I know I've been remiss in my review duties. Can't be helped, the day job comes first. At any rate, I've got a backlog of games I need to review, and first up to bat (no put intended) is Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Now, I have to say I didn't have high hopes for this game, especially since it was hyped so much and usually hype is an indicator such that the quality of a game is inversely proportional to the quantity of hype it receives. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised to see this law broken. Not to jump to the end of the review early or anything, but it's my opinion that Batman: Arkham Asylum is probably the best game of 2009.
It just gets so much right. First, the treatment of the Batman intellectual property is spot on - the mood and atmosphere are just the proper mixture of grimdark and badassery. The graphics are excellent and yet still high framerate, with lots of little artistic touches such as the progressive "roughing up" of the batsuit as the game continues.
The sound, the music, ambiance and voice acting are absolute aces - especially the voice acting. They've gotten the voice actors from the best and latest iterations of the animated DC universe to voice their characters - Kevin Conroy has been the voice of the Batman since 1993, same with Arleen Sorkin for Harley Quinn, and of course Mark Hamill reprises his role of the Best Joker Ever (though I have to say Heath Ledger did come close). Throw in heavy hitters like Steve Blum (the guy is damn near everywhere, and for good reason), Tom Kane and even Adrienne freakin Barbeau, and you have a real auditory treat.
But most importantly, the game itself is fun as hell. Don't listen to the people who whine about the action being repetitive... these people would complain about a flight simulator being repetitive because you never get out of the plane. The game mostly consists of combinations of stealth and combat sequences with some climbing and jumping mixed in. There's also a secondary "riddler" line of objectives for those who want an added challenge or just have a completionist streak in them.
It's usually the case where good stealth games have bad combat sequences and vice versa, but what makes B:AA really shine is that it does both pretty well. Both stealth and fighting ability are important - you need stealth because Batman, who refuses to use firearms himself of course, would get mown down by multiple bad guys with machine guns, but combat is also important for when there's nowhere to hide and 5 thugs with pipes and chains come charging at you. In many cases if you do it just right, it'll be a movie perfect scene of the bad guys wandering the halls and catwalks with Batman taking out the last one in line again and again, with the remaining baddies getting ever more freaked out as they find their unconscious comrades lying on the floor or suspended from the ceiling. There's also permutations in many areas that make it more challenging. For example, in some areas, the baddies wear special collars that monitor their heart rate so that when they're rendered unconscious the collar makes a lot of noise, bringing everybody else running.
Defeating enemies and completing objectives gets you experience, which then in turn can be used to buy upgrades to Batman's equipment or add special moves to his fighting. You'll end up getting all the upgrades and abilities well before the end of the game, but the progression does add to the playing experience. Examples of such upgrades are better armor in the batsuit (giving you a larger health bar), the ability to throw multiple batarangs, etc.
As you progress through the plot, particularly noteworthy fights and scenarios get added to a "challenge mode" where you can revisit them to try and chase the "perfect run" through them, racking up seamless combos in massive brawls, or eliminating enemies stealthily and in the most entertaining ways the computer can request (such as yanking them off catwalks with the batclaw, or exploding weakened structures around them, etc).
The majority of the rogue's gallery from the batman comics are included, many having their own subsections of the game for you to navigate. The Scarecrow's section is especially well done.
No game is absolutely perfect, but the gripes about this game are small and few. Some of the ragdoll physics look a little stiff and unnatural, some of the "bat-vision" attachments are a little gimmicky, and if you want to collect all of the little trophies and secrets it involves a whole lot of doubling back through areas you've done already, sometimes more than once.
But on the whole, the game is definitely a classic and a keeper, to be revisited often. It's been a long time since I've been firm in giving an A+ to a game, but Batman: Arkham Asylum has definitely earned it.