“This isn’t one of those in-game pre-rendered movies, is it?” As Batman: Arkham Asylum played on the screen, a Game Night attendee demanded answers. I couldn’t fault him for questioning the graphics’ validity. Videogame companies notoriously employ smoke, mirrors, and feature film-quality 3D animation to mislead consumers into buying a product that can, in no way, live up to such a high visual precedent. In truth, it’s my fault I was caught off guard by the question. I should’ve expected the interrogator’s response. I often ask the same exact question (Thanks, Killzone 2!).
Batman doesn’t need in-game movies. The title immerses the player in the Bat-experience without them. The cinematic encounters aren’t observed, like in some “Final” titles, they’re played. Developer Rocksteady shows players this almost immediately during the lengthy introduction of escorting the Joker into the depths of Arkham. As many of us know, this kind of medium interactivity isn’t new.
Cutting to a computer-generated or, heaven forbid, full motion video clip during an interactive game can segment the experience. In the world the player inhabits, he or she can move the protagonist around and interact with various objects and people. The boundaries are known, if only somewhat, here, and the objects are, in a way, tangible. But the world the clip inhabits might be entirely different, and potentially occupied by a similar, but bizarro-ish protagonist who possesses the capability to make decisions contradicting, or slightly off, from those made by the player. We assume they’re the same, because continuity and what games have taught us throughout years tell us, but we really don’t know. Think of it this way, you know the properties of an orange when holding it – the pleasant smell of the citrus flavors, the round and sometimes ovular shape, and the smooth but bumpy texture – but if all you know of an orange is what you’ve seen in a picture, then you can only assume. The power of a first-hand experience must never be underestimated.
Since this is a licensed title, it’s more vital than normal that the player feels like Batman (we all expect certain things from the Dark Knight). Through smart, and extremely well-designed gameplay mechanics, Rocksteady achieves this. Next, it’s up to the visuals to do their part (no sense in creating elaborate mechanics for Batsy Watsy if he looks and moves like a black tin can wearing a cape). Spoiler: The art department proved themselves as capable as the gameplay guys (and gals?). Arkham Asylum can hang with the biggest of visual baddies (not including the great emperor Crysis), in lighting, shadows, and raw pixel count. It’s really a beautiful game, and even better looking on the PC, provided you have the necessary setup.
As I said in my other Arkham Asylum-related article, the game includes added support for NVIDIA’s PhysX technology (“a proprietary realtime physics engine middleware software development kit). Since I possess a capable computer, I figured I’d bite, and see what kind of improvements this flaunted technology offered.
The difference is staggering. As the HardOCP folks say in their review of the title, “… there is absolutely a graphical effects payoff in Batman: Arkham Asylum.”
There’s more stuff occupying the floors, shelves, and hallways of the asylum and its outlying grounds when PhysX are cranked up to 11. Depending on where you are in the game, this can include more papers, tin cans, rubble, and fog. At normal and low physics settings, these materials are less present, or sometimes, not even included. Adding an additional dozen cans to an inconspicuous corner might not seem like a big deal, but it is. Think of it as the best way out of the environmental uncanny valley – the more realistic things the greater the possibility for the little things to make something seem unreal.
But there’s a cost to this, literally. PhysX support isn’t exactly cheap. As HardOCP notes:
“NVIDIA has told us a number of times that the best “bang for the buck” for a dedicated video card for PhysX is the GeForce 9800 GTX+, also known as G92, also known as 8800 GTS 512, also known as GTS 250.”
NVIDIA’s essentially saying “get two graphics cards” to run PhysX. While this isn’t necessary, the alternative, one really good card, is almost as expensive. If you want full support for these advanced features, and additional graphics capabilities such as anti-aliasing, get ready to spend around $300.
Before you console kids point and laugh at the price, remember how much you paid for your PS3 at launch. Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Oh, and even without these fancy doohickies, Arkham still looks better on the PC. And to make that happen, you don’t need a $300 card. Once again, check HardOCP’s excellent breakdown for more details.
If you have a capable computer, a PlayStation 3, and/or Xbox 360, there’s no reason to pick up either console version. Arkham on the PC looks better, can be played using a controller, can be modded, includes Xbox LIVE support, and is $10 cheaper. This is undoubtedly one of the best titles of the year. Play it the best way. Play it on the PC.