It's the Joker, he Riddler and Catwoman vs. you!
While the Dark Knight has swooped onto every games machine since the dawn of digital entertainment, few developers have paid homage to the fact this shadowy sleuth began life in DC’s legendary Detective Comics, instead ditching the caped crusader’s snooping skills in favour of his more bombastic brawling, acrobatics and gadget-wielding. But for comicbook fans still yearning for the perfect bat-game, Arkham Asylum comes damned close.
Set in Gotham’s grim loony bin – home to the city’s most dangerous nutjobs – Arkham Asylum finds Batman escorting the recently-arrested Joker to his padded cell, only for the grinning maniac to escape and take over the isolated facility. Now, with an army of villains including the Riddler, Harley Quinn and Catwoman on their way to help the Joker take over Gotham, players are tasked with picking their way through the trap-laden madhouse to halt Batman’s nemesis in his tracks.
Cleverly mixing brutal action and puzzle-solving, Arkham’s most notable gameplay device is its stylish ‘detective mode’, which is much like the Scan Visor in Nintendo’s classic Metroid Prime; by tapping a button, a blue, cartoonish filter cloaks the action, highlighting interesting items around the environment such as gargoyles Batman can swing from or ventilation shafts that can be kicked open, allowing players to use stealth to outwit armed enemies, analyse scraps of evidence to solve bigger problems, or find secret tunnels to restricted areas.
Naturally for a Batman game, the cunning stealth and investigation sequences are punctuated by ferocious fisticuffs, all driven by the game’s ‘FreeFlow Combat’ system that allows players to unleash a breathtaking series of attacks using the simplest of button strokes. Moreover, as the strikes in Batman’s arsenal can be upgraded as the story unfolds, it isn’t long before players are elegantly cartwheeling to dodge punches or walloping goons with a tsunami of jaw-shattering punches, the simple controls allowing even the greenest gamer to unleash a dervish of violence that keeps the combat thrilling from start to finish.
Action aside, what’s most remarkable about Batman’s latest outing is its razor-sharp, Hollywood-style presentation. A paean to Tim Burton’s dark imagining of the masked manhunter, the game is a gothic delight, bathed in long shadows, hemmed in by crumbling brickwork, and set against a backdrop of lashing rain and flashing lightning. The game’s affectionate take on DC’s most famous characters is also stunning, each hero and villain brought to life with incredible attention to detail, right down to the Joker’s grotesque laughter lines and steel rivets in Batman’s strapping body armour.
But while Arkham Asylum is easily the best looking comicbook game in console history – and the developers have gone to extraordinary lengths to make the action and movie sequences segue seamlessly into each other – the game doesn’t offer the same delirious feeling of superpowered liberty as true free-roaming adventures, instead bamboozling players with a grandiose sense of scale where the city of Gotham is visible in the distance as you stalk the asylum grounds, but while funnelling players down a linear path where you solve specific problems, rather than leaving the beaten path behind and making your own fun.
As a comicbook brought to life – or the best Batman movie never made – Arkham Asylum is an imaginative, accomplished and electrifying piece of software that deserves a top score for its blockbuster production values. But anyone looking for the dizzying rush you get from freeform adventures such as Spider-Man 2 or Hulk: Ultimate Destruction will find their deific desires more successfully sated by recent triple-A releases InFamous and Prototype.