Top Video Game of 2009

At the risk of being predictable, I thought late December seemed like a good time to list some of my favorite things of 2009. First up is my favorite video game of the year: Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Available for Xbox 360, PS3 & PC; $50
For Xbox 360, PS3 & PC; $50

Before you spring off your computer chair in outrage, please keep in mind that I am a mere mortal who can’t afford (and doesn’t have time) to play every single great game that comes out. Another disclaimer: I’m a long-time Batman fan.

Then again, maybe my fervor for all things Dark Knight improves my credibility. You have no idea how long I’ve waited to play an actually good Batman game. I’ve played a lot of them, and this is probably the best one since the SNES game based on the animated series. And even that wasn’t really a classic.

So what makes Arkham Asylum different? The production value, for one thing. The story has a great comic book feel, including a plethora of Gotham’s supporting characters and dastardly villains, all while keeping the dark, brooding mood of the recent Chris Nolan movies. In addition, developer Rocksteady tapped the voice cast from the classic ’90s cartoon, including Mark Hamill as the Joker and Kevin Conroy as Batman.  Add in some brooding music and a creepy atmosphere best described as BioShock Lite (in a good way), and you’ve got one heck of an engrossing game.

My biggest fear going into Arkham Asylum was the setting.  An entire game in a prison? I expected to be bored with my surroundings in an hour. However, Rocksteady proved me wrong, stretching the seemingly one-note setting to include monster vines and fear-toxin fantasies. I should also note that the Alcatraz-like prison is massive, rewarding exploration with Riddler trophies hidden throughout the island.

Of course, I was also worried about the gameplay itself.  Previous Batman games have failed mostly due to an overemphasis on hand-to-hand combat and clunky, button-mashing controls. But for Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady opted to go all Prince of Persia / Splinter Cell on us, providing Batman with an arsenal of moves and gadgets to take out criminals with stealth and style.  Oh, and by the way, they got the beat ’em up stuff right too, with an excellent combo system that really captured the smooth, no-nonsense fighting tactics of the caped crusader.

Really, my only complaint about Arkham is the camera system. It’s not terrible, and works most of the time, but it’s so closely zoomed in on Batman that the game world gets a little claustrophobic. I understand that, in most of the movies, Batman couldn’t turn his head without shifting his entire body, but come on! Here’s hoping they get it right in the just-announced sequel.

Even with its (minor) flaws, Arkham Asylum unleashed the fun more than any other video game I played this year. If you haven’t had a chance to visit Joker and his friends yet, I urge you to head up the river immediately.

Stay tuned for my top music picks of 2009.

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