Arkham Asylum ups the superhero game bar considerably
Arkham Asylum is a madhouse located on a small island near the coast of Gotham City where those who the law deems to be legally insane are taken care of—and in the case of Batman's “supercriminal” adversaries, held captive. The game opens up with an impressive shot of Batman driving his Batmobile through the gates of this facility as The Joker is yapping on in the seat next to him. Apparently, the two have just shared an eventful night. But, as you might guess from this being the beginning of the game, the problems have only just begun piling up for the Caped Crusader. As Batman watches Joker being escorted to his cell, the maniacal comedian beats down the guards and is free again. Batman is quite firmly against this idea, of course, and chases after him, sparking an extraordinary series of events that make this Batman the roller-coaster that it is.
Making the game take place on one small island that holds lots and lots of Batman's major and minor nemesi was smart on the developer's part. There has to be a considerable amount of fanservice for such a game to become widely popular among Batman veterans, and because the story has Joker pulling every string on the island, including all his fellow psychotics' makes sure that the boatload of familiar faces does not seem out of place. The tone is decidedly grim, and whether this has something to do with the fact that Batman recently saw one of its darkest interpretations in The Dark Knight is hard to tell, but Rocksteady's Batman game pulls it off just as well.
Arkham Asylum's gameplay can be broken down into two main parts: stealth sequences, and combat sequences. When I say “stealth”, do not think the Batman is portrayed as Sam Fisher with a cape. Whereas Fisher, of Splinter Cell fame has to remain in the shadows by necessity lest he find a swift death, Batman is the ruler of the battlefield here. The game seems designed to make the player feel powerful, capable of overcoming any and every threat with the ease and confidence that we're accustomed to when we think of this dark superhero. The stealth is kept rather simple for this reason. A big feature is the “Detective Mode”. Hidden inside the cowl is a turquoise and blue vision mode that enables you to see enemies through walls, highlights useful objects and offers real-time strategic information such as the current mental state of the patrolling guards. This gadget is about as “Batman!” and awesome as you can get. Need to find out where someone's run off to? Simple, just find some DNA belonging to that person, and the room will light up with fingerprints and smears of genetic material, allowing you to simply stroll after him or her. Being a detective was never this easy.
Detective vision comes into play when you're trying to stealthily clear a room. Turn it on and you immediately have a good view of everyone in the room. Then, you can start removing them, one by one. Most major stealth locations have gargoyles in the upper level of a room that Batman can sit on and survey his opponents. Bruce Wayne also has a number of manoeuvres up his sleeve. He can swing from gargoyle to gargoyle, glide down with his enormous cape and deliver a quick kick to the teeth, hang from ledges and pull enemies down to a KO state (for Batman never kills anybody in this game, only his enemies do), jump down on them, leave booby-traps with explosive gel and so much more. Each room is also designed to allow him to navigate the room efficiently and silently through the use of vents, cable gadgets and walls that can be blown up to reveal secret passages and take down enemies.
Each time I entered a new room filled with unsuspecting Joker goons, I was overjoyed as I learned how to navigate the room, prying on my potential victims as I opened up secret roads and set up my first attack. The rooms imbue the player with lots of freedom, so that he may look at the situation and decide for himself how to proceed. Structural weaknesses and opportunities are everywhere, but the game manages to avoid making the player feel as though he's carrying out take-downs that were set up by the developer. These situations always feel like small sandboxes where you can toy with your insignificant foes, and watching a guard freak out as he notices his boys disappearing on him is great, especially when the Joker pleasantly reports this fact to him over the intercom.
If you find yourself faced with henchmen toting machine guns, you might want to stick to stealth: a couple of bullets are enough to take the Dark Knight down. However, when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, he is second to none, and Rocksteady managed to get that point across by creating a combat system that's one of the best, most satisfying fighting engines I've seen in a long time. Totally ripped though every single one of his opponents may be, Batman, in his own words, “eats punks like these for breakfast.” And since the combat is so intuitive, you'll probably agree soon enough. By now, the phrase “easy to learn, hard to master” has become a cliché, but it holds true here.
