Version tested: Xbox 360
Character goes a long way. Developers know this, which is why most games based on existing characters are, at best, adequate in their construction. Ghostbusters, for example. It's a rather ordinary corridor shooter, really. Dress it up in a funny script, get a beloved movie cast back together and throw in Slimer and Marshmallow Man, and suddenly you've got something that fans will embrace regardless of the pedestrian construction. The litmus test for any licensed game is to strip away all the fan service and see if we'd still be as interested.
Within the first hour of play, Batman: Arkham Asylum passes that test with flying colours. The appropriately named Rocksteady has delivered a solid, immersive blockbuster title. It's well paced, boasts a well-judged variety of gameplay elements and is brought to life with excellent visuals, a compelling story and superb voice acting. Even if you were controlling a generic ninja rather than an iconic superhero, this would be a polished and engrossing game.
Add the Batman to that recipe and you've got something remarkable; a game that doesn't just use its famous character to make up for rote design, but one that takes a rich and detailed fictional universe and uses it to enhance an already enticing prospect. The great thing about Arkham Asylum isn't that it's a Batman game, it's that it only makes sense as a Batman game. Every plot detail, every gadget, every action set-piece ties the game back into the world of DC Comics in a way that feels utterly organic.
Taking its title and basic concept from Grant Morrison's brilliantly obtuse graphic novel, we're dropped into Batman's world as he delivers The Joker to Arkham for the umpteenth time. This time, however, the Clown Prince of Crime was defeated too easily, and Batman is wary. His instincts are proven right when the Joker springs a trap on his captors. The lunatic takes over the asylum, and it's up to the man in the cape to restore order.
Drawing inspiration from both Resident Evil and Tomb Raider, what follows is an action-adventure in the classic mould. You'll spend a lot of time fighting, but it's far from a mindless brawler. You'll do a lot of creeping around, but it's never just a stealth game. There's plenty of climbing and exploring, but it's more than a platform game. It's a true hybrid, delivering distinct gameplay styles in carefully measured portions without ever losing sight of the bigger picture.
Combat is the first element you're introduced to, following an enjoyable interactive cut-scene opening, and the pared-back method chosen for hand-to-hand fighting is immediately impressive. Relying on just two buttons - one to attack, the other to counter - it takes the emphasis away from memorising complex special moves and instead lets you focus on timing and flow. Tap the attack button and Batman will direct his fists and feet in the direction of the left stick. If an enemy approaches from another angle, buzz lines will flash above their head to alert you to their imminent assault. Tap the counter button and Batman seamlessly alters his attacks to block and then eliminate the new threat.
In theory it could end up being a question of just steering Batman through the villains, windmilling his arms like a fool. There's more to it than that, though, and it soon becomes clear that steady, precise rhythms are more effective than button mashing. The higher the combo meter climbs, the faster and more agile Batman becomes. As the game progresses, you can add a couple of special attacks to your arsenal - a grapple and throw move, plus an instant takedown - as well as utilise your batarangs to stun and slow opponents from afar. Health recharges after battle but, for as long as enemies are engaged, it can only ever go down. This neatly raises the stakes for each encounter without making progress impossible for those who haven't mastered the combo system.
It's hard not to pick up the combo style though and soon you're elbowing one guy in the face, grabbing another enemy's leg in mid-kick, uppercutting him for the impertinence and then vaulting over him to deliver a crushing roundhouse to the thug with a baseball bat rushing to join the scrum. At all times, it's a thrilling and satisfyingly cinematic way of presenting Batman's elite fighting skills. Everything connects with wince-inducing force, and the animation chains it all together beautifully, even if there is some forgiveable polygon overlap. For the coup de grace, when you finish off the last enemy you're treated to a punishing slow motion close up as Batman delivers the final devastating blow.
As slick as it is, the game would soon grow tiresome if every corridor and hallway was filled with dozens of foes to pummel into submission. This isn't the armoured tank version of Batman made popular in the movies, so armed enemies require a more subtle approach. Periodically, you'll reach an area populated by gun-toting goons on patrol. Foolishly, they always seem to choose areas rich in stealth opportunities, and you're well equipped to take full advantage.
Your grapple will let you zip up to high vantage points, then glide down and boot bad guys in the mush, while grates in the floor can allow you to travel underneath an enemy then pop up behind them. You can use corners for cover, and throw batarangs to stun enemies from hiding, and as with the melee combat there are also upgrades to your abilities to purchase with your accumulated XP. Other gadgets can play a part as well. Explosive gel can be sprayed on weakened walls, and then used to drop rubble on unsuspecting villains. Sonic batarangs can be used to lure enemies wearing special monitoring collars, then detonated in a pulse to knock them out.
Dropping down from a gargoyle and stringing up an enemy by his feet is undeniably fun. Even more fun is swinging away to a different spot, then dropping the poor sap on his friends when they come to investigate, and then watching in Detective Mode as their heart rate rockets and panic sets in. It's just a shame that their AI isn't as acute as their emotional state. Enemies either have enormous blind spots, large enough for them to run straight past you, or they're ruthlessly efficient. It never really feels like you're outwitting them, more that you're working out the gaps in their virtual routine and taking advantage.
Stealth is therefore never quite as engaging as straight combat. When it works, it's fantastic, but controlling Batman in close quarters can be a fumble - especially when you need him to vault over a railing, and he decides to do an evasive roll instead - and as the stealth sections get harder, they can be frustrating. One particularly taxing segment puts you up against seven armed enemies, each wearing collars that will alert the others should they be taken down. Your usual lofty vantage points have been booby-trapped by Joker, so you're forced to creep and roll on the ground, a task that pushes the game's stealth features to the limit.
