Release Date: August 25, 2009
System: Xbox 360, PS3, Windows Vista/XP
Rating: Teen (Alcohol Reference, Blood, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Tobacco Reference, Violence)
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Comic-related video games have a…storied history. They range from the mediocre to the execrable, on the whole, with a tiny number of counter-examples scattered across the pages of game history. In those few bright spots, though, one hero has been consistently under-served: Batman. Attempts have been made to digitize the Dark Knight before, to be sure, and you might find a few copies still lurking in the discount shovelware bins at used game outlets. They’re not worth whatever price is marked.
From the first teaser images released by Eidos, Batman: Arkham Asylum was clearly in a different league. Using Epic’s Unreal Engine, the game’s designers deliver a less cartoonish caped crusader and a truly disturbing rogue’s gallery of classic villains, all through the twisted lens one would expect with the title’s invocation of Gotham’s disturbing sanitarium. The end result is a tense, atmospheric chess game between Bats and his most notorious foe, the Joker. Along the way, you’ll square off against several other long-time adversaries of Batman, including the game’s most memorable (and disturbing) sequences against Scarecrow and Batman’s own darkest fears.
[ad#longpost]The story, provided by legendary Batman writer Paul Dini, starts with Batman returning Joker to Arkham for incarceration, only to find himself locked inside as Joker seizes control and turns the inmates loose to run the asylum. The full extent of Joker’s plans is unveiled through exploration and detective work, as you explore the island’s several facilities beating up thugs and rescuing stranded hospital and prison staff. Voice work is provided by many of the same actors who played these roles for Dini’s excellent animated Batman shows, including the fantastic pairing of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. Once in command of the island, Joker’s constant harassment via the island’s PA system adds more to the atmosphere than just about any other single element. Taunting his own henchmen as Batman wipes them out is a particularly nice touch.
The combat system is deceptively simple. One button for attacks, one button for counters, and a small number of special moves attained through unlocked options. Using these simple tools, Rocksteady managed to capture the essence of Batman fisticuffs. Once you master the timing and the optional tools, taking down a dozen thugs simultaneously is well within reach, accompanied by fantastic attack animations and lovingly rendered slow-mo take-downs. There is little that captures the essence of Batman better than gliding in to the back of a mook’s head, bouncing batarangs off two of his friends, and then dismantling a couple more with brutal martial arts efficiency. Little, that is, except for taking them out in the dark, one at a time. The stealth game play is every bit as polished as the combat, and similarly captures something that is quintessentially Batman. In encounters with firearm-toting thugs, one must take a more circumspect approach, dealing with enemies singly and, ideally, without being detected by their friends. Pulling them over ledges, snatching them around blind corners, dropping down on a line to snatch them off the floor and suspend them from the ceiling…this is sneaky Batman at his finest, with the added bonus of vision enhancements to track the escalating panic in the remaining thugs as their hearts race and they start blind-firing at shadows.
The World’s Greatest Detective has never had such a fine showing in a video game. With 10-15 hours worth of campaign play and a series of “challenge maps” to extend the fun, it’s probably playable as a rental, but if you’ve ever wanted to vote for quality with your wallet, this one deserves your coin. With any luck, sales will inspire Rocksteady and Eidos to make more like this one. And if you get the collector’s edition, it comes with a batarang. Just sayin’.