Review by Osafune2

"What's this? A good game based on a superhero franchise?"

Okay, I want you to try and think of a superhero video game that is genuinely excellent, not just competent, or “quite good” but one that would be considered a killer, must-have title. Struggling yet? The reason is probably because most superhero games are based on films, and therefore made by a big name studio that don't share a love and passion for the subject matter needed to make a great superhero game. But here is some good news; if someone ever asks you the above question again, you can answer “Batman: Arkham Asylum” before telling them to get the hell out of your bathroom, it's 4am for christ sake.

Batman: AA is developed by Rocksteady studios and is based on a series of comic books by the same name. As it is a game based on comic books, it is reasonable to assume that the developer is going to be both passionate and knowledgeable about the subject matter. As soon as you fire up Arkham Asylum, you instantly know that Rocksteady care about and understand the Batman universe immensely and as a result, the game feels like a work of love and enthusiasm rather than a rushed job to coincide with the latest blockbuster film release.

The game kicks off shortly after Batman has captured his arch-nemesis Joker (voiced magnificently by Mark Hamill) and you join him as he is taken into Arkham Asylum to be incarcerated under maximum security. However, Batman is rather suspicious about how easy it was to capture the Joker, he smells a rat and as with good reason, as soon afterwards The Joker, aided by a former Arkham psychiatrist Harley Quin, makes his escape and soon takes over the entire institution and turns it into a complex labyrinth filled with traps and puzzles for Batman to solve. The story is essentially just “stop the Joker” but it will delight fans of the franchise and it contains enough easter eggs and tidbits on other characters in the comic books to hold the interest of gamers previously disinterested in Batman.

The first thing you'll notice about the game are its dark, gritty tone. It's a lot more Christian Bale than Adam West and yet it doesn't copy the Dark Knight, this is a unique game all of its own. Rocksteady clearly considered how they could make the gameplay more suited to Batman and reflect the “essence” of the character, and this results in an interesting blend of forensic style puzzle solving, stealth and of course, violent punch ups against gangs of criminally insane thugs. Batman is obviously a powerful man, but there is a vulnerability to him when you find bullets shred him up pretty quickly and when his honour causes him to refuse the use of guns. It is this element of risk that makes the gameplay more fun and stops it from ever becoming stale and you have to think your way around certain situations, rather than charging in, fists whirling.

Bruce Wayne's genius level IQ and advanced forensic training come into play in the form of detective mode. Detective mode puts everything in an eerie blue filter and highlights points of interest such as fragments of DNA from a target, or small traces of tobacco that might aid him in locating someone who he knows to be a smoker and on live targets, he can gauge they're heartbeat and how frightened or alert they are. He can also assess his environment and search for damaged walls, ventilation shafts and other potential shortcuts. Detective Mode is a very effective feature that can be toggled on or off at any time, but the real downside to this is that it is so integral to the gameplay and your progression, that you will have it left on almost constantly so as not to miss a potential clue.

The iconic and much loved gadgets such as the Baterang, Batclaw and Explosive Gel all make an appearance and can be used both in the solving of puzzles and in combat. Batman doesn't start off with all of them though, he discovers more of them as he progresses through the game a la Metroid, and similarly to the Metroid series, there is a certain level of excitement at the new paths and areas each new gadget will give you access to. You can also upgrade and improve any of them by spending experience earned from combat and puzzle solving. Though many of these upgrades are entirely optional, if you want to see everything Arkham island has to offer, you will need to purchase them all.

Another essential element of Batman's character is his fighting prowess and you will often encounter the Joker's mad men attacking you. The combat is very simple but remarkably effective, it's all controlled with one button but it revolves around countering; an enemy's head will light up indicating he is about to attack Batman and with a quick tap of the Y button, you can disarm them or knock them down. Doing this enables you to maximise your combo counter, which in turn will net you more experience. The combat is however, very simple and not particularly challenging; indeed, the only challenging aspect of combat is getting a high multiplier as there is almost no danger of dying whatsoever except against the games toughest bosses. If your opponents are unarmed, it's the more one-sided than Mike Tyson versus a mentally handicapped, blind child. With no arms. Or head. Even if one of the thugs is armed with a machine gun, a simple button press will send Batman swooping over to him to kick his brain out through the back of his head and re-insert it into his anus. Despite this the combat is very fun and enjoyable for the most part, and the animations are simply spot-on, interspersed with erection-inducing slow motion sequences for particularly brutal takedowns, making the combat feel natural and fluid.

By far the most enjoyable sequences of the game are when Batman is faced with a room full of patrolling guards, and must use stealth and cunning to take them down without being detected. This is the closest you are ever going to get to actually “becoming” Batman, you can swing from gargoyles handily suspended around most large rooms and swoop down to kick baddies in the face before vanishing into the darkness again. You are the Dark Knight and it feels great! In addition to swooping on your prey from above, you can sneak up behind them and silently knock them unconscious, or you can apply Explosive Gel to a nearby wall to knock it down on top of them. The way the fellow guards react to one of their number going missing is truly fantastic, they panic and their heart rate increases (in detective mode) and they sometimes fire random shots. You can herd them together by taking one guard out and then dropping him down nearby to distract others, before bat-kicking in the back of the head. All of this is interspersed with a running commentary from the Joker, informing his henchmen that “He's in there with you...” further creeping them out and adding to the experience.

Arkham Island itself is a memorable place, it's a semi-open world, meaning there is a linear story to follow but you're free to explore whenever you like and there is quite a lot to see and do. There is a pretty massive area outside consisting of the grounds of the Asylum and there are plenty of secrets to uncover. The most noteworthy of which being the Riddler Challenges, set by Edward Nigma, many of them involve uncovering an artifact relating to a character in the Batman franchise, but some of them are fiendishly difficult, forcing you to think laterally and explore the area thoroughly using detective mode to your advantage. Solving all of the Riddler challenges and cracking the E. Nigma Code is one of the most time-consuming challenges in the game.

Be sure to turn Detective Mode off now and again to take in the scenery, most of which is top-notch stuff. There are many environments, from a vibrant botanical garden to a darkened incarceration block and of course, a large fittingly gothic mansion. You will become very familiar with each area of Arkham Island, but the backtracking is never monotonous or dull, the pacing is kept very fast by the emergence of say, giant killer plants to thwart your path back through a once familiar area. The graphics aren't the best you're ever going to see on the Xbox 360, but they certainly get the job done and the animation is simply superb, providing excellent cutscenes and extremely visceral fights between Batman and the Joker henchmen which thankfully don't resort to over the top and frankly, comical rag doll physics.

Batman: Arkham Asylum, is a brilliantly designed game with a huge amount of polish, with excellent graphics and voice acting (with the occasional dodgy line of dialogue) and not only is this all of these things; but it's a labour of love. It's clearly made by ardent fans of the subject matter who have a clear focus and a firm understanding of what makes a great Batman game, it just feels right, and even someone who has absolutely no interest in Batman prior to playing this game can see it. They've also included tons of trivia and character bios on all the weird (and they are REALLY weird) and wonderful characters to grace the Batman universe, which I spent a great deal of time reading. It's a real sleeper hit and actually a contender for 2009's Game of the Year, who'd of thought it? A superhero game that's actually really unique and imaginative.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 12/16/09

Game Release: Batman: Arkham Asylum (EU, 08/28/09)

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