When you don't have to be too careful about being spotted, control isn't an issue. Batman sprints at the push of a button, and will automatically jump across gaps and grab ledges. He can glide on his cape, so dropping from any height isn't a problem, and his grapple gun has fantastic range. Should you tumble off the map into a hole, or into poison gas, he simply grapples to safety again. Rare are the occasions where you'll find yourself holding back because you don't want to get stuck. Wherever you are, Batman is agile enough to get out again.
He's a good-looking fellow as well, a large and convincing character with genuine weight and presence that seems to favour Jim Lee's take on the Dark Knight. All dialogue is lip-synched during gameplay, and along with the impressive animation, it totally sells the idea that this is a living, breathing superhero, able to take punishment as well as dish it out. Perhaps most impressive for fans, though, is that this is a game that remembers Batman is a detective. You won't need his brains quite as much as his brawn, but simply by acknowledging that the Dark Knight defeats his foes using his intellect the experience already feels richer.
Detective Mode is where most of this thinking happens. This infra-red vision can be used to locate and identify other people - whether they're enemies, terrified Arkham staff or even unconscious or dead - but it also highlights environmental features. Destructible walls and removable grates are the obvious subjects, but there are also several sequences where you have to track someone down.
This involves scanning a scene for some sort of clue - the first one, for example, is a whisky flask. Batman's cool computer then isolates and identifies the exact brand, and calibrates his cowl vision to highlight forensic traces of the stuff in the air. Really, all you're doing is following a linear series of dots to the next objective, but it's here that character comes into play. You're not just following dots. You're Batman, hot on the trail of the kidnapped Jim Gordon, with an arsenal of investigative technology at your command.
If this isn't enough like real detective work, then The Riddler is on hand to supply more brainteasers. He's hacked into your communication channel, and will pop up with cryptic clues in each area of the map. Some are incredibly easy, others are surprisingly clever or require knowledge of Batman's vast mythos. Even after the story is completed, these teasers are compelling enough to lure you back to the map to crack them all.
Less engaging, there are also Riddler trophies lurking around the map, chattering Joker teeth to destroy, interviews with Arkham's famous inmates lying around on tapes and mysterious messages from the tragic Amadeus Arkham, spelling out the bleak history of his asylum. The story is linear but the gameworld is not, and at any time you can wander off and sniff out hidden bonuses. There are 240 such secrets to find, and unlike most other games that pad themselves out with hunt and gather elements, these are surprisingly compelling. It's hard to miss some, but that's just enough to tickle the OCD gland that makes you think you should probably try and find some more. Each earns you a sizeable chunk of useful XP as well as character biographies and rendered statues of in-game characters. Far from essential, but still compulsively collectable all the same.
Also prolonging your pleasure are the Challenge Rooms, unlocked through gameplay, with extra ones available as DLC. Split between combat and stealth, these not only test your ability to dispatch foes quickly and effectively, but also set you specific tasks to earn medals. You might have to defeat all enemies using Silent Takedowns, to use an obvious example. As an optional extra, they're fun to dip into, and leaderboard obsessives will enjoy the ranked competition they provide.
Tying all these disparate elements together is a satisfying story from the pen of Paul Dini, whose stewardship of the seminal 1990s animated series should allay any fears that anyone will behave out of character. In actual fact, by placing the game in the realistically restricted confines of Arkham, and by having the unpredictable Joker as the antagonist, the story doesn't really have to stretch too much to accommodate the requirements of a videogame. Joker is playing with Batman, after all, and so it makes sense that he'll be opening up new areas only when you've performed specific tasks.
Also carried over from the animated series are Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. Conroy's task is the less glamorous one - he has to be stoic and determined at all times, and does it with customary aplomb. It's Hamill's game, though, and his cackling performance ensures that the Joker's presence is felt throughout, even though he's rarely on-screen. Much like every other element of the game, the dialogue is virtually seamless. Knock out a sentry while he's talking on his radio and Joker's script changes accordingly. "Is that you, Bats?" he coos. It's undeniably cool, and a great way to make you feel immersed in the world.
Complaints are minor. For all the attention to detail, the game-world is a disappointingly lifeless place. Only certain objects are affected by physics, so you can have a ventilation grate that clatters out of the way as you pass, while a small chair becomes an impassable barrier. There are also moments where character logic gives way to videogame lore. It seems highly unlikely that Batman would travel anywhere without a gas mask of some kind, yet poisonous fumes are used as obstacles several times. Ditto for electrified floors, even though Batman clearly isn't running around in his bare feet.
It's also a shame that the last chunk of gameplay loses some of its hard-earned lustre, devolving into a series of depressingly ordinary boss battles of the "repeat this pattern three times" variety. It's a testament to the game's narrative that I don't really want to go into too much detail, for fear of spoiling some cool moments, but showdowns with Bane, Killer Croc and Poison Ivy all feel a little anti-climactic.
One villain who does come out of the game smelling of roses (even if they are decaying) is the Scarecrow. Several times during the course of the story, you'll be subjected to his fear-inducing gas, and the way Batman's nightmares seep into the gameworld is quite brilliant. One sequence, close to the end of the game, even calls to mind Kojima's meta-textual monkey-business with Psycho Mantis. It's just a shame that these superb twists on the formula are always followed by some awkward side-on platforming dream sections. In a game already full of different gameplay mechanics, it feels like a step too far and the fussy control makes them a fleeting inconvenience rather than a refreshing break in style.
However, most of the gameplay concerns are minor when taken in the context of how much Arkham Asylum gets so gloriously right. Rarely does a game do a character justice in such a satisfying way. Arkham Asylum finds room for every major aspect of Batman's enduring appeal, and it does so in a game compelling enough to work even without its masked star. Fans of the caped crusader really shouldn't hesitate - this isn't just the best grown-up Batman game, it's the best superhero game, bar none.
9 / 10