Once again, Batman has defeated his arch-nemesis, the Joker, and returned him to incarceration at Arkham Asylum. Unfortunately for Batman, this turns out to be a trap. The Joker's men take over the prison and release the insane inmates, including several of Batman's most dangerous foes (such as Scarecrow, Killer Croc, Poison Ivy and Bane). Evading capture himself, Batman has to regain control of the prison and stop the Joker's plan to create an army of insane and powerful soldiers loyal only to him.
Ah, Batman. The Dark Knight, who takes on a host of villains with a combination of martial arts, impressive gadgetry and cool vehicles. You can't get a superhero (even if his superpower is merely being incredibly rich) better-suited for computer games. It's a surprise, then, that very few games based on the character have been much cop.
Arkham Asylum makes up for a lengthy run of mediocre to poor Batman games by being very good indeed. The developers, Rocksteady, haven't hit upon this by accident, but have apparently looked in depth at a whole host of titles whose game styles could be adapted for a Batman title. Playing Arkham Asylum, it's impossible not to be struck by echoes of older titles. The physicality of the combat recalls Starbreeze's superb Riddick games, whilst the drug-induced hallucinatory levels are reminiscent of the Max Payne series. The use of Batman's growing repertoire of skills and gadgets to cross seemingly impassable areas, complete with the camera hinting at what to do next, has more than a touch of Prince of Persia (circa the Sands of Time games) to it. The heavy emphasis on stealth and silent takedowns also hints at influences from the Splinter Cell and Thief series. Yet, whilst Rocksteady clearly have been making notes, they have still created a game that feels like it builds on what has come before, rather than ripping it off.
Gameplay-wise, Arkham Asylum is a third-person action game where the player guides Batman through the asylum and the surrounding buildings on Arkham Island, which the Joker has sealed off from the mainland. The main storyline sees Batman pursuing the Joker through the Asylum, but being sidetracked by confrontations with both the Joker's allies (most notably Harley Quinn and Scarecrow) and other supervillains he has put away over the years. Most notably, Killer Croc, Bane and especially Poison Ivy also interfere with Batman's mission. Though the game has a linear plot, the setting is open, allowing Batman to deviate from his main mission to revisit previously-explored areas. In addition, Batman is not alone in his mission. Commissioner Gordon is also trapped on the island, along with a large number of security guards and Asylum personnel, whilst Batman is helped with certain puzzles and objectives by Oracle (a former Batgirl paralysed in a shooting, who oversees Batman's progress from the Batcave).
The game has a notable combat focus, which allows for complex fighting moves to be executed using a simple system (one button to attack, another to counter an enemy's moves, telegraphed by symbols appearing over their head). This system is well-implemented, with combat given a heavy, physical feel to it. Unusually for an action game, there is no option to use firearms. This is of course in keeping with the Batman mythos, but it means that a strong emphasis must be placed on stealth and the use of gadgets to separate and overcome enemies, especially those armed. Batman can take a few bullets but is relatively fragile compared to many gaming protagonists. Refreshingly, there is no in-combat regenerating health (though his health does return once the area has been cleared of enemies), forcing players to adopt a more thoughtful approach to playing Batman.
Arkham Asylum's greatest success is making the player actually feel they're playing Batman (perhaps to the point of screaming, "I'M THE GODDAMN BATMAN!" after pulling off a particularly awesome 25-move combo. Erm, not that I ever did that). He's formidable but not immortal, and solves a lot of the problems through ingenuity and detective work rather than head-on confrontations. There's also a lot of use of gadgets, including grappling hooks, hacking tools (to short-circuit control panels and open doors), ziplines and batarangs. Vital to the game is a visor which allows Batman to see enemies through walls and doorways and assess their threat value before engaging them in combat. Particularly satisfying - if somewhat implausible - is the ability to hang upside down from ceilings and snatch passing enemies, knocking them out without alerting other foes nearby. Entering a room with a dozen gun-toting villains and then taking them out one-by-one, hiding in the shadows, executing stealthy knock-downs or hiding under floor grills and then emerging to strike, is ridiculously good fun.
The game features universally great voice acting, particularly from Batman: The Animated Series regulars Kevin Conroy (as Batman) and Mark 'Luke Skywalker' Hamill, whose performance as the Joker is nothing short of stunning throughout. Arleen Sorkin also hits the right note between annoying and accomplished as the deranged Harley Quinn. Paul Dini, a veteran writer for both the animated Batman series and DC Comics, does an excellent job with the dialogue for the game, tailoring it to be more expositionary than normal (for the benefit of gamers not particularly versed in the intricacies of the Batman world) whilst still feeling relatively natural. It's one of the more accomplished transitions of a prose writer to gaming we've seen recently (certainly better than Richard Morgan, whose gaming work on Crysis 2 was unremarkable).
The game is also brave for not trying to establish a new canon for the Batman mythos. Instead, it takes place firmly in the DC Comics universe, making continuity references to earlier comics and stories (the Joker references the events of the Alan Moore-penned The Killing Joke several times). Yet the game does not expect players to be fully versed in the backstory. Instead, it provides fact files on Batman's allies and enemies for the player to read, and interview tapes from psychiatric evaluations of the villains can also be found lying around the Asylum. These do an excellent job of bringing the player up to speed on events without bogging things down with lengthy explanations of what's going on. The tone is also well-established, with things definitely being more grandiose, funny and colourful than the Christopher Nolan films, but avoiding a descent into out-and-out camp.
It's hard to think of any major problems with the game. It's well-written, well-acted and relentlessly enjoyable. Combat is well-executed and the use of stealth and gadgets is perfectly executed. It has a plethora of optional side-missions, achievements and collectibles for those who want as much game as possible for their money, but the central plot is compelling and long enough (at roughly 10-12 hours by itself) and features some genuinely surprising twists (including a late-game event that completely changes the nature of the environment). A repetitive nightmare mini-game featuring Scarecrow feels a little bit out of place, and the running battle with Killer Croc in the sewers is a bit tedious, but neither are particularly major features of the game.
Batman: Arkham Asylum (*****) is terrific fun from start to finish, an accomplished and smart game that distills 100% pure comic book fun into a great gaming experience. Recommended. The game is available now in the UK (PC, Mac, X-Box 360, PS3) and USA (PC, Mac, X-Box 360, PS3). A sequel, Arkham City, was released last year.