Superhero games are a weird genre. On the surface, it seems like it shouldn't be too difficult to come up with a good game, but they have some of the worst records as far as licenses go. Even games that are based on extremely popular characters like Superman or Iron Man tend to be mediocre at very best, but perhaps the greatest surprise here is Batman, whose failure record easily dwarfs his successes. For the last good Batman games, we have to go back to the 16-bit era, and even then, the titles were fun but weren't very good at capturing the feeling of being Batman. It's starting to look like Batman's long losing streak may be coming to an end with the release of Rocksteady Studios' Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Arkham Asylum might be the best place in Gotham City to keep the mentally disturbed madmen who flock to the town, but it has a pretty terrible safety record. Depending on the time of day, it may be run by a corrupt administrator, haunted by supernatural devils, or undergoing yet another mass breakout. It's no wonder that the place has become a fortress unlike any other. Unfortunately, this doesn't work so well when one of the inmates gets control of the asylum's high-tech security. It's even worse when that inmate happens to be The Joker, the wiliest and deadliest villain in Batman's rogue gallery. The Joker, in one of his many bizarre fits, has managed to get a bunch of his henchmen "admitted" to the facility and topped it off by taking over the entire place. He's now demanding that Batman show up and "play" with him, with the entirety of Arkham, both inmates and security systems, turned into a deadly maze for the Dark Knight. It's going to take more than a seemingly endless swarm of psychopaths and deadly machines to stop Batman.
Exploring Arkham Asylum is a simple task — until you encounter enemies. You can move around with the analog stick and perform all sorts of context-sensitive evasive maneuvers, such as dodge roll, cling to walls or hang from ledges. Even Batman's grappling hook is represented here in an easy-to-use manner: Find an object capable of supporting Batman's weight, aim at it, and press the grappling button to latch on and pull Batman toward it. You also have a variety of useful gadgets at your disposal, like explosive gels or Batarangs, which can be used to solve puzzles or get past barriers. Things are never quite that simple, though, and Batman isn't going to take down The Joker by just walking around.
Against unarmed foes, Batman is an absolute beast who is capable of delivering crushing combos at amazing speed. You only have three "attacks" available to you: Attack, Counter and Stun. Attack is exactly what you'd expect, causing Batman to unleash a powerful strike against an opponent. Counter is activated when enemies attack you, as signified by a mark over their heads. If timed correctly, you can instantly counter an attack, nullifying it and doing serious damage to your foe. Certain opponents are immune to counters, so you can't just use them nonstop. Stun causes Batman to swish his cape, which has a wider radius than a regular attack and causes enemies to stagger for a moment.
All of this sounds pretty simple, but the combat system really gets involved when you're fighting multiple enemies, as you'll often. Once you've unleashed a few hits on an enemy, Batman's actions become a lot faster and flow smoother, and your goal is to fight every enemy at once, not just one. You simply face the enemy and press the attack button of your choice; if you time things right, Batman becomes a whirling dervish of pain, leaping across the room at rapid speeds and unleashing increasingly devastating blows as long as you sustain the combo. Get hit or take too long to hit an enemy, and the "flow" breaks and you have to start over again. The longer your combo, the better rewards you earn, including more experience points.
As Batman builds up a combo, he'll occasionally receive Takedowns, which allow Batman to dispatch a foe no matter how much health he may have or how well-defended he may be. These Takedowns only last as long as you have a combo, you can only have one at a time, and if you don't use them, you lose them, so they're not to be hoarded like precious gems.
Unlike many of his fellow superheroes, Batman is only human so he can handle a number of close-range foes, but any enemy who has a gun is a real threat. You can possibly defeat a two-gun wielding foe in close combat if you start out very close and get a little lucky, but otherwise, enemies will blow Batman away. They're pretty accurate and powerful, and even a few glancing shots can put Batman on the ground. In order to deal with gun-wielding foes, you have to be stealthy, but unlike Solid Snake and Sam Fisher, Batman is a monster who swoops out of shadows to defeat his foes. Stealth is only used so you can eliminate danger, and in the demo, simply sneaking by an enemy didn't get the job done. Solid Snake and Sam Fisher can dispatch enemies, but that isn't their primary goal, and it usually represents a failure on the stealth side. In Arkham Asylum, Batman is successful when every enemy in the room is unconscious.
