Format: 360, PC, PS3 (version tested)
Release: Out now (360, PS3), September 18 (PC)
Publisher: Square Enix Europe
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Holy Metacritic, Batman! They’ve finally bothered to dedicate considerable time and resources to putting you in a decent videogame!” “You may be right, old chum, but past experience tells us that Dr Mediocrity could yet be waiting to make his move. Pass the Critic-Repellent Bat-Spray, and stay alert.”
There’s no need. Batman: Arkham Asylum is by some distance the best superhero game of modern times, trumping even Spider-Man 2 with its interpretation of its lead character’s abilities, and achieving a standard of cast and environmental work that only rarely falters. It’s a guaranteed seller and a huge commercial venture, but don’t be dazzled by the dollar bills and licensing: this is the product of a development team with real love for the character and his world.
The first, and most important, thing that Arkham Asylum gets right is its combat. Batman’s a painstakingly modelled muscleman, but he moves like a panther between targets, intercepting blows, breaking ankles and disarming thugs with ease. The system is part timing and part pattern-spotting, and when mastered proves about as perfect a combination of brutality, fluidity and grace as you could wish for. The challenge ramps up with enemies that require specific tactics thrown into the mix, but it never becomes truly difficult; rather, the skill lies in maintaining an unbroken combo and flowing between opponents without missing an opportunity.
But when the crims get their lumpy hands on guns, fisticuffs becomes suicide. These stealthier engagements are about setting up one-button silent takedowns and, although limited in scope, are often thrilling. Batman drops from a gargoyle and pulls up a thug, dangling him from the outcrop before swinging away. As his comrades run to investigate, you silently drop down behind one and choke him unconscious, hiding around the corner from the body. Finally, as the last thug runs over, terrified, you’re able to burst out from hiding with an elbow to the throat and an excitable grin.
And that’s something you’ll be seeing a lot of. The Joker’s a constant presence in Arkham Asylum, from the opening cutscene to its final moments, and as you progress the environment changes with the plot. It’s not a radical evolution, but it’s typical of the attention to detail in the location as a whole. There are in-jokes everywhere, with a field of reference that will satisfy both the most general and the most mylar-bagged of fans, and each location comes with its own set of Riddler-assigned mysteries that encourage poking around. What’s even more remarkable is that, in a genre that comes with boxy buildings and forgettable NPCs as standard, the asylum mostly stands up to close scrutiny. It’s perhaps a little too drab to ever be called inspired, especially with its abundance of sewers, vents and re-used assets, but it’s packed with detail and offers up its share of breathtaking moments.
Not every crack in the asylum walls is so smoothly papered over. It’s disappointing that the combat system is only triumphant in terms of your engagement with bread-andbutter enemies. The boss fights see Arkham Asylum at its worst, presenting monotonous challenges you’ve seen many times before (Bane), repetitive patterns of attack (Poison Ivy), and one-hit-kill boredom (Scarecrow). And the ending delivers the worst offender of the lot (one word for you: BioShock).
Then there’s the odd method of escaping enemies. Arkham Asylum’s focus on what it calls ‘predator’ moments rather than musty old stealth is hugely empowering, albeit with one key fault. The system’s designed to minimise all the waiting around players normally tolerate, but by going to an extreme where hiding plays no role whatsoever it’s arguably incapable of tension: when you’re spotted, you escape by grappling upwards, then swinging around on gargoyles. Enemies will watch the first swing, and occasionally a few subsequent ones, but then they’ll forget about the besuited psychopath who likes hiding in the rafters and go back to their ground-level routines. You can run away and hide, too, but why bother? It feels like an old-fashioned flaw, and jars as part of such a well-polished experience.
Depending on your perspective, Arkham Asylum’s final failing could be an irritant or an ideal. You’ll quickly realise that this is an experience that’s been heavily focus-tested. The narrative cracks along with the aid of a big map telling you where to go next, and there’s no scope in the game’s situations to come up with creative solutions. The detective element is cursory at best: scan a room, pick up a trail, then follow it – every single time. Enter a room with multiple baddies armed with weapons and you’ll have your attention drawn to their presence several times. And is what we’re calling the ‘win visor’, which shows you where opponents are and what they’re armed with using garish reds and blues, really necessary?
Perhaps it is. There are wonderful moments in Arkham Asylum that play with the player, and with being Batman, but what holds it back from true greatness is a certain timidity. There’s a fear of straying too far from certain templates in its boss and environment design. Batman has the greatest rogue’s gallery in the world; Arkham Asylum does not. But against those disappointments is the figure of Batman himself, realised with a confidence and fluidity that is nothing short of definitive, looking perfectly capable of carrying the inevitable sequels with few, if any, changes. There’s the asylum itself, a decayed vision that strikes you as more hopeless than most of its inmates. And the fast, flexible and visually spectacular combat system is worth another mention, allied to an environment that lets you dictate the terms of engagement, within a world that not only deserves exploration but rewards it. Above all, you get to be Batman. And isn’t that, deep down, what everyone wants?