NO ESCAPE, ONLY ASYLUM


   

After many delays, Batman: Arkham Asylumhas finally arrived. Written by long-time Batman comic and cartoon writer, Paul Dini, this original Dark Knight tale might not only go down as the greatest comic book video game to date, but it is my current choice for the 2009 Game of the Year.

The basic premise of the game is that our hero has caught the Joker once again after he broke free to wreak havoc on Gotham. As Batman helps the Arkham guards escort the Joker to his comfy corner cell, the Joker, in a unique haphazard way all his own, breaks free from their grasp and reveals that his true plot was to lure the Dark Knight into his grandest trap yet, an asylum run by the inmates. 

Now the Dark Knight must fight his way through some of his most fearsome foes on their home turf along with a few hundred of Joker's cronies from Blackgate Prison (that just so happened to be transferred to Arkham in time for Joker's "surprise party") as he tries to restore order in the most chaotic situation he has ever been immersed in.

Any Batman fan immediately knows the implications when any story arc will weave its way through Arkham Asylum, never mind an entire video game plot. This is where Batman drops off his degenerate villains after he disrupts their "master plans" to destroy, torment, or conquer Gotham, no matter what they might be. So for the Dark Knight to be surrounded by hundreds of these thugs, lowlifes, and insane super-criminals for an extended period of time, does not bode well for the Caped Crusader as his mind will be tortured just as much as his body.

The look for this game is anything but torture for the player though. The first and most striking aspect of this game is how beautiful it looks. From the gothic architecture of the Old World style buildings of Arkham to the movement of Batman's cape, the graphics for this game are unreal. You could, for a minute, forget you are playing a game and fool yourself into thinking you're watching one of the movies. 

After you examine the looks for a game, the next thing most people notice is how a game sounds. With an orchestral theme worthy of the movies and superb voice acting from many of the same people who voiced the characters from Batman: The Animated Series including Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, Harley Quinn, and, of course, Batman and the Joker and you have the most pleasant audio experience you could hope for from any video game. 

So the peripherals for the game are superb. But what about the gameplay? I can say with full confidence that this was the most engrossing and intense game I have played in a long time. From the FLAWLESS fighting mechanic where you can just string together amazing, free-flowing, bone-crunching combos on thugs to truly stepping into the Dark Knight's boots as you prey on unsuspecting, gun-toting criminals from the shadows and stringing up goons from gargoyles as a sign for others that you are coming for them and no amount of Joker face paint will save them from your righteous vengeance, there is not a more pleasurable gaming experience to be had from any game I've played in the recent past.

Not to mention that the more foes you pummel, the more gadgets and combo moves you can purchase with experience points to give yourself an arsenal truly worthy of Gotham's Guardian. It is a great feeling to take a thug out of a fight permanently by breaking his ankle or dislocating his shoulder with some upgraded counter moves or bringing an armed henchman to his knees from the shadows with a special sonic emitting batarang without him even knowing you were ever there. 

The only weak point the game might have is in replay value. Although it is wonderful to explore every nook and cranny of the massive Arkham Island, once through is really enough to get the full story. There are special collectibles that the Riddler leaves in order to try to test your detective skills, but any decent Batman fan should be able to crack the references rather easily on the first time through. 

There is an extra challenge mode where you can step into the boots of the Dark Knight (and the purple wingtips of the Joker if you pick up the PS3 version) as you try to either pummel as many thugs as you can while building up a high score or sneaking around and taking out as many thugs as stealthily as you can as you race the clock, but they grow stale quickly so the only drawback would be that this game just doesn't give you enough to keep bringing you back for much more.

In the end, the game probably offers a solid 15 hours of gameplay even if you solve all of the Riddler's riddles and the live up to the challenges of the Challenge Mode. The game is a beautifully crafted masterpiece that plays out like an awe-inspiring comic arc. I would've liked more villains to fight aside from Croc, Ivy, Bane, Harley, Zsasz, Scarecrow, and Joker considering their referencing almost 40 villains as you progress through the asylum with special emphasis on Mr. Freeze and Clayface's cells, but I guess that just means we'll have to have a sequel to this spectacular gaming experience. 

Ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the best.

Graphics: 10.0: From little details like battle damage to your batsuit as the game progresses to the way your cape flows as you run across Arkham Island makes Batman: Arkham Asylum the most beautiful game I can remember seeing in a long time.

Audio: 10.0: Bringing back a lot of the original voice talent from Batman: The Animated Series brought back some great memories from my childhood as Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy are the definition of the Joker and Batman. Along with a musical score worthy of a motion picture and the audio couldn't help but bring a smile to my face.

Plot/Plot Development: 9.0: Although the plot was superb and the development of things kept you guessing at every turn, I dock a point because I've seen the "Batman trapped in Arkham" line before, just to a lesser degree. It has never been flushed out like this, but I had flashbacks at certain points of the game to the Knightfall storyline and a few episodes of the cartoon. It was still spectacular to see it portrayed like this though.