Batman has a number of moves that allow him to lay waste to multiple enemies at once (and later on, these groups will number in the double digits.) He can punch, stun enemies, counter attacks with a quick button press as enemies lunge in to strike and use a number of gadgets mid-combo, such as batarangs and a batclaw that can be used to reel enemies in. Oddly enough, however, the main game is not really aimed at forcing the player to get especially good at this system: on the Normal difficulty setting, a huge lightning symbol will appear over an enemy's head as he's attacking, indicating that you're supposed to hit the counter button. Other than that, simply mashing the punch button, doing the occasional roll and stunning special enemies will be more than enough to get you by. On Hard, this lightning symbol does not appear, and the punks will do significantly more damage with each punch, but I still didn't feel challenged at all while playing through the game's story on highest difficulty.
But when I spoke of the combat being hard to master, I was referring to beating the challenges that unlock as you progress through the main game. Tied to the combat system is a scoring system that awards you points for keeping a single combo going for as many hits as possible, mixing up your attacks and not getting hit. Whereas the main story allows you to get by with simply surviving, beating the stock scores on every challenge (which rewards you with one to three batarang “medals”) requires you to learn the ins and outs of the fight mechanics. In order to take home the gold, not getting hit is practically necessary, but you need to get that combo up as high as possible in order to get a decent multiplyer. This forces you to be aggressive and be quick on your feet at the same time: mastering the combat system to this extent is extremely satisfying and makes the brawls look that much cooler. If you're good enough to beat every challenge, Batman will be flying through the room like a hurricane on speed, kicking and punches at the speed of light. It's awesome. After you've beaten the campaign, I implore you to take a stab at besting these challenges: they will teach you the true potential of Batman's martial arts expertise.
While facing off with dudes is perhaps slightly too forgiving for my tastes in the story, by no means is it a lesser game for it. Having great stealth and beat-em-up gameplay contributes a lot to the quality of this package, but what also makes Arkham great is its reverence for the expansive Batman lore. As mentioned, the iconic villains will be blocking the Bat's way i n rapid succession, and there are lots of small things to see and find that Batman fans will no doubt relish in. Early on in the game, The Riddler logs into Batman's cowl headphones and informs him that he's set a series of challenges across the island. An actual physical appearance by The Riddler appears to be reserved for another time—Arkham Asylum 2, who knows—but solving his many puzzles and finding his trophies as he's taunting you over the phone is fun and rewarding in its own way. Many of these puzzles reference big events and villains, and completing them will unlock character bios, character model statues to marvel at and more challenges. Interview recordings for some of the bigger criminals are also laying around on the island for you to find, and I really enjoyed listening to these: they are a tiny story in and of themselves, started light-hearted and always ending on an extremely dark and psychotic note. On top of that, they fill in some nice back-story on the proceedings. The game is filled to the brim with this kind of stuff, and even I, as a very casual Batman fan, really enjoyed finding all of these.
As if that isn't enough, Batman: Arkham Asylum also looks and sounds the part. The graphics are phenomenal. The Batman looks extremely detailed, as do the dark and sinister asylum grounds. Artistic direction is always a topic of contention among fans of any given new take on a superhero universe, but I was really pleased to see Unreal Engine 3 flexing its muscles to bring some fantastic-looking stuff to the table. It's a bit unfortunate that every goon looks the same: they all have the same body-built physique, some of them are just shirtless whereas others have tank tops on. If you don't like too much of a sexual undertone, you may not be a fan of these renditions of Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn either. On the sound side of things, voice work is great throughout (with Mark Hamill's Joker being an absolute stand-out), punches sound incredibly painful, the swoosh of the cape as you initiate gliding is glorious and the music gets you appropriately pumped. The animations are superb as well, and they are a large factor in the combat system's greatness. Even Batman's confident strut through the corridors of the asylum represents what his image is all about. It proves that given enough dedication, superhero games can be right up there with the best-produced games of that period: Arkham Asylum is certainly up there. I have no problem stating it is one of the best-produced games of 2009.
Between a rather lengthy story mode that took me around 15 hours to complete the first time through and the various stealth- and combat-challenges, along with all the stuff to find, Batman: Arkham Asylum has a lot of value in store for you. Honestly, if you have any interest in Batman whatsoever, if you so much as slightly enjoyed The Dark Knight, then you should get this game. You will not regret playing it.