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.