Games of 2009: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Bat to basics.

If you'd told me in January that my favourite game of the year would be Batman, I would probably have scoffed in your face. Scoffed. If you'd told me that the game in question wouldn't just be a great superhero game, but simply a great game, I might have even ROFLed with a side order of LMAO. Superhero games, particularly those drawn from the DC Comics properties, just aren't supposed to reach thsse giddy heights.

Even when the initial Arkham Asylum trailers arrived, there was little to assuage my disinterest. Batman, beating up goons, in gloomy, gritty and grimy environments. How original. Even when interviews with developer Rocksteady made interesting noises, my rocklike cynicism remained mostly unmoved. Too many developers had made too many similar boasts. This comic-book nerd wasn't going to be caught out again. My hopes would not be raised.

So you can imagine my surprise when the demo was really good. Atmospheric. Varied. Addictive. My resolve was starting to crack, the monkey of doubt on my back chattered a little less insistently. Not to worry, I reassured him, they've probably put all the best bits in the demo. The game itself would surely be a weak watery repetition of these initially impressive ideas.

Fast forward again, and I'm playing the review code. And loving it. The familiar elements from the demo are scattered throughout the first few hours of play, but what surrounds them is even better. Depth. Context. Character. This, I immediately realise, is a phenomenally well-written game. I'm drawn in, engaged, invested in Batman's situation.

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Wonderfully, this is the Batman I know from the comics, not the growling, brooding thug of Christopher Nolan's movies. This is a Batman who is confident, assured and intelligent. His fighting skills back up his mind, not the other way around. Whether I'm tracking chemical particles in the air, solving clues from The Riddler or just working out the best way to use my array of gadgets to navigate a perilous underground cavern, I'm in the cowl, thinking like Batman. Fists are the least of my weapons.

This is a character driven by internal monologue on the page - just consider that great scene in Frank Miller's Batman: Year One where the emergent caped crusader painstakingly drags a stunned street punk to the top of a building and dangles him over the edge. "The scream alone is worth it," reads the caption. Rocksteady understands that voice, that calculating determination, and weaves it into the gameplay at every opportunity.

I ended up playing the game through three times. My first playthrough was stalled by a corrupt save-file right before the end. As annoying as this was, I didn't actually mind starting over. With the review out of the way, I found myself looking forward to the release date, so I could pick up a boxed copy that I could play on my civilian console, mopping up those addictive Riddler challenges.

It's rare indeed that I feel the urge to replay a game, especially so many times and in such a compressed manner. It's rarer still that it feels as fresh as it did the first time. This is what reviewers hope for every time we put a new disc in the tray - games that we start playing for work, and finish playing for pleasure.

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