On the one hand, there's something maddening about turning up to Eidos' Wimbledon headquarters to play Batman: Arkham Asylum and discovering that it's another two challenge rooms - self-contained, unlockable leaderboard-based action set pieces - that I'm here to play, rather than the single-player story mode itself. But on the other, there's something unusually reassuring about it: I'm desperate to play Batman: Arkham Asylum, a licensed superhero videogame. This may actually be a first.
This preview isn't though, as you will know if you've followed our coverage so far, including last month's hands-on with the first two challenge rooms. This time Eidos is showing off a more developed Batman from later in the game, and I'm guiding him through an "extreme" version of the first Combat room, Intensive Treatment, and an Invisible Predator section unlocked closer to the middle of the single-player campaign.
Relatively little has been said in public about how the story mode plays out, but we can infer a lot from the manner in which the challenge rooms are unlocked and the states in which you face them. There are 16 rooms in total, and some are opened up based on progress, while others become available when you collect a certain number of Joker teeth hidden around Arkham. Staggered between these will be other Brucie bonuses, which develop Batman's battlefield vocabulary through variation, physical enhancement and new gadgets. In other words, there are regular rewards, and they take some digging out.
The challenge rooms, which alternate between Combat and Invisible Predator, are designed for high-scores repeat play, and become more enjoyable as Batman becomes more potent. Whereas last month's trip to Intensive Treatment was a rhythmic but limited procession of twirling strikes, disorientating counters and the occasional leg-break, the Batman facing today's extreme alternative is more sure of himself.
Close combat in third-person games usually goes one of two ways - complex hackandslash, or one-hit-killery - but Arkham Asylum is closer to capoeira, as Batman spins and pirouettes through the Joker's goons, following your analogue direction to a specific target and improvising the encounter based on a catalogue of contextual blows, providing you hit the single attack button within a certain window. Distance isn't a factor, and combos follow, counting up at the side of the screen.
Complication stems from counters, the need to stun certain enemies with your cape-spin, and the availability of multipliers, throws and takedowns once you cross combo thresholds. Throws can be used to toss enemies over barriers or into electric fences, and the more elaborate takedowns bend backs and twist limbs to breaking point, the savagery of the spectacle matched ably by the grace of the animation and the wet crunch of fist and boot on muscle. Gadgets like the batarang and bat-claw trigger-button moves encourage experimentation, which is useful because you accumulate score bonuses for things like variety and avoiding damage. Both Combat and Invisible Predator feed into leaderboards, with global and friends filters, and the best scores will rely on those bonuses.
It's not just Batman with more to say though; the Joker's goon squad is out in greater force, and with new tricks for Intensive Treatment Extreme. Crowd control is ramped up as henchmen start to attack with lead pipes and go for a locked gun cabinet, which sounds a siren. With gunfire tearing Batman down so easily, it's important to keep their hands off it. Health regenerates between enemy waves, but only slightly, and the final opposition line-up gives you a knife-toting Victor Zsasz to worry about, forcing you to reach for cape-spin stun moves rather than traditional counters. Skill prevails, except I didn't have enough of it across half a dozen attempts.
Fortunately I did when it came to the next challenge room, Survival Tactics. Set at the prisoner entrance to Arkham, it's a series of overlapping, split-level walkways surrounding a small stack of admin buildings smothered in staircases, topped off with a glass roof, all of which is circled by the gargoyle-spattered bleakness of the asylum's outer wall. As with the other Invisible Predator challenges, it's a broader space, emphasising height as much as breadth and patrolled by half a dozen henchmen, each packing an assault rifle.
Each could be tackled hand to hand, but the cost of incurring gunfire is prohibitive, and enemies are drawn to their comrades' plight when you engage them directly, so it's safer to use the left-bumper Detective mode to locate them (they appear as glowing red skeletons, through walls and all) and then isolate stragglers by grappling and gliding around the room at gargoyle height to employ stealth kills, also called takedowns. There are obvious attacks - by holding the right trigger to crouch, you can sneak up behind someone like Sam Fisher, peering out of cover, before performing a silent takedown from behind - but the more severe and elaborate finishers are correspondingly satisfying. They're also immeasurably cooler.
You can travel between grapple points at surprising speed with a few stabs of the right bumper, so it's tempting to go for the most iconic kill, witnessed last month, where Batman hangs upside down and hoists the target from his feet, leaving him dangling by a cord, where he will attract attention and terrify the other henchmen. You can then encourage them to disperse by firing a batarang from afar to snap the rope, and hopefully notch up a falling-body kill in the process.
Or you can work harder for your payoff, using a glide-kick to swoop silently over distance and disable a bad-guy, before silently rubbing him out on the ground and firing a swift grapple to ascend back to the shadows. Situational takedowns are typically brutal and more exotic, allowing you to haul an enemy neck-backwards onto a railing that you're suspended from.
As with Combat modes, there are sub-objectives, but in this case they emphasise takedown variation - the most satisfying and elusive in this instance being to smash through a glass ceiling onto an enemy beneath, which first involves coaxing the AI down the right pathways. It's this kind of kill-hunting that exposes Invisible Predator for what it really is: playing with your food. All the meanwhile, a clock quietly rounds up time taken; the best people on the leaderboards will have to match a short kill window to a checklist of sub-objectives.
But what's especially promising about Arkham Asylum is the things you don't immediately concentrate on as you compete for fast times and heavy combos: there's no slack in the economical controls, which allow you to dance around and disable enemies, and hunt with predatory poise through a minimum of button presses; the camera is right-stick controlled and seldom if ever gets in the way; and developer Rocksteady's use of the Unreal Engine not only articulates the steaming noir of Batmans of comic and screen, but delivers it with complete coherency. As a variation on the traditionally brutish Unreal aesthetic, it's stylistic enough to outstand lingering memories of both The Dark Knight and Gears of War, but polished enough to stand up to direct comparison. It is, overall, looking and feeling as significant as any other game we've previewed this year.
So yes, we've long since overcome our scepticism of this as another licensed game, and even the tantalising reveal, focusing on short sections and piecemeal challenges, has enhanced the game's mysticism. Rights-holder Warner is keeping a tight leash on The Message, but whispers from those in the know outside Eidos cradle influences as diverse as Half-Life and Metroid. There is much that could yet deflect Batman: Arkham Asylum from comparable accolades, but what we've seen so far is certainly capable of scaling to these lofty benchmarks.
And I'm still desperate to play Batman: Arkham Asylum. Can I come back?
Batman: Arkham Asylum is due out this summer for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.