REVIEW: "Batman: Arkham Asylum"

Since the game was announced a little over a year ago, the hype around "Batman: Arkham Asylum" continued to steadily build. Eidos, Warner Bros. and Rocksteady Studios seemed to be putting all of the pieces in place to build a great Batman game. Well, after getting a chance to play the final product, I'm happy to report that "Batman: Arkham Asylum" is a fantastic game that succeeds in presenting a pitch-perfect Batman experience and backing it up with enough variations in the gameplay to keep things fresh throughout the entire campaign.

"Batman: Arkham Asylum" opens with the Joker (with the help of the lovely/scary Harley Quinn) taking over Arkham Asylum and trapping the Caped Crusader inside. The villain kidnaps the Warden and then Commissioner Gordon, and forces Batman to trek all over Arkham trying to save them. As the game progresses, Batman uncovers the real reason that Joker's taken over the asylum, and his plans are much bigger than just torturing Batman for the evening. Batman has to use all of the tools and skills at his disposal to battle through a horde of the Joker's minions, as well as some of his most iconic enemies, before the Joker can put the last piece of his plan in place.

The high point of the game's presentation is the combination of the artistic design and the voice cast. Arkham Asylum is not just the setting for this game; it's a character unto itself. The fusion of Gothic architecture and high technology makes for a really unique look, and since this Arkham is a campus rather than just one building, there were enough changes in scenery that the game never got stale. No matter what was going on in terms of action, I always felt like Arkham itself was looming in the background. To add to that feeling, some of the collectibles in the game slowly unravel the back-story of Amadeus Arkham, the asylum founder whose spirit seems to be woven into the every inch of the grounds, making the entire island feel like a big haunted house.

Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin are all excellent in reprising their voice roles from the animated series as Batman, the Joker and Harley Quinn, respectively. Mark Hamill especially seems to revel in playing the Joker again, and his endless stream of banter never gets old. Another element the developers nailed is the sense of confidence that Batman gives off throughout the game. He rarely gets shaken, and even though he's trapped in Arkham and facing his worst enemies, you always get the sense that Batman's smarter than all of them, and that he's got the tools to get the job done.

The core gameplay is a healthy mixture of combat, stealth, platforming and investigation/puzzle solving. The combat system is initially very simple and uses just a few buttons, but it gets deeper with combos and evasive maneuvers that become more essential as the game goes on. It behooves you to learn how to chain attacks together, as combos increase the amount of experience points you earn for taking down enemies. The key to the combat system is the counter, which reminded me a lot of "Watchmen: The End is Nigh" as I tended to wait for enemies to engage me and then start my attacks by countering. You can get into a rhythm, and really feel like Batman is floating from one enemy to the next, dealing punishing blows and finishers. Armed enemies need to be approached with a little more care, as jumping into a group of gun-toting thugs usually ends up in a swift death, and some enemies have to be stunned or attacked from behind. Batman has plenty of options for taking out goons, though, from Batarangs and explosive gel to aerial attacks and inverted takedowns.

As good as the combat is, "Batman: Arkham Asylum" would get very repetitive if that's all there was. The good news is that the platforming, stealth and detecting elements are also a lot of fun, and the game juggles them effectively so you're not doing too much of the same thing before the action changes pace. Batman can sneak around using objects and corners for cover, or he can use the grapple gun to get to higher ground and plan his attacks from above. Sneaking also allows you to take down enemies silently, which is pretty much essential when they're armed. In Detective Mode, Batman uses the technology in his mask to survey the area looking for clues, vantage points, escape routes, etc. Visually, it feels like the body scanner from "Total Recall," as Detective Mode makes enemies look like animated skeletons and gives Batman something akin to x-ray vision. In this mode, Batman can also monitor the mental status of his enemies, which starts to deteriorate as their colleagues disappear one by one, until they become a skittish, terrified mess waiting for you to finish them off. The cool thing is that you can leave Detective Mode on pretty much all the time, and I had to make myself switch it off at times just so I could take in the full details of the environments and enemies.

There are plenty of collectibles in the game, including trophies, maps and audio logs. The Riddler has also placed a series of puzzles around the asylum, and these Riddler Challenges can be a nice distraction from the main storyline, if you're so inclined. They usually include using your Detective Mode to scan for the answer to a riddle.

The most fun are the encounters where all of the gameplay elements come together. In one area, as I was making my way across campus, there were snipers in the guard towers and a group on henchman on the ground. I grappled up to the top of a tower, and then dropped down to silently take out a sniper. Diving off the tower, I glided to an area outside of the second sniper's range and then climbed that tower to silently drop him as well. Gliding past the group of henchman, I landed on the roof of a small building near them, and then used multiple Batarangs to stun them. I finished the encounter by jumping down and engaging the rest of the henchman in hand-to-hand. That five-minute sequence of events perfectly encapsulated just how well all of the game mechanics work together, and how the developers really captured the feel of "being" Batman.

The boss battles pit Batman against some well known supervillains, and they usually provide a nice change of pace from the rest of the encounters. My favorites by far were the Scarecrow battles, as their nightmarish design was so different from everything else you encounter in the game. On the downside, I felt a few of the boss battles were pretty frustrating, as some of them not only have you facing several types of enemies in addition to the boss, but you're also dealing with environmental hazards as well. It doesn't help that you're trying to control the camera at the same time, since enemies are usually coming from all directions.

As mentioned before, you earn experience for taking down enemies, and you can level up Batman's abilities to tailor the gameplay to your preferences. Personally, I like to use Batarangs to soften up enemies before getting up close and personal. So I focused on upgrading them so I could throw more Batarangs at once, and they would do more damage as well as stun enemies longer. If your cup of tea is fisticuffs, you can upgrade your melee attacks and armor. There are enough options for customization that two people could play the game and have a different experience, as you're unlikely to get all of the upgrades the first time through.

Once you finish the campaign, there's still plenty to do. You can play through the open map of Arkham to look for collectibles and complete Riddler Challenges. There's also a Challenge Mode that takes encounters from the game and has you play through them with specific requirements (take down enemies silently, chain as many attacks together as possible, etc.). Online leaderboards let you compare your Challenge Mode scores against friends and the rest of the world. The PS3 version of the game (which is the one I played) added the ability to play through some maps as the Joker. He's pitted against Arkham guards as opposed to inmates, but the modes are pretty much the same as the Batman challenges. It's a free bonus though, and Joker is not just a re-skin of Batman, as he has his own animations and feels different in motion than when you're controlling Batman.

Outside of a few frustrating boss battles, the only other issue I had with the game was the backtracking you have to do through some of the levels. I felt like some of the backtracking was just done to add length to the game, which isn't really needed. There were also a few times I got lost while backtracking, but that could just be my poor sense of direction. Really though, none of those issues were significant enough to take away from my overall enjoyment of the game.

"Batman: Arkham Asylum" achieves what so few superhero games manage to do-it translates into gameplay the core elements of what make Batman a great character. Combine that with a well crafted story, wonderful voice acting and a great atmosphere, "Batman: Arkham Asylum" is the best superhero game I've ever played.

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