Adam West’s highly camp portrayal of the caped crusader, complete with fantastically cheesy dialogue and pants special effects (including a rubber shark that beats even Jaws as ‘least convincing aquatic antagonist’), was the stuff of legend. Most hardcore Batman fans would dismiss it as total tosh, but the old series definitely had a good thing going as crappy Sunday afternoon television. Regardless, the show would certainly make for a lousy videogame adaption. For a start, every time you punched a baddie, the entire screen would be obscured by ‘POW!’ and ‘KABLOOIE!’ signs. By the time the captions finally faded, you’d likely be splayed out on your back with miniature bats circling your head. The only enticing prospect would be a digitalised Lee Meriwether, complete with leather catsuit and foxy glare. Meow!
Thankfully, developers Rocksteady decided to turn to the dark knight’s original DC adventures and the brilliant animated series when they started on their latest title. Arkham Asylum takes several key names involved with the animation, including writer Paul Dini and cast members Mark Hamill, Kevin Conroy and Arleen Sarkin, and throws them in with a plot loosely based on the Grant Morrison graphic novel. With that much talent on offer, hopes were high that Arkham Asylum would be the most authentic, immersive Batman experience since…well, since ever.
The game immediately breaks tradition by opening with the capture of master criminal The Joker, who is swiftly escorted by Bats to the aforementioned asylum. Sounds like the shortest game ever, right? Problem is, the crazy clown gave up just a little too easily and Batman has one of those deep, uneasy feelings that something sinister is afoot. You take control of the caped crusader as he follows Joker deep into the bowels of the facility in an interactive credits sequence, which sets the atmosphere and builds the tension superbly. Sure enough, things quickly go pear-shaped - come on, even Mystic Meg could have worked that one out - and Joker escapes before releasing the other inmates, including several famous faces that Batman personally put away.
As soon as it all kicks off, you’re immediately surrounded and set upon by a room full of peeved prisoners. No tutorial levels or ‘press x to crouch’ segments here. Thankfully the combat system is intuitive and feels completely natural, as just a couple of buttons are needed to effectively fight off the hordes. A single ‘attack’ command makes Batman throw a punch or a kick in the direction aimed, while ‘counter’ intercepts any enemy attack and turns it back on them. On easy and normal difficulty, an indicator over an enemy’s head shows when they’re about to strike, so taking on a huge group of inmates at once is surprisingly simple and flows incredibly well. You can chain together attacks and counters to build a points multiplier, and throw in extra moves such as throws to take down crowds even faster. It’s easily the best combat system implemented in any game for quite some time, and also fantastically brutal. Each blow feels sickeningly real, especially the final enemy takedown which is shown up close in gut-wrenching slow motion.
Of course, Batman isn’t known for just wading into fights with hundreds of henchmen (he’s tough, but he isn’t Arnie). Stealth is a key tactic for survival, especially in areas where enemies are heavily armed. Fortunately, the stealthy segments are just as well implemented as the combat. Most rooms and outdoor sections are covered in high ledges and gargoyles, which Batman can swing to for an undisrupted view of the area. From there you can jump down on unsuspecting foes, or even snatch them and leave them helplessly dangling. Although Batman only starts with his trusty batarangs, you soon pick up other gadgets which can be used for silent takedowns, or - in the case of the explosive gel - some incredibly noisy takedowns. Add to this the dark knight’s x-ray vision, and you can sneak up most enemies with very little effort.
Although some segments of the game leave it up to you whether you adopt brute force or cautious sneaking, you’re often forced to use either one or the other. For example, in tight corridors with no shadows or conveniently-placed gargoyles, there’s little option but to run full-pelt at a group of foes. Similarly, there’s the occasional forced-stealth section where alerting an enemy to your presence results in an automatic game over. A little more freedom would have been appreciated, but it’s no big deal when the combat and stealth are both excellent. Aside from a section later on, where your ability to swing about in the rafters is cruelly taken away, the game never really gets frustrating. This is helped by a fairly forgiving enemy AI, which makes the average inmate quite easy to sneak up on.
