It's been a long time coming but finally, there's a game that's not only based on a comic book, but it's also based on a particular hero that has required a decent game for a long, long time. Batman.
Batman Arkham Asylum is set to light the world on fire when the game hits later this month and we've already had a taste of what to expect with the story mode demo. If this demo is just a tenth of the awesome that Batman AA promises you're going to be looking at a solid 9.5/10 from us when we review it.
Lets break it down shall we?
Baman AA has a gorgeous and gritty graphics engine, a superb use of Unreal technology that isn't plagued by textures that pop-in and it runs at a solid frame rate even if the on-screen action gets hectic. The character design is spot on and the Joker seems to be drawn from the very pages of the Killing Joke, a great rendition of the character whilst Batman has echoes of Frank Miller's Dark Knight and the animated series version.
The interior of Arkham Asylum in the demo is wonderfully put together, it has a gothic insanity to it and there are numerous places for Batman to lurk later on in the stealth based area of the demo. The level design for this game looks to be a mix of large open areas and tightly packed interior corridors that lend a claustrophobic air to the proceedings.
The voice acting is top notch with many of the animated series voice actors reprising their roles, Kevin Conroy lends his gritty tones to the voice of Batman and the Joker returns voiced by the best Joker before Heath Ledger - Mark Hamill. The story has been written by the current Detective Comics writer and is superbly told through the game's engine and various other tricks.
Graphical, audio and other polish aside the true star of the game are the controls. In a game as ambitious as Arkham Asylum, it required a simple but effective control system that wouldn't bog down the player in needless button presses and combinations to learn. So that's what developer Rocksteady did, they removed the need to learn various complex button presses and created the Freeflow Combat System.
The FCS is a delight to use; the X button on the 360 pad provides all the striking and hand to hand attacks you require. Moving the left stick in the direction of the enemy causes Batman to direct his attacks, whilst the context sensitive combat system picks from a variety of attacks to perform. The animation in and out of combat is visually stunning and Batman's cape is practically jaw-dropping in terms of how the material flows and moves when he runs or fights. You can perform a quick counter with Y and turn the tables on your foes. The B button performs a cloak stun and allows Batman to get a few quick hits in; all the while your combo meter is climbing ever higher as long as you keep landing carefully choreographed attacks and counters. Once you get it to 5x, you can press Y and B to perform a visually satisfying and usually bone-breaking takedown.
Takedowns can also be performed if an enemy is on the ground, stunned for a while. Pressing the Right Trigger and Y will cause Batman to execute a ground takedown and put the thug down for the fight. The system is really simple, allowing you to hurl batarangs and mix up punches/kicks with just a couple of buttons, it looks fantastic and the animations and superb. There's a real sense of weight to the punches and throws, the physics ties in beautifully with the rest of the game.
It isn't all fist-i-cuffs and batarangs to the head though, Batman has to think to survive since a lot of the Joker's henchmen have armed themselves with automatic weapons and whilst he's a costumed hero, he's not bulletproof. To this end you have Detective Mode, toggled with a quick press of a button as well as the Grapple Gun that allows you to latch onto certain surfaces and gargoyles, where you can lurk and brood whilst you plan your next move. Detective Mode allows you to find clues, hidden passages and various points that you might miss otherwise. It also gives you an overview of the thug's mental and physical state, as well as how many are left in a room and who's armed/unarmed.
This is where the fear system comes in; there are many ways to put the frighteners into Joker's henchmen. You can stalk them in what's called Invisible Predator gameplay...moving from gargoyle to gargoyle, silently taking them down from behind or dropping from up high. In some cases you can hang and grab them into the rafters, or drop down through a plate glass ceiling to flatten them in a satisfying thump. The more of the Joker's goons you take down the more they become afraid. This allows you to spook them with the batarang, throwing it at the floor before their feet and making them run away, or panic.
In the demo, as you take them down the last couple always become terrified and harder to keep track of. Boiler steam will scare them senseless and they'll shoot at shadows, this includes you if you get too cocky. The sheer wealth of gameplay options here is superb and we've lost count how many times we've restarted the last room's checkpoint to toy with the fragile minds and bodies of these henchmen.
With gorgeous graphics, fantastic animation, superb voice acting and a simple to learn, hard to master combat system, the Batman Arkham Asylum demo is one worth downloading whilst you wait for the game.
I will say now that this is /the/ Batman game we've been waiting for, the only game to make you feel like you're Batman. Sega would do well to hire Rocksteady to make Iron Man 3 (the game) since Iron Man 2 looks sub par in all ways compared to the new kid on the block. We'll have our full review for you when Batman ships later this month, until then, it's back to the demo for the trillionth time!