Need to take my temperature? I’d be happy to drop my pants!”
The Joker is happy. Way too happy for a man whose latest scheme has just been foiled. As Batman: Arkham Asylum begins, the Batman has captured the Clown Prince of Crime, and has whisked him back to Gotham City’s notorious loony bin. The orderlies tie the Joker to a stretcher, and we’re treated to an extraordinary display of security measures as the credits scroll.
Even though Batman’s job is done, he chooses to follow his arch-enemy through numerous gates and guard posts, right into the bowels of the sprawling art deco facility. The Joker taunts and cackles all the while. Something isn’t quite right. A helpless prisoner shouldn’t be so cocky.
Only he isn’t helpless — and scant minutes into the game he is no longer a prisoner. With the help of crooked asylum personnel, and his loyal hench-wench Harley Quinn, the Joker has staged a mass break-out. But it gets worse. Due to overcrowding at Gotham’s Blackgate prison, dozens of everyday criminals were being housed at Arkham. To show their appreciation to the Joker for bailing them out, they’ve started wearing fright make-up and hunting for the Batman in packs. It’s as thought the Insane Clown Posse have formed their own army of the night — a disturbing thought indeed.
Yes, the lunatics are running the asylum; and the Batman has walked straight into a trap.
Allow us to introduce Batman: Arkham Asylum. We were utterly absorbed, and we think you will be too. This is sizing up to be the best Batman game ever made. Not just for the combat, which is fluid, intuitive, and brutal. Not just for the gadgets and gizmos in the Caped Crusader’s Utility Belt. Not just for the rich detail, and daring design work. They’re all great, but the most promising aspect of all is the rogue’s gallery: the villains.
One of the key reasons that Batman is the best superhero in the world is that his villains are awesome — and they’re all completely bonkers. As good as the movies are, they usually only show one or two baddies per film. But Arkham Asylum will have stacks of them; already confirmed are Killer Croc, Mr. Zsasz, Bane, The Riddler, and of course Harley and Joker. There have also been strong hints we’ll get to tussle with other Batman baddies like Poison Ivy, Two-Face, The Scarecrow and Scarface (that ventriloquist with a split personality who thinks his dummy is a gangster).
And just so we’re clear, this isn’t the happy-and-gay criminal set from the ’60s Batman. Arkham Asylum is dark — really dark. If anything, it’s darker than Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. There is blood, murder, and despair, but also comic book excess. Killer Croc, for instance, isn’t just a guy with scaly skin. He’s a 12-foot-tall mutant freak, with teeth like razors and cold, reptilian eyes. Sure, he’s in chains when you first meet him. But he knows he’ll soon be loose: “I’ve got your scent, Bats!”
This third/first-person action adventure draws from many sources: the cartoons, the movies, and plenty of other games — the architecture is something right out of BioShock. Yet for continuity and content, Arkham Aslyum is closest to the comics. Batman doesn’t have the generic black riot gear from The Dark Knight, but rather his conventional dark grey tights (augmented, admittedly, by some protective padding — you can even see the rivets that hold it together).
Throughout the game he’s in constant radio contact with Oracle — that’s what the original Batgirl is calling herself these days. After the Joker put her in a wheelchair in the ’80s, she’s become the resident tech support expert for Gotham’s crime-fighters. In this case, she performs a vital function: exposition. With a steady trickle of story-related info-tidbits dribbling through the speakers, navigating torturous jumping puzzles feels less like a chore, and more like a crucial mission objective.
The Unreal Engine 3 makes the super-slick visuals possible, but it has its limitations. Zoom the map out all the way, and you’ll see that Arkham is a sprawling complex of buildings and courtyards — it’s enormous. But on foot, you’ll notice that it’s broken down into zones separated by bulky metal security doors that open very, very slowly. This little memory juggling trick is reminiscent of the interminable lift rides in Mass Effect. Fortunately, this little trick isn’t overt enough to break the illusion.
Combat is brutal and hectic, but ultimately pretty straightforward. You’ll press X to attack and Y to stun (with a twirl of your cape), and the left stick will steer you through the fray. Bonuses start to kick in once you chain three or more attacks in a row, so it makes sense to get right into the middle of any group of aggressors, flailing about until the job is done. As a reward, the defeat of the last of a squad of goons is marked by a Take Down — a slow-motion close up of Batman bringing his Bat-Fist down on a villain’s head.
While most encounters are straight-up street-level brawls, some are set in vast enclosures full of crannies and nooks. The idea is to jump around on gargoyles and climb through floor ducts, picking off the baddies one by one. After each takedown you then retreat from their field of vision, and listen with satisfaction to the mounting panic of the survivors.
One element the game borrows from the movies is Batman’s new smart material cape that doubles as a hang-glider. This in turn makes the Glide Kick possible, an extremely satisfying form of takedown. Simply spy a hood from your perch, and tap B to execute. After gliding into position, the camera swings around for a side-on, slow motion view of Batman’s Bat Boot connecting with the villain’s head. It’s... beautiful.
