Batman: Arkham Asylum Hands-On Preview

Behold Batman. No, not just any Batman. Eidos is bringing us the dark, gritty, detective Batman that resurfaced in the 80s thanks to Frank Miller, was carried into the 90s by The Animated Series, and epitomized by Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan in the recent film series. The character may be well known to the general public, but after numerous less-than-stellar video games, the Dark Knight’s digital adventures have remained as looked down upon as the ones that have starred Superman. Eidos has already made some lofty statements for Batman: Arkham Asylum, such as Jon Brooke’s lunacy that the still unfinished game is “as close to perfect as we’ve [Eidos ] ever come.” Shortly after that showing of hyperbole, the title was delayed to this fall for additional "polish." However, it would seem as if this paid off, as the E3 demo that I played was already showing some spit shine.

It’s quite difficult to keep a release of this magnitude completely under wraps. No matter how tight-lipped PR remains or how painful the NDA penalties are, details were bound to get out eventually. Before Eidos even sent a team to the states to prep for E3, the gaming public already knew a few key things. First off, Paul Dini–one of the minds behind Lost, Batman: TAS, Justice League, etc–penned the story of Arkham Asylum. We follow that up with knowledge that a majority of The Animated Series’ cast would reprise their roles (Kevin Conroy as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Mark Hamill as Joker, and Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn) for the video game, and that DC artists contributed concept art for the title. From the get go, all things seemed to be lining up for what could be the best Batman game ever, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Nearly half of the Eidos booth was dedicated to the Caped Crusader, as was a healthy chunk of friendly PR people. There were two separate demo presentations made available, both with their own charms. The first unit that I got my hands on featured the opening level of the title that we have seen in trailers and countless screenshots to date. Rather than passive viewing, I finally got my hands on a working controller. Bliss.

While I was busy gawking at the beautifully atmospheric visuals, dark lighting, and various technological effects, Batman was quickly swarmed by a band of thugs recently released from their cells. Fighting them off came easily, even though I was given absolutely no guidance from the outset. A simple button press paired with the appropriate direction sent Batman off to smash someone’s face in ways most foul and punishing. The Batman dispatched his enemies using fanciful methods before gracefully moving onto the next inmate, complete with slow-motion animations for the finishing moves. During the scuffle, a combo meter climbed higher resulting in more XP for the character, teasing me with an abstract measure of my bone-crushing abilities. The collected XP isn’t for leveling purposes, but to unlock additional combat moves or to upgrade the all encompassing Batsuit.

You may be tempted to battle it out with all of Arkham’s miscreants thanks to the sexy animations, but Batman is supposed to be more of a master of stealth than a brawler. These attributes were not forgotten by the devs, as players are given a choice of what they wish to do. Gamers can go in for close fisticuffs, battle it out using various gadgets, or stalk prey with the aid of overpriced toys like the visors (X-Ray, heat, etc). Using a variety of methods, Batman can overcome the insurmountable odds inside Arkham in a handful of unique–although not drastically different–ways. Take the high road and pounce upon your enemies on one level, stalk them with silent stealth knockouts the next, or throw bows at the deviants to make them stay down. With the story forcing you to backtrack, variety will truly be the spice of life.

The second demo available to show goers let you play as the main antagonist, Joker. The Joker remains exclusive to the PS3 version "for the life of the product" according to the friendly rep, so don’t hold your breath for Xbox 360 or PC DLC. Despite the fact that the Clown Prince of Crime is locked to the auxillary Challenge mode, Rocksteady spent a considerable amount of time on his design. Gorgeously crafted by the folks at DC along with his sexy, short-skirted sidekick Harley Quinn, Joker was expertly transferred to digital form. Instead of brutal kicks, elbows, and fists, the Joker dishes out his own kind of pain in the form of humiliation. While attempting to meet the various tasks in Challenge Mode, players will dispatch enemies with electrifying hand shakes, modified rear-naked jokes, and devastating eye pokes. Pure Joker. It’s unfortunate that non-PS3 owners have to miss the Harlequin of Hate, but the ability to play as other supervillains in Challenge mode remains a possibility.

Perhaps the only flaw made apparent during my pair of play sessions was the combat system. Although the battles are vast, furious, well animated, and incredibly brutal, one may assume that it’ll all become routine fairly quickly. It remains to be seen if fighting will become stale, but if Rocksteady incorporated enough unlockable combat moves and finishers, there shouldn’t be a problem. Even if the combat becomes lackluster and uninspired after the first few hours, you would still have the best incarnation of Batman ever to grace digital form. Without a doubt, this is one to eagerly anticipate.

Batman: Arkham Asylum ships in late Summer on the PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.

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