Batman and video games have rarely gotten along in the past; however we just might be seeing that change soon with Batman: Arkham Asylum.
The story follows Batman during one of the longest nights of his life, all thanks to the Joker. After being captured and delivered to Arkham Asylum, the clown prince of darkness, along with his goons, break lose and take control of not only the asylum, but the entire Arkham island - locking Batman, commissioner Gordon, the guards and everyone else inside.
While playing I couldn't help but be reminded of the animated series form the 90’s, and this was with good reason. Not only are a lot of the voice actors returning to their roles here, but the script for the game was also written by one of the shows writers. For anyone familiar with the show, this is great, as it was one of the best superhero cartoons of its time. Mark Hamill's Joker truly steals the show as he taunts you on TV screens within the facility throughout the game. This creates a great sense of atmosphere within the environment - heck, it is almost up to the level of such titles as BioShock or Dead Space, but I am not yet sure how well it will maintain this throughout the game. While I only played through the first two chapters (rushed through in about two hours), it did give me a decent hint at the variety of gameplay.
The game breaks up into exploration, combat, stealth and detective work (Batman being the worlds greatest detective after all). For the latter, Batman has "Detective Mode" which is a special view mode that allow him to x-ray the environment, see smells in the air, how many armed bad guys there are in a room and variety of other useful things.
Not only does this allow for some light puzzle solving and plot development but is also crucial to the stealth combat part of the game.
It is very satisfying hiding high above a room full of guys and methodically planning on how to quietly eliminate one by one. It is even more satisfying as you notice them getting more petrified while their friends are being taken down and they realise that they might be next. The best part is that you have control, so if things don't go well you have no one else to blame but yourself. However, when things go right, all the rewards go to you and your boosted ego.
The final part of the game is the combat, and just like the stealth part not only is it fun, but it's also simple. There is one button for hitting, one for counter moves and another for a stun move (which is needed for enemies with weapons). The animation for combat is really impressive. The basic attacks are quick and fluid as Batman moves from one enemy to the other to potentially create a long combo. However the combat truly shines when you start countering enemy attacks. This is because the animations are context sensitive and watching Batman adjusts his attacks on the fly looks spectacular.
To help Batman along the way are all of his wonderful toys. You unlock more as you go, and the game has a long list of upgrades to add to the fun. As you take down bad guys you gain experience, and when you level up you may choose an upgrade. This could be more/better combat moves or improvements to your armour and other gadgets - it's totally up to you based on how you want to improve your Batman.
And what would Batman be without a good roster of villains to oppose him? While I can't tell you about all the villains I saw and fought (nasty embargoes!) what I can say is that I felt damn cool when I beat the first one! And the second one kind of flipped the game on its head, changing the gameplay in some interesting ways.
Once you are done with the game, there are the challenge rooms to play around with. What I was shown were the combat challenges, which basically involve you beating up a room full of guys as quickly as you can or by using a lot of special combat techniques. Doing this will get you score points, which can be uploaded onto an online leadership board for bragging rights. The other challenge rooms are stealth-focused, where you have to take out a room full of guys without being seen using a variety of stealth moves and within a certain amount of time. These rooms were actually a lot of fun to play and reminded me of old school arcade games. I definitely could imagine putting in more coins for one more go in order to beat my own score.
I do have a few concerns with Batman: Arkham Asylum however. The first has to do with finding your way around. It would have been nice to have a bit more in-game guidance instead of having to open the map every time I wasn't sure of where to go next (yes, thanks to being spoilt by games like Dead Space and Prince of Persia I am that lazy!).
Another (tiny) issue is that moving Batman around just doesn't feel quite right. It is hard to explain, but all I know is whenever I was running down corridors or moving down air vents I kept veering off to one side or another. Going completely straight just didn't seem to be working.
Beyond that though, so far so good. This may sound odd, but I almost want to avoid giving the game too much praise because frankly... I don't want to jinx it. I have wanted a good Batman game for a long time and from what I have played this just might be it. Batman: Arkham Asylum looks great, sounds great and plays great. In fact, it looks like it just might be one of the greatest superhero games of this generation - oh damn, I guess I have risked jinxing it after all!
Our thanks to Namco Bandai NZ for the hands-on opportunity.