Review by Bill_Lange

"A masterpiece of gaming, this is finally the Batman game we deserve."

Batman: Arkham Asylum

A Review by Bill Lange

BOTTOM LINE: Drop whatever you're doing, run to your nearest store and buy this game. Now.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is a serious contender for Game of the Year, and could be the most improved franchise of the decade. Even if you don't know the first thing about Batman and his half-century of written and rewritten history, Arkham Asylum is the rare character-driven game that can stand alone without leaning heavily on its source material, and even avoids riding on the coat-tails of 2008's smash movie hit The Dark Knight.

A quick plot summary: Batman personally delivers the Joker back to Arkham Asylum after a poorly planned attack on the Mayor of Gotham City, but the detective is suspicious of the killer clown's relative lack of resistance. Turns out he's right to be a bit wary of Joker's intentions; the whole thing was a ruse to take control of Arkham Island. But to what end? The storyline is just an excuse to pit Batman against his rogue's gallery of villains, but it works. Fanservice is well-represented here, but the core gameplay mechanics are rock-solid.

Arkham Asylum is well-balanced between three basic ways to play: exploration and investigation, hand-to-hand combat and stealth. The three are seamlessly blended together, to the point where you never get impatient waiting for a new section of the game to open up.

Aiding Batman with his sleuthing is his cowl computer's Detective Mode, which points out hostiles, collectibles, hiding spots, and other important items. Detective Mode can also be reprogrammed as the story requires, allowing Batman to track fingerprints and other evidence. Leaving it on all the time could make the game too easy for some, though it's arguably the most important tool in the player's arsenal.

Aside from working one's way through the unfolding drama, there's a multitude of other content to tackle within story mode. Early on, the Riddler hacks into your comm system, taunting you with over two hundred riddles and challenges for the well-trained mind and eye. Many of these involve scanning for objects or hidden question marks in Detecive Mode, and others have you hunting for chattering Joker teeth to smash and chronicles of Amadeus Arkham, the man who built the asylum.

Before you get too comfortable scanning this and smashing that, remember that you've also got an army of psychos and hardened criminals running around the island to deal with. Perhaps the most enjoyable ways to bring them down are the stealth-based Predator sections, where Batman strikes fear into a pack of gun-toting thugs by picking them off one by one. The possibilities are endless: swoop down from an overhanging gargoyle and string up one goon, then glide kick another across the room from your high perch. Hide in grates under the floor to surprise patrolling baddies, and utilize your arsenal of gadgets to set traps like explosive gel proximity mines and sonic batarangs.

No game has ever made the player feel more like Batman; as you slowly isolate them and whittle down their ranks, thugs become more and more nervous, shouting into the darkness and muttering to themselves fearfully. The last man standing will fire his weapon blindly in all directions, terrified by the Dark Knight lurking in the shadows.

Batman is far from helpless in hand-to-hand combat, though. You'll look forward to cracking some heads whenever you stumble upon a pack of unarmed goons, since combat is so visceral and brutal. The controls may seem deceptively simple at first, with one attack button, one counter button and one stun button, but think again. Fighting in Arkham Asylum is all about combos, and keeping the flow of combat rolling for as long as possible. Enemies never attack alone, but strength in numbers is only an illusion here.

Unfortunately, boss fights are considerably less fun than brawling with random malcontents. Aside from a tense, perfectly scripted encounter with Killer Croc, battles with super-villains boil down to studying and exploiting repeated attack patterns until a health bar is depleted. Maybe these boss fights are disappointing because Batman's rogue's gallery are his physical and mental peers (or superiors), who aren't as easily spooked by his larger-than-life image like lesser foes are.

Fans of Batman's early to mid-'90s animated series will recognize many of the voices presented in Arkham Asylum. Of highest esteem are Kevin Conroy, voicing Batman, and the immortal Mark Hamill, whose breakout role as the Joker in the cartoon launched his second career in voice acting. Hamill steals the show with his portrayal of Joker, somehow managing to make the Clown Prince of Crime simultaneously funny, charismatic and terrifyingly unhinged. His one-liners delivered through the island's public address system never get old, and Joker's threats toward his cronies can be genuinely unsettling. For example: forcing a thug to thank him for only breaking his wife's legs as punishment for failing him, instead of killing her.

I've left out a few surprises, because I really believe that you should stop reading right now and buy this game. Superb graphics, gameplay and audio come together to make a perfect storm of gaming bliss. Batman: Arkham Asylum is a must-play for any gamer.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 09/11/09

Game Release: Batman: Arkham Asylum (US, 08/25/09)

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