Gameplay: 9.5: Only a couple of minor glitches that I can remember if I accidentally swung around a corner too tightly or was forced into a corner by a crowd of thugs. These can be forgiven though considering how smooth the fighting engine is and there is no greater feeling than swooping down from a gargoyle and stringing up a thug as he screams for help.

Replay Value: 5.0: The Riddler collectibles are easy to find, especially as you go back after unlocking certain devices for your utility belt and the Challenge Mode isn't very challenging so this is the only aspect I thought the game lacked in. Batman: Arkham Asylum is very much a one and done kind of game.

Overall (not an average): 9.5: Aside from the replay value, this game is spectacular in every aspect. It is my choice for the 2009 Game of the Year as of right now and I can't stress enough that any video game fan, not just Batman fan, will probably fall in love with the awesomeness of this game. I would've liked more villains for a longer game also, but I'm just being picky.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is out now for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.

-Ray Carsillo

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THE CALL FOR A HERO


   

Five years ago, Cryptic Studios released a game, which many of you might remember, called City of Heroes that intended to give the player the ultimate personal experience of becoming one's own super hero. Once released though, Cryptic realized that no amount of patches would allow them to create the ULTIMATE online superhero experience in that format.

So they returned to the drawing board. Technology advanced, graphics improved, online games became faster, and superheroes evolved. Now, influenced heavily by the popular pencil and paper RPG Champions, Cryptic has released their MMORPG masterpiece.

Champions Online gives you the opportunity to immerse yourself in a superhero world on a scale unheard of in MMORPGs. Not only is the game itself massive, but the options are nearly endless when creating your superhero.

This might actually be the best part of the game, especially as you unlock more costume pieces. I spent close to two hours creating the look of my superhero and my hero is far and away one of the more simple characters you'll see in the fictional world of Champions Online. Mixing color schemes, utility belts, capes, cowls, boots, gloves, hundreds of emblems, and every other possible combination you could think of to make your hero. Not to mention several species choices, as well. 

Before choosing your hero's look, the most important aspect of the game is choosing your power set. From martial arts to archery to elements like fire and ice, you can customize your heroes' powers like never before, including mixing and matching! You could have an archer that breathes fire or a martial artist that also carries a shotgun for good measure. The possibilities are near endless!

After creating your hero and his back story (optional), you're then immersed in a series of basic tutorial missions that will probably take you close to an hour alone to completely blow through before you start traveling to different locales across the globe as you try to quell a larger, worldwide threat. 

Now, I admit that I'm only up to about a Level 13, and I have only gotten through the first two locales, but I realize I have only just to begun to scratch the surface of this game's story. In order to help get a more in-depth analysis of the parts that I probably won't be able to reach before my 90-day press kit runs out, I spoke with Executive Producer forChampions Online and MMORPG legend for his work on World of Warcraft and the Diabloseries, Bill Roper.

  
  

Ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the best.

Graphics: 7.5: For a MMORPG, considering how many players are involved at once and since it does have a comic book theme, the cel-shading was a perfect choice for the graphics, but it is still a drain on your PC unless you have a top of the line gaming PC.

Audio: 8.0: The music can get a little repetitive after a while, especially considering how easily you can become addicted to MMORPGs, this included, is really the only draw back. 

Plot/Plot Development: 10.0: A complex plot that encompasses several different locales in a massive sandbox world will keep you engrossed as you attempt to find every secret, perk, and bonus mission as you try to save the world and become the ultimate hero.

Gameplay: 7.0: Simple gameplay that is easy to just pick up and play gives this a solid score. A good amount of lag on servers that aren't being stressed by the true masses yet though knocks this score down considerably.

Replay Value: 10.0: The true value of an MMORPG is how much it offers you to keep coming back. The reason why I let a lot of my subscriptions run out on MMORPGs is because most of the time I get so addicted that my already abysmal social life is put even further on hold. This game does the same. My entire weekend flew by in the blink of eye as I devoted great portions of my Saturday and Sunday to the computer screen. Add-in an arena system that you gain access to at level 10 to battle other heroes and test your mettle and this game will easily occupy your time for a long while.

Overall (not an average): 8.5: This game is easily the most pure super hero fix you can find out there and will make you forget everything in the real world as you will get pulled in with believable characters, awesome powers, and an original, compelling storyline. If you are a fan of superheroes or MMORPGs, then this game is a must have on September 1st via ChampionsOnline.com.

Also, a very special thanks to my editor Joseph Layton for letting me use his gaming computer, otherwise this review would not be possible.

Review computer specs (incase you're curious):
OS: Windows XP SP3
CPU: Intel Pentium D 3.2 Ghz
Memory: 2GB RAM
Graphics: NVidia GeForce 9800GT
Sound: Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Extreme

-Ray Carsillo

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