2009 Silicon Sasquatch Game of the Year Awards: #1
#1. Batman: Arkham Asylum
August -- Windows, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Surprised? We were too.
Out of the pitch-black abyss known as videogame development comes a blazing inferno of genius from Rocksteady Studios, an unknown developer with some kind of hidden power (like a Pokémon, or a Dragon Ball character) to shame the accomplishments of more established developers' games featuring spandex-wearing protagonists. Arkham Asylum succeeds where so many other similar games failed, and we don't just mean other Batman titles (of which there are many, many bad ones).
It would be easy to toss Rocksteady's title the trophy for Game of the Year just because it's the greatest Batman game ever, but that's being short-sighted. Arkham Asylum instead deserves the honor because it feverishly respects its source material while openly embracing the strengths of the other forms of media Batman has been in during the franchise's 70-plus years of pop culture history.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is fantastic on so many levels that it's a difficult assignment to condense its strengths into a limited framework. I say that not to entice pity, but to be entirely truthful in my desire to write another 2,300-word review about the Batman experience. It's that good.
Could it be the graphics that make it work? Those help, sure, but that's not where the heart of the game is. The core of the Arkham Asylum experience comes to life via the mechanisms required to control Batman as a stealthy martial artist in complete control of his environment. Detective Mode is pure Batman, and it influences the decisions of the player both in and out of combat. Batman's gadgets are another well-implemented aspect of the character, and each is utilized wonderfully during the game.
Never before has inhabiting the world of a superhero translated so flawlessly from the screen to the player. Combat is absolutely mind-blowing. Who knew that the clumsy button-mashing mechanic favored in other action titles could be refined into a fulfilling gameplay feature? Fighting as Batman is both fluid and logical: any mistakes aren't the game's fault -- they're the player's, and it's easy to learn from those errors. I've always struggled with other action titles, specifically God of War, because I felt obligated to perform perfect combos to be more like Kratos -- unfortunately I used the same few attacks in excess because the game never rewarded me for doing otherwise. Conversely, Arkham Asylum is revolutionary for its dismantling of the digital platitudes of action game combat. Rocksteady chose to make combat an event that can be adapted to as newer, more dangerous problems arise. So instead of relying on reflexes and twitch gameplay to provide an exciting fighting sequence, Arkham Asylum educates its players about prioritized incapacitation. Each time I fought one of the Joker's goons, I believed I was controlling a seasoned martial artist who thinks on his feet as a battle situation changes.
In regards to the presentation, Rocksteady's translation of Batman to a videogame looks painfully easy. Arkham Asylum just can't help but impress with its loving attention to detail. This is the Dark Knight alive in a way that putting a living human in a rubber suit can't fully accomplish. Seeing and feeling the weight of Bruce Wayne in his suit as he glides through the air was remarkable – the first time I saw it in motion it brought a smile to my face. Smaller details like the tearing of Batman's suit during his night in Arkham bring a real-time feel to the experiences of Batman. Think of how the character has been portrayed before -- as a disjointed assembly of specific moments and actions. In the films Batman is only shown during the most important elements of the plot, sometimes months after the last major event (i.e., Bruce Wayne's training with Ra's al Ghul then his arrival in Gotham in Batman Begins). In the comics, narratives are moved along with "Meanwhile..." types of editorial devices to utilize page space economically. But in Arkham Asylum, everything is happening to Batman as the player sees it -- like when I watched Batman's cape rip in real time. For the first time the character seems both plausible and, more importantly, human.
This game is the future of the superhero software genre, and other developers can learn a lot from it. Arkham Asylum tells us that comic fans don't just want 3D models of their 2D favorites: they want to feel the world of the characters, to understand in some way what it's like to be those heroes. No one watching the movies or reading the comics will feel like they're Batman, but playing Arkham Asylum actually enables the player to become the Dark Knight...if it wasn't for their lack of billions of dollars and a loving British butler.
In the year 2009 there were almost too many good titles released, and many that could sit comfortably at the top of our list. That being said, our hats go off to Rocksteady for believing in its work and the medium, and releasing a title that doesn't settle for less than perfection.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is our 2009 Game of the Year because it's fun, intelligent and groundbreaking in a way that surprised all of us here at Silicon Sasquatch. Who would have thought that a superhero title could do so well for itself?
In this case, we're thrilled to have our skepticism batarang-ed into optimism. -- Aaron Thayer