Without a doubt, one of the games I most wanted to play at E3 this year was Batman: Arkham Asylum. It seems to have a lot going for it. Paul Dini, who has written copious Batman comics and was a major player in Batman: The Animated Series is the writer for the game. Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin are back as the voices of Batman, Joker, and Harley Quinn, respectively. To top it off, the game is uninhibited by a movie or tv license, and promises to feature a huge variety of Batman’s greatest villains. With all this in its corner, my hopes were high as I picked up the PlayStation 3 controller at Eidos’s booth and settled into the Cape and Cowl.
Well, all my hopes and expectations were not reached; they were surpassed. For the first time ever, a video game seems to have captured what it is to be Batman. The gameplay features have been talked about, and trailers shown, for months, but in isolated portions. The freeflow combat, where Batman takes on several enemies, turning from one to the next, was listed as one type of play. The detective mode, allowing him to size up a situation and find innovative ways to a solution was shown as another. The stealth movement, both on the ground and through the high rafters of Arkham was yet another piece of the puzzle. What hasn’t been shown, however, is how these three things constantly fuse together seamlessly. Just as Batman will use detective skills, stealth, and brute force in a single situation in the comics, movies, and tv shows, he finally does in this game.
The controls are very intuitive. After only a few minutes of playing, I was deftly maneuvering through the hallways and rooms of Arkham, fighting along the way. The first level takes you through a very natural tutorial to give you the basics, but the game really shines when you start combining aspects of controls later on. Most fight sequences will be against medium to large groups of enemies. Pointing the left thumbstick at an enemy while pressing the attack button does your basic attack, and switching from enemy to enemy isn’t just encouraged, it’s necessary. Counter moves and regular hits successfully strung together unlock advanced moves that really show off Batman’s martial arts skills, allowing him to easily take down entire groups of enemies in mere seconds. As the game progresses, these standard enemies gain various weapons that will require different tactics, though, so you can’t always just jump right into the fray.
The batarang is Batman’s long range weapon, used for stunning and knocking down opponents. After hitting them with a batarang, you can move in for the takedown, choking them until they pass out. Stealth takedowns are achieved by sneaking up on an enemy from behind, and with a single button press, Batman will take them out with nary a sound.
Assistance comes from two likely sources. When Batman needs help identifying enemies and learning their weaknesses, he consults Oracle, who feeds full bios to him. Commissioner Gordon is also watching the madness and gives tips when he can to guide the Caped Crusader on his way.
One sequence early in the game showed off how using all three aspects of Batman’s arsenal can be both essential and really fun. I first ran into a room, only to be greeted by 5 gun-toting thugs who shot me down in a heartbeat. My next try had me taking a different approach. First, I snuck in through an air duct. I clung to the ceilings, using my grappling hook to move between several gargoyles that jutted out from the tops of the walls. I isolated one enemy as he patrolled, hanging upside-down from a gargoyle, snatching him up as he passed below me, choking him out, then stringing him up. I quickly moved across the room, again traversing only the ceiling, and the other enemies found their companion. When they did, they called everyone over to examine him, and talked naturally about how they were starting to get worried. A quick look at the detective mode showed increased nervousness in the villains, making them clumsier and less aware of their surroundings. As they moved to patrol again, I picked off the straggler, swooping down from behind him and taking him out in a single blow before darting back to the ceiling with the grappling gun. With the commotion, the remaining 3 turned to see their fallen friend, and freaked out even more. A well placed Batarang knocked one down, and before they could turn to see where it came from, I was already gone. “He just…disappeared!” one inmate said with a quiver in his voice. Now down to two, they split up slightly, but this time stayed closer together, talking about this tactic as one to encourage their prolonged survival and freedom. I dropped from the ceiling, climbing into a vent in a room-within-the-room until I could watch them through the exit. When their backs were turned to one another, I dropped between them, using Batman’s quick, fluid combat to move from one to the other. Now both stunned and on the ground, a final attack on each ensured they wouldn’t be getting up and the room was cleared.
If this sequence sounds like something out of a comic or a movie, that’s because it’s exactly how it played. The Eidos representative with me said he’d seen the room done 10 times at that point, and each time it was done a completely different way. The freedom to act and react as Batman is nothing short of incredible, and made me anxious to play more of the game.
PlayStation 3 owners will get a free same-day DLC pack that unlocks the Joker as a playable character in challenge rooms, which vary from a simple “take out these three guys in hand-to-hand combat” to “defeat 10 enemies with various weapons.” The Joker has unique moves and abilities, and while his controls are the same, the things he does are completely different. From his gaseous flower to his electrifying joybuzzer, the classic tricks are all there. He even laughed maniacally while bashing a guard’s head into the ground, bloodying him up for the kill. It’s not groundbreaking stuff, but it’s a nice little extra for PS3 gamers. When asked if any other characters or unique costumes would be unlockable or downloadable in the game, the rep responded, “we’re not talking about that yet.”
Overall, this was a great gaming experience. The game was recently delayed from June to Late August, but I was assured this was done to make sure the best game possible could be released. I for one will be counting the days until I can play more of the game. In fact, if I have any free time during the rest of the show, I’ll be making a beeline straight back to Batman: Arkham Asylum.