Batman should write a polite thank-you letter to Arkham’s architects for placing so many gargoyles indoors. Another move he can perform from these protruding stone sentries is to hang suspended, upside down, his cape defying gravity to furl around him like folded wings. To simply hang there, like on Michael Keaton’s sleeping rig in the 1989 Batman. From this position you can snatch hoodlums as they patrol below, tie them up, and leave them for their horrified mates to discover. Rocksteady has definitely taken the whole ‘Bat’ thing to heart and Arkham Asylum has got the shadowy stealth combat angle sewn up.
Oh, and they’ve also borrowed from Predator; Batman has half a dozen enhanced vision modes. For instance, once you unlock the X-Ray view, you’ll have a handy means of seeing which enemies have which weapons, and prioritising your attacks accordingly. Yet most of them are forensics tools — Rocksteady has remembered that Batman is a detective. A tap of the left bumper brings up Investigation Mode, along with context-sensitive hints for navigation and unraveling environmental puzzles. At one point your path is blocked by an ornamental glass floor, while four storeys above hangs a huge metal chandelier. If your Bat-brain can’t handle that kind of riddle, Investigation Mode will suggest that the rope holding the light fitting in place could be cut easily with a Batarang.
As for clue hunting, Batman’s cyber-cowl will choose the relevant scan mode (physical, chromato, darklight, luminol, etc) automatically. One early challenge puts you on the trail of a drunk asylum guard; you find him by literally following the alcohol molecules in the air. It’s just one more feature that makes you feel like the ultimate crime-fighting bad-ass.
Batman’s got a modest selection of his Bat-Gadgets at his disposal, and the D-Pad lets you quickly select the right one for the job. One surprising inclusion is an unlimited supply of explosive foam. Simply ooze it all over a weak section of wall, roof, or floor, stand back, and hit the detonator: blammo. The screen shudders, and an improvised entrance is born.
His unlimited supply of Bat-Grappling-Ropes come in two flavours: a Tenchu-style ninja rope for reaching high ledges, and a Bat-Claw for pulling on distant objects. The latter is great for pulling goons off of guard towers. The unlimited supply of Batarangs also includes two varieties, though we don’t know anything about the second. Hopefully, they’ll explode.
It may seem at first a trifle unrealistic for none of his gizmos to ever run out. Yet if they did, then this would be a game more about smashing Bat-Crates than actually being Batman. Rocksteady made the right decision.
In case it’s not obvious from the screenshots, it should be made clear that the atmosphere is excellent. The outdoor areas are huge, and Arkham’s hodge-podge of building styles makes the creaking, multi-layered complex a joy to explore. This practice is not necessary to fully enjoy the story, but it is necessary if you want to hunt down every last arbitrary collectible item.
It’s also worth mentioning that things have been sexed-up. As part of her new gothic makeover, Harley Quinn has traded her jester tights for a corset and short skirt combo. What does that mean in practical terms? Upskirt shots! We’ve got our fingers crossed that if Poison Ivy pops up she’ll have dispensed with all but the flimsiest set of plant-undies.
There’s also some genuinely gruesome imagery. One encounter with rampaging inmates is punctuated by ornaments hanging from the ceiling: their former guards, dangling from wires like a sicko’s puppets. You can cut them down with your Batarangs, but there’s no point — they’re already dead. The Joker also uses copious quantities of his dreaded Smilex gas (“if you’ve gotta go, go with a smile!”). The medical facilities all resemble that back-street surgery where Jack Nicholson’s Joker smashed the mirror, and the offices look like they belong in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Arkham is not a happy place.
At this stage the game is still far from complete. Mark Hamill will reprise his role as the Joker from the animated series, but some other matters are still very much up in the air. One thing we should stress, though, is that Arkham Asylum and the oft-rumoured adaptation of The Dark Knight for consoles are not one and the same.
Yes, Rocksteady could have been more ambitious. As you explore, investigate, and brawl, you’ll wonder what might’ve been (and might still) — a Grand Theft Batman could rock so very, very hard. As things stand however, the developers have chosen to take a more modest brief, and to do it very, very well. There is a convincing illusion of freedom of movement, and vast areas you can backtrack through, but this is basically a linear story, simple and pure. You only really need to worry about the task that’s right in front of you. Usually, that’s the face of a criminal that badly needs some corrective servicing from your fists.
The real test of Arkham Asylum, for ours, will be when we start talking to the game. Every slow-motion takedown, for instance, was such a perfect vigilante moment that saying “I’m Batman” in a gravelly voice seemed entirely appropriate. The game has months left in development, but it already seems like they’ve nailed it. If Arkham Asylum makes you feel like Batman — that alone could make it one of 2009’s must-play games.
I got the text from the Arkham Asylum 360 board at gamefaqs. Sounds pretty amazing, although the article basically reads like PR.