for politeness. He drives a car so boggling it would melt an Aston Martin as it tore by, he's a billionaire playboy who looks great in a suit, but when it comes down to it Batman is just a dude in performance underwear with wonderful toys - and because of that, he's more of an everyman than bungling schoolboy Peter Parker could ever be. He's us, more than any other.

So Batman isn't just a superhero. He is the best superhero. The one that most captures our imaginations, the one with the world we most love to lose ourselves in, the one superhero none of us can stand to see get butchered in any media - video game or otherwise.

So when a title comes along that not only does him justice, but does it near-perfectly? Well, that's bloody remarkable, and - like Batman himself - definitely to be celebrated.


(2) - Rocksteady who?

This is the most-ignored and (to me) most mysterious part of the Arkham Asylum equation. Who the hell are Rocksteady Studios and how in the world did they get the Batman license?

Prior to Batman, Rocksteady had only ever made one game. That was Urban Chaos: Riot Response, back in '02 on the PS2 and Xbox. Riot Response was an average first-person shooter with a few good ideas - a decent game - but nothing that would really establish Rocksteady as a world-class developer capable of doing the Batman name justice.

I've heard (unsubstantiated) murmurs that Rocksteady were putting together an entirely different game when the opportunity to make Arkham Asylum came along, and they applied what that game was going to be into what Arkham Asylum became.

I suppose how Rocksteady came into possession of the Batman license isn't nearly as important as what they did with it - they blew the gaming world's socks off.

Arkham Asylum has done for Rocksteady what Dead Space did for EA Redwood Shores, what God of War did for Sony Santa Monica. No longer are they just another game studio - they're the crew that made Arkham Asylum. Future games from the studio will be judged by this standard.

Future games about comic book heroes will be judged by this new standard.

Batman games will never be excused for being crappy again.

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