Since Christopher Nolan took hold of the Batman reins for the last two films, there’s no doubt that Bruce Wayne and his winged alter ego have become very hot property. Sadly, this trend hasn’t been transferred over to the video game world and despite ‘Batman Begins’ having had a game tie-in, it received average reviews and was criticized for being too linear and having very lacklustre gameplay mechanics, especially when it came to the game’s key element: intimidation. Nolan’s follow-up film, The Dark Knight, didn’t get an accompanying game as Rocksteady were busy cooking up their own take on the world of Batman with the help of script writer Paul Dini, who wrote for the animated series, as well as Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy who provided the voices of Batman and The Joker. If that wasn’t enough to whet the appetite, Eidos also stated that this game is the closest they’ve ever come to perfection. Quite a claim indeed.
Batman: Arkham Asylum begins with the Dark Knight delivering the clown prince of crime, The Joker, to Gotham’s famous psychiatric hospital, Arkham Asylum. Suspicions of the capture being too easy are cemented when The Joker escapes from the guards, takes over the criminal-laden stronghold and deploys his newly transferred thugs throughout. What follows is the worst ever night for the caped crusader as he tries to foil the Joker’s insane plans, while enduring both intense physical and psychological hell from numerous other villains that he has incarcerated over the years. Fortunately Batman isn’t exactly easy to break and alongside his will power and determination he brings finely honed martial arts skills, high-tech gadgets, stealth proficiency and razor sharp detective skills. All of these parts manage to gel together perfectly to allow player to become the Batman we’ve all been waiting for.
At the physical end of the spectrum there’s the ‘Freeflow’ combat system that relies on four buttons initially to attack, counterattack, dodge and stun. Though it sounds incredibly simplistic it fits perfectly and grants players the ability to take on multiple enemies by moving the analog stick in the direction of the intended thug and pressing an action button. This can then be chained to the next enemy as you dash towards them and before you know it, Batman is seamlessly taking down large groups of foes with incredible grace. Fortunately because the moves are automatically matched to each situation it makes every fight feel exciting and intense especially on the final takedown when the camera zooms in and slows down for that concluding blow. Additional moves are added later in the game and allow the Batarang, throws and instant takedowns to make the combat even more spectacular.
The Dark Knight isn’t always about brute strength though and, especially when faced with firearms, he proves that he doesn’t have superpowers and is human after all. In spite of this he still has a few tricks up his cape to deal with his gun-toting opponents and this is where the stealth and fear tactics come into play.
These sections usually involve methodologically taking down enemies one by one while at the same time making the remaining hostiles very nervous as they find their numbers decreasing. This can be achieved in many ways from simply sneaking up behind them and grappling them into unconsciousness to hanging from a gargoyle and stringing a passing enemy up by the ankles only to drop him with a Batarang and further scare his comrades.
The only issue here is that the enemy intelligence has a tendency to waiver in its ability to detect Batman and his advances. Sometimes you’ll be able to get away with standing in extremely close proximity without risking discovery whereas the same move will find you gunned down the next time. Although the enemies do get more vigilant and scared as you pick them off this still occasionally doesn’t link to their ability to find you. It’s fortunately not a constant issue but there are the odd instances when the AI is simply too weak or too strong and you find yourself confused as to why.
The classic Batarang makes an appearance with remote controlled and enemy attracting sonic varieties. The Grapnel gun supplies Batman with all his grappling needs with a simple press of the R1 button and is the key tool for zipping up buildings as well as gaining a better vantage point on situations. His cape also plays a huge part in not only gliding but it’s used in combat to stun opponents and generally swirl around impressively. As for the rest of the gadgets, we won’t ruin the surprise but they are all brilliantly implemented and highly useful for getting you around Arkham Asylum. Not that it would be wise to rush around, you’d miss half of the beauty of the game.
Rendered using the Unreal engine, Batman: Arkham Asylum manages to almost totally avoid the texture loading issues that usually go hand in hand with this engine to breath life to the world of this vast correctional facility. From the main holding area to the expansive prison grounds, the world of Batman has been meticulously detailed with the gothic architecture, references to characters and events and basically everything you’d expect to see from DC Comic’s winged hero. That’s not to say just the environment has been given lots of care and attention as Batman too is one highly detailed individual. From the grip on his boots to the stubble on his face, he’s been impeccably modelled with a particularly realistic cape that both looks and moves exactly as you’d hope it would. The graphical prowess has not only been continued over to the main characters but even the generic enemies get a fair amount of visual consideration and it shows that every facet of the game, no matter how small, has been crafted with precision.
With the writer of the Batman animated series onboard there’s massive potential for an original, exciting story, which is exactly what you get. Paul Dini has managed to craft an adventure that not only encompasses the legacy of the Dark Knight’s world but also provides new twists and turns while staying with the gloomy, psychological feeling that made the two Nolan films so good. Add to this the incredible voice talents of Mark Hamill, Kevin Conroy as well as an authentic score and the whole thing wraps together nicely to enhance to the Batman experience.
The inclusion of the many famous villains from the comics in both memorable and forgettable encounters. The issue is that some of them fall into the classic platforming formula of figuring out the bosses attack pattern, finding the weak point and repeating 3 times to defeat. This isn’t a massive issue but after the fresh feeling of the rest of the game it leaves these parts feeling stale and not quite up to the job. Luckily for Batman fans even the renowned enemies that don’t physically appear in the game are referenced through character biographies and objects throughout the journey to stop The Joker.
The story mode has a rough length of 10-12 hours but with the inclusion of 3 difficulties, 240 Riddler tasks to be undertaken as well as numerous challenge modes this can increase the longevity quite dramatically. With the promise of further content to come soon, it seems what’s on the disc isn’t the end of the Batman’s voyage into the world of the criminally insane.
Marred only by inconsistent enemy intelligence and some particularly underwhelming boss battles, Arkham Asylum succeeds in using tried and tested game elements while still managing to put them together in a way that feels fresh and exciting. From the fear inducing stealth takedowns to the brutal hand to hand combat, this game allows you to become Batman in a way that has never been possible before. Add to that a superb, original story; flawless voice acting; responsive, intuitive controls and stunning graphics to get an impeccably realised world that’s true to the world of the Dark Knight and worryingly easy to lose yourself in. However, the true reason why this game is so special is that even after you peel away the Batman identity, you are still left with an incredible gaming experience that will stay with you far beyond the closing credits and into the ears of whomever you happen to next see.