Everyone stand up and give Batman: Arkham Asylum a round of applause and a pat on the back.
It has done what many were beginning to say was impossible... delivered a good - nay, a great Batman game; possibly the greatest of all time! With its simple yet fun gameplay, brilliant voice-acting, interesting story, and great sense of environment and atmosphere this is the first game to truly make you feel like The Bat. And what would any great Batman adventure be without The Joker pulling some of the strings?
The story begins with Batman delivering the Clown Prince of Crime to the Asylum only to have him break out, release the prisoners, and take control. It is, of course, up to Batman to find out what he is up to and stop him. The story is good and takes a lot of interested twists and turns. Pacing can be a problem due to one particular game feature but I'll go into more detail on that later. The voice acting for all the characters is excellent, however Mark Hamill's Joker steals the show as he taunts you throughout the game!
There is a decent roster of villains and many make for fun boss fights. However, the one that stood out for me was Scarecrow. Unfortunately I'm not allowed to tell you anything about him at all due to some rather baffling embargoes from the publishers, and we didn't want to wait until September to let you know our experience with the game. Sometimes it's a case of damned if you do, and damned if you don't.
The good news is that the audience is in for a treat, as the thickness of the environments and atmosphere are close to BioShock/Dead Space territory. A lot of care was put into creating Arkham Island and making it feel like a real place in the world that you get to explore. Unfortunately, you do not get complete freedom, as much of the island is locked off to you until certain plot points when you receive the gadgets to get to places… or things.
This brings up one of my biggest problems with the game: time wasting. Throughout the island, the Riddler has placed hidden items for you to collect or riddles to solve. Some of these unlock things such as character bios, voice-recordings and various challenge rooms to play through outside of the main story. However, many of these items are out of reach until you attain the use of a certain gadget; at which point you have long left the area with no reason to return other than item hunting.
Also, when you spend five to ten minutes trying to get to an item you know is there only to realize you are not meant to get it yet, you will understand the meaning of frustration. In saying this, once you complete the story you may keep playing in order to finish finding everything. Of course this means more running back and forth through completely empty environments - boring! Another problem with all the riddles is when you choose to look for a riddle item you know is nearby it stops the story dead in its tracks.
Besides solving riddles, it is having access to all his wonderful toys that will definitely make you feel like Batman. From grappling hooks and explosive gel to hacking devices and the classic Batarang; there are so many options for how to deal with the situations you find yourself in. The gameplay breaks out into combat, stealth and exploration. Exploration is about getting around, solving puzzles and finding hidden items. I must also mention that gliding through the air as Batman feels super cool!
The combat system is something that's also pretty damn cool. It is not easy to do a fun two-button combat system but Batman: Arkham Asylum gets it right. Some may be put off by how simple it is but believe me it is both challenging and fun to master. The animations for the combat are also truly amazing and make watching Batman fight a real treat, as the camera shifts and the action is slowed down for the highlights.
The stealth portions are somewhat simple in execution but satisfying when you get it right. When you are high above the enemy scoping them out in order to plan your attacks you really do feel like Batman.
It is also a lot of fun as you notice the enemies become more and more terrified as you take their friends out. However you will too often find yourself hiding up on gargoyle statues placed around the levels, and this to me was lazy design. Not only can they break the immersion by being in strange places, but it also simplifies things a bit too much as you always know to look for the gargoyles. I am sure the 'real' Batman does not have it so easy and neither should we.
Most of the level designs involve running through a corridor, getting to a room built either for combat or stealth, doing your thing and then proceeding. Like so much of Batman: Arkham Alsylum it is simple but it works, especially when you get more open levels that allow you the option to mix combat and stealth. Another thing that increases your options is the levelling system. Whenever you take down enemies, complete an objective or find a Riddler's item/puzzle you get experience points. Eventually you level up which gives you the opportunity to choose from a list of upgrades. These can be things such as better armour, new combat moves or upgrades to your various equipment.
One essential piece of bat-gear is Batman's Detective Mode. This allows for an X-ray vision so you may see the enemies through walls. It also allows for story progression, and in helping to solve puzzles/riddles. In truth though, this vision mode might be a little too good, as you could easily play through the entire game with it and have no need for regular vision. But if you did, you'd be missing out on how great the game looks. While the PS3 build I played for this review did seem a little bit edgier than the Xbox 360 preview code I played a few weeks before, it wasn't the end of the world and the artstyle for the game is still a great blend of comic book and sci-fi.
When you are done with the story, there is still a bit more fun to be had. While there is no way to play through the game again with all of your upgrades (which is a real wasted opportunity) you can play through the various challenge rooms you have unlocked. These break up the game into either combat or stealth. In combat challenge rooms you fight up to four waves of increasingly strong enemies in different levels and gain points for how you defeat them. Your score is then added to an online leaderboard for bragging rights. Stealth works the same way, except here you get points for speed and meeting certain take down requirements. It is a fun distraction form the main game and could keep you playing for hours after completing it just to beat your last high score.
So at the start I said this might be the greatest Batman game of all time but let us be honest, that was not too much of a challenge. So the real question is, is this a great game? Well, one of the main signs of a great game is whether when you finish it do you want to play it again? For me, the answer is definitely yes.