Some might say we're late to the party with the face-off coverage of Batman: Arkham Asylum, but we've got two very good reasons to explain the delay. First up, our demo showdown did a fairly effective job of discerning the key talking points with the console versions. Secondly, developer Rocksteady has put a great deal of effort into the PC build and we wanted to cover that in-depth too. Since Eidos wouldn't supply PC or indeed PS3 code, we ended up buying them, which meant waiting for the official release like everyone else.
In many respects Arkham Asylum is a perfect convergence of technology, art and design. While some developers have managed to break free of its stylistic shackles Rocksteady has instead embraced the core look of the Unreal Engine 3 technology, with a hardcore-pleasing rendering of Batman and his world that looks fantastic. On a similar theme, the gothic renderings of Arkham Asylum often have echoes of some of the architecture seen in Epic's own games featuring UE3 technology.
Combine this with a game design that truly reflects the character of the Dark Knight, the key voice actors from the animated series plus a great story from Paul Dini, and it's pretty easy to see why Batman: Arkham Asylum is one of the best games of the year.
In terms of the usual face-off shenanigans, it's no secret that the Microsoft platform has clear advantages in terms of performance and image quality - but the variation between the two games is nowhere near as pronounced as some other Unreal Engine 3 projects. You can see for yourself in the 720p and 1080p comparison galleries we've put together. The 720p area offers up like-for-like shots from all three versions of the game, while 1080p pitches the upscaled 360 image against the PC's native 1080p mode at nigh-on max settings.
Here's the obligatory Xbox vs. PS3 Face-Off video, and be sure to check out the HD version available via the EGTV clickthrough, which has more clips, more pixels and is generally a much more comprehensive way to check out the differences between the two console games.
First up is that perennial old favourite: anti-aliasing. In common with most UE3 games the Xbox 360 version does have smoothed edges, significantly reducing the "jaggy" factor. However, the 2x multi-sampling (MSAA) effect is not quite so obvious as it is on other games. It seems to be the case that the AA is selectively deployed. The best theory to explain this is that additional processing is undertaken after the AA is applied, and the effects of that are not edge-smoothed.
Regardless, the PS3 version still manages to hold its own. In a dark game like Arkham Asylum, the edge artifacts are naturally diminished - certainly in the demo, the overall image quality of both games was pretty much like-for-like.
However, the final retail game has far more varied backgrounds and the more you play, the more noticeable the differences become. Similarly, the more subtle effects that the Xbox 360 gets, such as the ambient occlusion, also become more evident, in this case serving to give the game's visuals more depth. Over and above that there are texture differences too: there's a slight downgrading of some detail on PS3 (only really noticeable on close-ups) and the normal maps have taken a knock. Also quite bizarre is the fact that the camera work on PS3 has been subtly altered in many situations: the view has been pulled back, changing the look of many of the cut-scenes.
Raw performance, in terms of the sheer number of frames being pumped out, is very close indeed between the two consoles - but once again, the Xbox 360 version offers the smoother, more visually coherent experience. Both games are locked at 30FPS, and will drop v-sync in order to maintain that smoothness as much as possible. The introduction of tearing is what sets these games apart: it's rarely noticeable on Xbox 360 (though it is there), but is far more apparent on PS3 in certain areas; generally speaking, the larger the gameplay arena, the more tearing you'll get.
The performance deficit on PS3 probably won't be noticed by many, and will be irrelevant if you don't have the Xbox 360 or PC games to hand as points of reference. And while the differences are technical realities, the impact this all has on the gameplay is thankfully minimal. Where it counts, each version is just as much fun to play as the other. Indeed, PS3 claws back some brownie points is via its exclusive PSN download content: the Joker Challenge Rooms.
By default, the game gives you plenty of challenges "out of the box" regardless of the platform you play it on. Aspects of the Arkham Asylum geography are exploited for specific tasks - usually involving all-out fighting or more involving stealth-style gameplay. The big difference is that a 107MB download from PSN opens up exclusive challenges for the PS3 where you get to "be" the Joker. The success of this bonus content is somewhat double-edged, however: the whole gameplay concept behind Arkham Asylum is built around Batman: who he is, what he does and how he does it.
There is a definite sense that the Joker character has been shoehorned into that concept and the result is less satisfying. It's entirely in keeping with Batman's character that he would engage a gang of cons head-on and defeat them all, seeing that he is one of the DC universe's pre-eminent martial artists. Witnessing the Joker do the same doesn't quite compute: he's more of a thinker than a fighter, a fact brought home by the single-player mode's excellent storyline. While the idea doesn't seem quite right, there are a number of great things about the DLC over and above the plain and simple fact that you're getting more content for free. There's new voicework from the Batman cartoon cast, and the Joker does have some nice toys to play with, including an enormous single-shot pistol. Plus you get the chance to repeatedly pummel Commissioner Gordon.
Console-wise then, you pay your money, you take your choice. It's content versus performance. In terms of personal preference, I'd take the performance over a nice, but not essential bit of bonus DLC, but fair play to Eidos and PSN for a canny bit of marketing - there is the sense that in terms of the gameplay you're only getting the full thing on PS3 and that's a powerful motivating force in what is the undoubtedly the biggest game of the summer.
The introduction of the PC version of Arkham Asylum sets the cat amongst the pigeons somewhat. In all of the most recent PC Tech Comparison features (Red Faction: Guerrilla, Street Fighter IV, and to a lesser extent, Resident Evil 5), we've seen that the PC conversions of the console games basically buy you extra frames and more pixels, but very little else. You might get the odd graphical effect unseen on console, or NVIDIA 3D Vision support, but that's it.