The stealth system was really interesting. Our first demo put Batman in a large medical room filled with guys with guns. The first thing we did was activate Detective mode, which changes Batman's vision to a special X-ray visor, which works through walls and can detect enemy locations and loadouts. The visor can also read an enemy's heartbeat and mood. As enemies are defeated by Batman, their fellows start to get scared. They begin confident and brave, but as their friends are slowly picked off by an unseen assailant, they begin to get nervous. Some may gather together in large groups, while others may hide by themselves and refuse to help a friend. The key to defeating large groups of foes is to terrify them because a terrified foe is a vulnerable foe, and a scared group of enemies is easy prey. The visor also reveals objects of interest in the environment, like walls that are weak enough to knock down with one of Batman's gadgets.
Once we'd identified all of our foes, we began to take them down. The first thing Batman did was grapple to one of the many stone gargoyles that overlooked the room, where he crouched like a vulture waiting to strike. From here, we had a few options. We could throw a Batarang to stun an enemy, do a glide kick to knock down an enemy and defeat him with a Takedown, or wait. In this case, waiting turned out to be the best option. One unwary foe wandered under the gargoyle; with a simple button combination, we "hung" like a bat from the gargoyle, and once our victim was in place, we swooped down and instantly dispatched the enemy, tying him from a gargoyle as a warning to the others.
As the friends start panicking, Batman swoops over to another gargoyle and activates Detective mode again. This time, we saw a wall with a structural weakness, right where some nervous criminals were starting to gather. A quick grapple over, and we took some explosive gel from Batman's utility belt to rig the wall to explode. We zoomed back up and waited until a few foes were gathered in front of the door and then dispatched them with one boom. The criminals began to splinter and panic, and things got progressively worse; one hid in a room and refused to come out when his friends called for help, while another became nervous and skittish, which meant that Batman could sneak up and instantly dispatch him with a button press. Before long, all of Joker's men were unconscious, and Batman was unharmed.
Our final bit of the demo involved a taste of the full game, rather than snippets. We joined Batman near the beginning of the Arkham situation, where guards and prisoners were duking it out. Batman had to fight his way through a group of inmates, only to have his progress blocked when Victor Zsasz captured one of the guards and strapped him to an electric chair, threatening to kill him if he saw "so much as a hint of bat." This is where our stealth came into play, and we snuck up behind Zsasz by grappling over him and taking him down with a quick stealth dispatch.
Next, Harley Quinn, Joker's sidekick, radioed to reveal that Arkham's security system was under The Joker's control and that Batman and the unfortunate officers were locked in that room. Finding a hidden vent allowed Batman to escape into the waiting arms of a group of newly armed inmates. This segment wasn't too complex, and we had to be stealthy by disabling all of the inmates without alerting anyone. Our demo ended when Batman found The Joker, only to have the wily madman unleash a mutated inmate on Batman. The levels flowed very well, moving smoothly from objective to objective, and it was very rare that the moves felt forced by video game necessity. When Batman took action, it felt like the right thing to do, and there were some nice moments when you had surprising freedom on how to handle things.
Arkham Asylum is an usual mix of familiar and unfamiliar when it comes to the Batman universe. The game appears to be set in the same universe as the comic books, but there are a number of design changes. Zsasz, for example, seems to resemble Dhalsim from Street Fighter, while Harley Quinn looks like an S&M shop collided with a nurse. For all of the changes, though, there are familiar elements to the characters, and they're not hard to place. Particularly noteworthy to fans of the Batman: The Animated Series is that and Mark Hamill are reprising their roles as Batman and The Joker, respectively. It's a bit difficult to get used to hearing those voices come out of the different Batman and Joker designs, but Hamill does a great job of setting the mood when he taunts Batman over the intercom.
All in all, Batman: Arkham Asylum is shaping up in interesting ways. The focus on fear and speed in Batman's fighting style feels exactly like it should. Batman isn't a stand-up brawler who outlasts his enemies, but a skilled and deadly opponent who terrorizes his foes into submission. After all, criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot. The setting is interesting enough and provides a lot of unique places to explore, and since Batman's entire rogue's gallery tends to end up at Arkham, we can also expect to see a lot of familiar faces there. At long last, it seems that we may be on our way to a Batman game that does the character justice. Maybe Superman will be next.
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