Batman has never had much luck in the world of video games. From his impossible 8-bit adventures to the broken last-gen efforts, the interactive exploits of the Caped Crusader have left many Bat-fans sore. Rocksteady Games realized this and decided to enlist the talents of Paul Dini, who brought us the much-heralded Batman: The Animated Series, to craft their game’s scenario. The result is Batman: Arkham Asylum, and I recently got to take a look at this dark, gritty action game to see if it will finally right the many wrongs left behind by other titles.
The game begins with Batman escorting the Joker to Arkham Asylum, a maximum-security facility packed to the brim with supervillains and psychopaths. While being transported to his cell, the dastardly clown initiates a plan that frees the prison’s inhabitants and traps Batman among dozens of criminals that he helped put in jail. From this point on, Arkham is left completely open for you to explore, as the game offers a non-linear progression through a rogue’s gallery of Batman’s most dangerous adversaries.
Arkham Asylum offers three primary modes of play, each of which can be utilized at any time. Investigation calls upon Batman’s detective skills and lets you use special view modes to search for evidence, find hidden areas, locate key items, see enemy locations and determine what risks surround you. FreeFlow Combat is the core action element of the game, and has you using fists, combos and gadgets to take down up to fifteen enemies at a time. Predator is a stealth-based mechanic that allows you to use fear and intimidation to pick apart unsuspecting thugs. After using your grappling hook to reach an aerial viewpoint, you can deploy some of your wonderful toys, such as player-controller Batarangs, explosive gel and a claw that grabs criminals and pulls them up into the darkness, to pick off opponents and scare the remaining goons to the point that they are too distracted to notice you sneaking behind them.
Ideally, you would use Investigation for puzzles and to discover secret items, FreeFlow Combat against foes that are unarmed and Predator against bad guys who have weapons that would overpower you in a fight. They showed us a room that offered the following choices: you could hang from the ceiling and grab enemies as they pass, crawl underneath the floorboards and avoid the patrolmen entirely or run at your attackers head-on to start a brawl that could be difficult to win. The world was built to let players choose which of the above they want to use and when they want to use them, forcing gamers to analyze their surroundings and make a tactical choice before acting.
If you decide that sneaking isn’t your thing, the hand-to-hand combat of Batman: Arkham Asylum should provide some solid thrills. The game starts you out with a number of basic attacks that are fairly easy to pull off. As you advance, you gain experience points that can be used to buy new moves, weapons and abilities. When surrounded by threats, Batman bounces from one opponent to the next delivering brutal, bone-crunching shots to each, and the developer playing it for us made it all look effortless. The game’s health system only comes into play during these battles, and recharges automatically after the last criminal’s face hits the floor. If you happen to die during one of these encounters, the Joker will appear and ridicule you on the “Game Over” screen, offering some added incentive to keep yourself alive.
The graphics of Arkham Asylum are powered by Unreal Engine 3, offering stunningly realistic detail meshed with comic-inspired visual touches. The developer’s have added their own unique spin on the universe by redesigning the looks of several iconic characters. Most notable of these is the ever popular Harley Quinn, whose revamped outfit looks like a gothic cross between a nurse’s dress and school girl attire. We weren’t shown any of the other villains in the game, but were assured that many of Gotham’s most prominent evildoers would appear in one form or another.
The character models are extremely detailed, as little touches–like the scars on the body of Zsasz, each Arkham guard having an individual personality and back story mapped out by Dini, and the fact that the thugs are still visibly breathing once they have been knocked down–really add a lot of immersive atmosphere to the experience. As previously reported, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill will be voicing Batman and the Joker just as they did in The Animated Series, and both are just as perfect for their roles now as they have ever been.
While my demo was brief, the gameplay that I was shown from Arkham Asylum left me confident that Rocksteady will finally deliver a worthy Batman title. The fighting looked fun, the stealth mechanics were unique and the detective work should provide fans with enough reason to explore every last corner of the asylum. The developer confirmed that they plan to offer a pre-release demo, through no timeframe was given for its arrival. I also asked if any of the included Batsuits would have nipples, but the laughter that followed leaves me to believe that they won’t. : (
Batman: Arkham Asylum ships this summer on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.