Batman: Arkham Asylum on the other hand is just about everything I would want from a PC conversion, and the best thing is, I haven't had to wait untold months to get my hands on what is clearly the ultimate iteration of the game. A lot of the game's success is down to the Unreal Engine 3 framework from Epic Games. While the middleware has been used on a significant proportion of this generation's console titles, the fact is that Epic is comprised of PC people, its engine performs best on PC, and you don't need stupidly expensive hardware to get excellent performance.
In terms of a direct comparison between console and PC, here's the requisite face-off video. The video kicks off with Xbox 360 up against PC, then repeats with the PS3 version. A clickthrough to the HD version via the EGTV link makes all the difference here, and if you want to engage your own "detective mode", the comparison gallery is probably the best place to start for a forensic analysis.
An initial glance at like-for-like 720p video shows that the PC version is much the same, but with much more in the way of visual refinement. We can comfortably up anti-aliasing to anything up to 8x with little performance impact on the hardware we used, detail is significantly increased (most noticeable on close-up objects), and texture filtering is also much better on PC. Characters have higher details levels and a more impressive detail shader to boot. The best thing about all of this is that these improvements will scale upwards too, meaning that 1080p is even more impressive.
It's often been the case with the PC games we've looked at that the developer has merely ported over their existing console work to the platform, added some resolution settings and not much else. You can run the game in 1080p but the assets weren't really designed for it. With Batman: Arkham Asylum, the PC version has superior quality artwork and an engine that thrives on PC. It's the best platform for getting the most out of the game.
So, just how good is the performance and what sort of graphics card do you need? Batman: Arkham Asylum has its own benchmarking tool. I decided to use its preset sequences in concert with Digital Foundry's own FPS analysis tool to give a better indication of performance. In terms of settings, everything's set to the max, aside from PhysX (off) and anti-aliasing set to 4x MSAA.
Two GPUs are used here in concert with a base-level i7 at 2.66GHz: the GTS250 lower end enthusiast card (also known as the 9800GTX) alongside a top-of-the-line GTX295. At 720p, there's actually no point showing the video - performance is entirely identical. Here, at 1080p, we see that the GTX295 runs at max frame rate while the GTS250 hits a minimum of 44FPS, but still manages an overall average of around 58FPS. This is v-synced too. If you're looking for a sustained frame rate, a quick tweak of the config file seems to be able to cap frames, so you could limit yourself to 30FPS if that's what you want, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it - the benchmark seems to put more stress on the GPU than in-game action does.
Batman: Arkham Asylum doesn't exactly tax the CPU either. I'd say that just about any decent dual core CPU should run the game just fine, and a 9800GT/9800GTX/GTS250 level of GPU should give you an excellent performance at 1080p60. In fact, one of my colleagues has had a console-bettering experience using a 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo and NVIDIA 7950GT, meaning that even much older PCs stand a great chance of running this game very well indeed.
For those willing to invest a bit more cash into their PCs, there's also the matter of PhysX support, which comes in two flavours. The "normal" level is tailored to those using higher end NVIDIA GPUs - specifically the GTX260, or better. Additional effects you'll see in the video are added to the scene, and in some cases, the difference is visually quite dramatic. However, at "high" level, Rocksteady has really gone to town on the effects - so much so that using a single GPU is effectively disastrous, giving slideshow like performance. Indeed, the developer recommends that you have a 9800GTX level card in addition to your main GPU simply to run the physics, and here's a sampler of what you get:
There are some very nice effects: volumetric smoke/gas pervades the asylum, adding to the atmosphere, and it has gameplay uses too, providing additional cover. Paper and cloth are emulated nicely, tiles smash, scenery crumbles and there are some major bonuses in the Scarecrow's nightmare visions. It's by no means essential to the gameplay experience, but it is impressive, it is exclusive, and at times the impact is striking. The PC version already has clear graphical advantages over the console offerings, and this adds additional loveliness to the proceedings that are very welcome indeed.
The disadvantage is that depending on the GPU, performance is impacted significantly with PhysX enabled in "normal" mode - to the point where to maintain 1080p60 you really need a second graphics card dedicated solely to the physics calculations. Now we're starting to talk serious money, but at least SLI users can deploy their hardware in a different fashion to get the top-end experience.
I'm very much an advocate of the PC as the "fourth console", with the platform having just as much right to sit under your HDTV as the Xbox 360 or PC. Indeed, for those with 1080p displays, the PC is just about the only hardware available capable of offering a true "full HD" experience on virtually any game. But my recent experiences with console conversions have left me a little cold: the interminable delays waiting for the games to appear months after the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions is bad enough, but poorly performing software for those with top-end kit is shocking.
Batman: Arkham Asylum on the other hand does much to restore the faith. It is palpably and measurably better than the console versions and I haven't had to wait three to six months to play it. It generally looks better, has more in the way of bonus bling (depending on your hardware) and crucially, being able to run the game at 60FPS has a tangible, positive impact on the gameplay.
Controller lag is noticeable on the console versions, more so than on other Unreal Engine titles I've played. It's still there running at 60FPS on PC, but it is significantly reduced to the point where the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions feel rather sloth-like in comparison. More than that, the "FreeFlow" combat system greatly benefits, feeling far more responsive and enjoyable to use than on console. Put it this way: you wouldn't want to play Tekken or VF5 at 30FPS, and after enjoying Batman combat at 60 frames, it's very difficult to go back.
Whether it's down to the Unreal Engine underpinnings, or simply Rocksteady's efforts to get the most out of the platform, the bottom line is that the PC version makes a great game even better, and you don't need prohibitively expensive hardware to get a top-class experience. As a textbook example of a cross-platform project that exemplifies the PC's performance advantages, Batman: Arkham Asylum is absolutely superb.