I had the same reaction, when I heard about Arkham Asylum, as I did when I heard about the Watchmen game. A defensive reflex, based on the mistaken assumption that this new game was going to be a baffling gamification of Grant Morrison's excellent 1989 graphic novel. Developer Rocksteady is understandably keen to distance itself from that assumption. Arkham Asylum draws from more than one Batman, but it's definitely a DC Batman. Despite a fashionably darker look, Arkham Asylum has its strongest links with the excellent early 90s cartoon, Batman: The Animated Series.
It's a relief that I don't have to feel the same instinctive and dull outrage that Watchmen caused. Watchmen was a one-off, unique. It's so precious and complicated that Terry Gilliam claimed it'd be impossible to turn into a film, let alone a game. And Batman? Well, bless him, he's been ridden around more than a geriatric Blackpool donkey. The other, more fundamental distinction between the two games is that Arkham Asylum actually looks like it might be very good.
Rocksteady is aiming for the feel of titles like BioShock and Chronicles of Riddick, with the iconic asylum providing an atmosphere equally claustrophobic and imprisoning. The introduction we're shown starts off as a movie, as Batman drives Joker through the streets of Gotham. Batman's delivering him directly to Arkham, and he's gibbering about bombs under the city. His voice is familiar - it's veteran video-game bad guy Mark Hamill, who also voiced The Joker in The Animated Series. It's a longer, narrower Joker than TAS, though - Rocksteady has been working with DC's in-house Wildstorm studio to give the game characters a fresh feel.
We arrive at the Asylum, where the game - obviously - takes place. Everyone's keen to know if the whole of the game will be set in Arkham, especially considering the Joker's threats about bombs in Gotham. It appears not - some of the action will take place outside, on the island surrounding the prison. As if on cue, Batman says, "There are no bombs. He's lying. I know him."
His voice is familiar, for the same reason. Kevin Conway was the Batman opposite Mark Hamill's Joker. On top of that, Paul Dini - a TAS writer, story editor on Lost, and most impressively, Freakazoid - is back on board. So, it's a team that's worked together before, and Dini has been admirably humble about the job. As experienced a screenwriter as he is, he's happy to admit that this is his first videogame script, and has worked closely with Rocksteady to avoid the storytelling pitfalls that occur in games like Mirror's Edge, when storyline is treated as an entirely separate entity from gameplay.
Checking into Arkham, then, is a classic monorail ride, albeit without the monorail. Joker is clamped into a Hannibal Lecter-style trolley, and we're following him, getting a feel for this new, filthy-futuristic imagining of the prison. We all know something's coming, so the journey into the centre of the prison is a forbidding one. Not least because of Joker's wearying stream of quips, that alternates perfectly between making you laugh, and feel uneasy. "I preferred the good old cavity search," he laments, as the hi-tech scanners search him for weapons. "It was much more personal."
To our left, through a filthy metal grill, we see prisoners being herded through the corridors. Turns out that Gotham's Black Gate Prison has recently suffered a fire, and hundreds of thugs are being temporarily held in Arkham. This, it'll turn out, is all part of Joker's plan - and he's already got Harlequin in the security office. She's had the most radical overhaul from Wildstorm.
The gameplay begins when Joker springs his trap, and takes over the Asylum. The Black Gate thugs storm in, and we get a chance to see the brawling aspect of the combat. It's not a complicated system - it's based on attack, stun and countering. You'll be given a visual clue of when a counter is possible. It's frustrating not to be able to get a feel for the controls, but the Unreal Engine handles the brawling well, with a tactile sense of connection, and chained moves delivered in slow motion, with a tilted camera angle. That's the closest the game'll get to 1960s technicolor Batman.
Batman isn't without his own help. Oracle, Commissioner Gordon's post-Batgirl daughter, is in your ear, giving exposition where it's needed. But mainly, it's his "detective mode" that'll be the biggest help in making progress through a level. This is the one disappointment. When described loosely, as it has been in press releases, detective mode sounded like it might have been a risky dose of point-and-click puzzling squirted into the third-person adventure world.
In fact, detective mode seems more designed to make the game easier, instead of more challenging. It's just a way of highlighting items of interest. Lara's got it with her binoculars, Wolverine'll have the same thing with his feral view. It's not new - and if any one act could prove that something isn't new, it's what happens next: Batman uses it to notice that a grill can be pulled off the wall, to let him crawl through a ventilation shaft. It's one of the only disappointments of the demo; that this non-feature was previously singled out for any attention.
But this is Batman, you can embrace a cliché or two. And there's the Invisible Predator mode, which actually does offer up something interesting and new. This is Batman's stealthy way of clearing a room full of armed goons. Batman isn't bulletproof, and he's bound by his own ridiculous anti-murder ethics, so he's got to find a way to incapacitate everyone without stealing their guns and planting a dum-dum in their noggin. So it's a combination of stealthily grappling around the vantage points, and emerging briefly from the shadows to deliver a concussion.
With a minimal HUD, there are no artificial and irritating cones of vision on a mini-map, and no light-meter, so it's a lot more exciting to watch than most stealth scenes. Batman leaps quickly around the anchoring points, so it's also a lot more action-packed. He drops from a gargoyle, ropes a thug around the legs, and hoists him up. This is an intimidation move - left dangling, the thug calls for help. When his friend finds him, he freaks out and hides. We slice the rope with a Batarang, knocking out our piñata goon, and swoop down to punch the second guy in the face. This was easy: but when there are eight or nine armed thugs to take out, it's easy to imagine a higher level of caution and skill being required.
The Invisible Predator mode looks great, and is a great sign that Rocksteady is keeping to a creative and honourable approach to making a game out of the darker Batman world. It's perfect Batman. It's what he'd do. My only reservation is that there's not a huge range of ways to dispatch your enemies, and Batman's residency in the rafters might mean that most rooms will be solved in a very similar way - Batarang, hoist, swoop, rinse, repeat. We'll just have to see about that.
The score in the top left of the screen is an experience countdown: using your Batarang on the harmless Joker teeth scattered around the level, dispatching goons and saving innocents all nudge you towards a gadget power-up. You'll also find more gadgets in the hospital prison. There're no clues as to what they might be, but there won't be brawling combo upgrades. Batman knows how to fight, it's been reasoned. He wouldn't suddenly realise he could jump, punch the floor and knock everyone over.
The other big question is the range of villains we'll be facing. We see Joker, Harlequin, Killer Croc, and self-mutilating knife-killer Zsasz, but the question about who else we might see provokes an excellent side-step from the marketing man who's been walking us through the level. "Well, this is Arkham, so all of Batman's villains have spent some time here. So he could meet anyone, that's why it's such a good location." It's an expert answer to a question that wasn't asked, and further prompting provokes a slightly more honest "I can't say". One thing's for sure, though. There'll be no Robin. "Why would there be?" he says. "He was rubbish."
Batman: Arkham Asylum is due out for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 later this year.