Batman has one of the most diverse and exciting enemy rosters of any comic, and Arkham Asylum is home to a significant portion of them. A few of these make an appearance at some stage and have been lovingly recreated, which should delight fans. Joker and his fanatical admirer Harley Quinn are perfect as the main antagonists, baiting Batman with perverse pleasure, while the other villains serve as bosses spread throughout the game. Killer Croc in particular impresses as a vengeful titan that towers over the dark knight. An early encounter and the occasional glimpse of his huge, meaty frame only serves to build anticipation of the inevitable nerve-shredding showdown. However, the greatest surprise was Scarecrow, whose inclusion provides some enjoyably surreal moments possibly inspired by Gamecube horror title Eternal Darkness.
You’ll spend a considerable amount of time in the asylum dealing with various enemies, but Batman occasionally returns to his DC roots and indulges in a spot of light detective work. These sections are sadly rather basic. Simply switch to detective mode and hunt around in a restricted area to find fingerprints or other trace evidence, which usually stand out a mile and are highlighted as soon as you look in their general direction. It’s a shame more wasn’t made of the investigative work, but detective mode itself is incredibly useful and very cool to use. You can switch to it at any time to see suspects’ or hostages’ heat signals through walls, along with their pulse and condition. Startle an enemy by leaving an unconscious friend of his strung from the roof, and you can watch his BPM skyrocket as he staggers around, blind-firing into the shadows.
Arkham Asylum’s main story might be linear, but there’s plenty of distractions if you feel like a break from hunting the Joker. For a start, The Riddler presents you early on with 240 mini challenges to complete on your travels. This involves everything from finding hidden trophies and destroying chattering teeth to scanning an item that solves a cryptic clue. The challenges encourage careful exploration, and revisiting cleared areas as your arsenal of gadgets increases to pick up anything you previously missed. The Riddler himself lays on sarcastic praise for each one ticked off, which only adds to the satisfaction of tracking down a particularly tricky trophy. Batman fans are well catered for by the extras, as many of the cryptic clues involve a piece of the dark knight’s folklore, and there’s a number of ‘interview tapes’ scattered around the facility that give some extra insight into the notorious inmates.
Almost every preview of Arkham Asylum lauded the stunning graphics, and to actually see them in action is an absolute joy. Rocksteady have created a dark, often unsettling world filled with beautifully rendered environments. The asylum is composed of a satisfying mix of claustrophobic interiors and vast courtyards, with high-tech compounds providing a sharp contrast to the crumbling, decrepit underbelly of the island prison. A petty critic might suggest the constant darkness becomes a little tiresome, but you’re hardly going to find a colourful crèche or a food court in the middle of an asylum for the criminally insane. However, although the outdoor sections are great fun to soar around, a few more enemies scattered around them would have been appreciated. Some of these areas are massive, yet only contain four or five henchmen which seems sadly wasteful.
Still, Arkham Asylum’s atmosphere is absolutely superb throughout, enhanced by Rocksteady’s impressive attention to detail. The Joker revels in his twisted little games, often talking to you directly through the compound’s monitors and giving you sinister words of ‘encouragement’. He even mocks his own henchmen, updating them on the rising body count and reminding them they don’t have any health insurance. Sometimes you’ll knock out a foe as he’s in conversation with his fun-loving boss, and Joker’s voice will continue to blare from the walkie-talkie: “I presume you’re there, Bats?” Little touches such as that, and the fact that Batman’s costume gets steadily more scuffed and torn, are missing all too often from games like this and help to keep you rooted in the experience.
Any criticisms levelled at Batman’s latest adventure are going to be petty niggles at best. Every aspect of the adventure is at very least interesting, and at best jaw-droppingly wonderful. Hardcore fans have a crap-load of nods and winks to the original comics to satisfy them, while newcomers won’t feel distanced by the references. The script and the acting are superb as you’d expect, given the talent responsible. Hamill in particular deserves a mention for his performance as Joker, walking just the right line between criminal genius and twisted, fun-loving nutcase. Buyers beware, however, as you’ll need a beast of a PC to carry off the hefty system requirements: An Intel Dual-Core 2.66GHz with 2GB of RAM should just about do justice to the engine. Also, don’t forget to download the physX v1.1 patch (available in the 'patches' section).