This game could’ve been terrible. Around the time The Dark Knight was making a killing over a year ago, there was a big likelihood that the next Batman game was going to be a hideous movie tie-in. So it was definitely a relief and certainly intruiging when Arkham Asylum was announced to be the next Batman game, and to have nothing to do with Christopher Nolan’s film. At first, expectations can’t have been too high considering how many forgettable comic book hero games there have been, let alone terrible Batman ones, but damn if this game didn’t start off looking great, and continue along that route until it reached Awesome Town. Having spent some quality time with Arkham Asylum over the last few weeks, I can happily report that it’s definitely the best Batman game there’s ever been, and easily one of the best of 2009, period.
The story plays out like your classic Batman v Joker tale; Joker was attempting a robbery, and got caught by Batman. The caped crusader is returning him to the maximum security of Arkham Asylum, but is suspicious as to why Joker would let himself get caught so easily. Sure enough, Joker breaks free just after his arrival and with the help of some friends, takes over the entire asylum. Trapped inside with a host of old foes, Joker’s henchman and the asylum’s inmates, Batman has to survive a hellish evening by himself with only an arsenal of gadgets, a superior intellect and expert combat training.
What? It’s freakin’ Batman! He’ll do ok.
Arkham Asylum plays out like a third-person action/adventure title with a fantastic hand-to-hand combat engine, stealth elements and some detective work thrown in for good measure. It sounds like a mashing of gameplay styles, and to an extent it is, but each element is combined so well you barely even notice. The fighting is ridiculously easy and very satisfying, so you’ll be racking massive combos up in no time even with ten enemies surrounding you. You’ll be fighting often, but during your quest to take back control of Arkham, you’ll also find yourself in large rooms with armed guards waiting to fill you with bullets blocking your way. You may be Batman, but you can’t just rush into a firefight. This is where the stealth element comes into play; you’ll use high vantage points, grates and walls to avoid being spotted and are then pretty much free to take out your enemies as you please. Batarangs, glide kicks, hanging them upside down from stone gargoyles or exploding walls, it’s an intensely gratifying system and one that rewards patience and ingenuity as opposed to speed and power. You’ll often hear the remaining guards getting more and more aggravated as their buddies are picked off, which is a great touch.
Outside of the main story, there’s an embarassing amount of side quests and things to do. 240 individual challenges hidden across each area of the island by The Riddler will provide you with hours of exploration, which will in turn be rewarded with biographies for almost every villain within the Batman universe, character trophies to view and interviews with Arkham’s more high profile villains. It’s clear that British based developers Rocksteady have taken full advantage of the DC Comics licence and created an extended love letter to Bat-fans, and it shows in every part of the game. The characters themselves are heavily comic book influenced, which was certainly the way to go considering the last two Batman films have gone for a hyper-reality that just wouldn’t transfer too well from cinema to console. Rocksteady have even gotten established voice actors of the series to take control of their characters, calling upon Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (Joker) to reprise the same roles they’ve been doing in animated series’ since the 90s. Hamill inparticular steals the show as the prince of crime; every time he’s on screen, Joker demands your attention and even when he’s speaking on the island’s PA, his quips are so delightfully demented that you don’t want to miss a single syllable.
It’s touches like employing Conroy and Hamill that make Arkham Asylum feel so authentic, so damn Batmanish. Rocksteady have really nailed what Batman is about and what controlling the dark knight should be like. There were no problems big enough during my 15 hour playthrough that proved a distraction from an absorbing, dark and intense game. Ok, the game’s ending didn’t quite feel like a decent pay-off after everything you’d just been through, and Rocksteady saw fit to leave us with a teaser that surely points to their involvement in a sequel of some sorts. But on this sort of form, you’d be insane to have anyone else taking over the Batman gaming licence, because just as Christopher Nolan rejuvinated a character who’d been stuck in the cinematic doldrums for years, Rocksteady have given us a definitive interpretation of what Batman should be in 2009.
Intense, dark and brilliant. Even if you aren’t a Batman fan, you’re looking at one of 2009’s highlights in Arkham Asylum.